Wallaces Farmer

What makes an accurate beef balance sheet forecast?

Forecasting and data collection errors occur. Still, the primary difference between expectations and reality are changes in the underlying supply and demand measures that USDA uses to forecast.

Lee Schulz

May 22, 2024

4 Min Read
4 black cattle in pen
FORECAST VALUE: Even though USDA beef supply and use forecasts aren’t set in stone, they still play a valuable role in production and marketing decisions. Gil Gullickson

Niels Bohr, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” He’s correct. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Not only is predicting the future difficult, it’s often thankless. Forecasters rarely get credit for successful predictions since outcomes can appear obvious in hindsight. But forecasters are bashed for predictions that do not come to fruition.

Even though predictions may well turn out wrong, the act of forecasting has value in itself. Envisioning the future helps develop a plan. A well-thought-out plan can be a path to success. The earlier you develop a plan, the better. However, the farther into the future you look, the less reliable forecasts are. That makes contingency planning important.

Expectations are what we think will happen. Reality is what actually occurs. Forecasters hope these two will match. Often, they do not. As time passes, variables change. The earlier a forecaster can identify changes, and adjust, the better. Savvy forecasters are rarely shocked by anything and do not make knee-jerk changes to their predictions.

Beef supply boosters

On May 12, 2023, USDA released its first forecast of 2024 beef supply and use in its monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE). That report projected total supply for 2024 at 29.043 billion pounds. This includes beginning stocks of 670 million pounds, total production of 24.813 billion pounds and imports of 3.560 billion pounds. 

U.S. annual beef production chart

USDA’s May 12, 2023, WASDE report had 2024 beef production down 8.1% compared to 2023. USDA’s July 12, 2023, forecast for 2024 beef production declined further to down 9.0%. Subsequent forecasts rose steadily. USDA’s May 10, 2024, WASDE forecast 2024 beef production down only 1.4% from 2023.

Why? Heifers earlier thought to become beef cow replacements are going into feedlots. Beef cow slaughter is higher than previously projected. Dressed weights are tipping the scales heavier. All boost beef production. Further adding to supplies are beef imports rising faster than expected and exports lagging earlier projections.

While 2024 beef production and supply have exceeded forecasts, prices have also risen. In May 2023, USDA forecast first-quarter 2024 slaughter steer prices (5-Area, direct, total all grades) at $175 per cwt. This would have been $14.10 per cwt, or 8.8% higher, than in the first quarter of 2023. First-quarter 2024 prices averaged $181.03 per cwt. This was $20.11 per cwt, or 12.5%, higher than 2023’s first quarter. Selling more volume at higher prices signifies rising demand.

What’s the outlook for 2025?

On May 10, USDA released its first forecast for 2025. Beef production is projected at 25.187 billion pounds, down 5.5% from the current 2024 forecast of 26.662 billion pounds. Beef exports are expected to be 2.5 billion pounds, which would be down a whopping 11.3% from 2024’s forecast of 2.818 billion pounds. USDA forecasts 2025 beef imports at 4.225 billion pounds, up 1.3% from the 4.171 billion-pound estimate for 2024.

Lower beef supply in 2025 will lead to a reduction in domestic per capita beef use to 55.6 pounds per person on a retail-weight basis. This would be down 2.7 pounds, or 4.6%, from 2024. USDA is expecting 2025 slaughter steer prices to rise to $188 per cwt., up 2.4% from the current forecast for 2024 of $183.51per cwt.

Expect more changes

These forecasts are not set in stone. Forecasts rely on historical relationships and consider current conditions, existing laws, regulations and policies, normal weather patterns and underlying trends. All of those drivers can, and do, change between forecasts. Supply or demand shocks can appear unexpectedly at any time. Uncertainty in global markets makes beef exports and imports particularly difficult to forecast.

Beef supply and use projections for both 2024 and 2025 will change. USDA reforecasts each month to reflect new information and changing conditions. This is how USDA’s forecasting success should be measured. Not by achieving 100% accuracy, but by how well they reflect changing market fundamentals.

USDA forecasts are important because farmers and agriculture businesses use them in production and marketing decisions. Ability to make informed decisions, based on timely and accurate forecast information, can improve profit. Policymakers consider forecasts in evaluating policy options and making decisions. Futures traders often adjust positions based on USDA forecasts.

Why do forecasts sometimes differ?

Private analysts often use USDA forecasts as benchmarks for their own forecasts. Private analysts, however, can change how they make forecasts whenever they want. USDA has set guidelines for making forecasts. Discrepancies often occur between USDA and private forecasts. That’s OK. This can help in contingency planning. Composite forecasts can help producers develop their own expectations.

Schulz is an Iowa State University Extension livestock economist.

About the Author(s)

Lee Schulz

Lee Schulz is the Iowa State University Extension livestock economist.

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