Memorial Day weekend is an important test of beef sales and beef demand. The success of the first big grilling holiday will be assessed over the coming days. There are indications that beef advertising features increased to support large volumes of beef purchased by retailers for the weekend.
The first seasonal bulge in beef production started in February with a 5.5 percent year-over-year increase in cattle slaughter in the month, which resulted in a 6.6 percent increase in beef production compared to one year ago. Average cattle carcass weights were 828 pounds.
Increased slaughter continued in March with a 6.5 percent increase in cattle slaughter compared to last year. Total March beef production was 8.4 percent higher than one year earlier, with cattle carcass weights averaging 832 pounds. Both feedlots, with discounted live cattle futures ahead, and packers, with good beef margins, had incentives to increase cattle slaughter and beef production during the period.
Choice boxed beef, which posted a mid-March weekly peak of $231.77 per hundredweight (cwt), dropped to a weekly average of $205.72 per cwt the first week of May as sharply higher February and March beef supplies worked their way through the beef pipeline. Wholesale beef sales were strong, and there are indications that large volumes of beef were forward sold for Memorial Day and beyond. Father’s Day and the upcoming extended Fourth of July weekend will be important for beef demand.
Weather from Memorial Day through early July, along with other factors, will determine if retail sales are strong enough to confirm continuing good beef demand in the second quarter. For the first quarter of 2016, the retail all fresh beef demand index was equal to last year, a very good sign given the 4 percent jump in per capita beef consumption during the period.
The year-over-year rate of beef production increase slowed in April as feedlots became more current. Total cattle slaughter increased 1.2 percent year over year in April, and total beef production was up 1.8 percent compared to one year earlier. Average cattle carcass weights dropped through April from a mid-March peak of 836 pounds to the current level of 813 pounds.
More impressively, steer carcass weights dropped 33 pounds from a mid-March peak of 896 pounds to 863 pounds in the latest May data. Choice boxed beef prices bounced back from the early May lows to $222.07 per cwt the last week of May.
Supply pressure will continue as beef production will likely increase to a seasonal peak in June. This burden is made easier by the fact that strong cattle slaughter so far this year pulled cattle forward and somewhat reduces June slaughter numbers, and by the fact that sharply lower carcass weights reduces the year-over-year beef production increase.
The balance of summer beef demand to supply will determine how much seasonal pressure will develop to weigh on wholesale and retail beef prices into the summer. Beef production will continue to grow in the second half of the year as large feedlot placements from February through April begin showing up in slaughter by late summer.
The industry has done a lot to help itself prepare for that by getting current and pulling down carcass weights, but good feedlot marketing discipline will be needed for many months to come as cattle numbers coming into feedlots continue to grow. Wholesale and retail beef prices will continue to trend down in the face of growing beef production.
However, beef markets so far in 2016 are encouraging, suggesting that modest decreases in prices are stimulating beef demand quickly. Going forward, beef trade – both exports and imports – will be very important, along with domestic beef demand, in determining how beef markets fare in a world of growing beef supplies.
Derrell S. Peel is an Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist. This originally appeared in the May 30, 2016, OSU Cow/Calf Corner newsletter.