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  • Tim Petry, Livestock Marketing Economist

Market Advisor: Beef Cull Cow Prices Move Cyclically Higher

Beef cull cow prices in 2023 continued their normal seasonal roller coaster ride but at historical cyclically high levels. Cow prices typically increase seasonally from January through late summer. Prices then decline seasonally as spring born calves are weaned, cows are pregnancy checked and cows that need to be culled are marketed.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) collects and publishes cow prices received at cattle auction markets throughout the Northern Plains. So I combine them into a weekly average “Northern Plains” price for 85-90% lean beef cows. These are typically broken mouth cows that have nursed a calf all summer. Prices for them tend to be lower compared to the higher quality boner, breaker and premium white grades that AMS reports, but the seasonal and cyclical patterns tend to be similar for all grades.

Beef cow prices were cyclically record high in 2014 (the last time U.S. beef cow numbers were cyclically low) and declined to a cyclically price low in 2020. Five straight years of beef cow liquidation from 2019 through 2023, at least partially due to severe drought conditions, has resulted in even lower U.S. beef cow numbers than in 2014. Lower numbers have supported beef cow prices at new historically high levels.

Beef cow slaughter was historically high in 2022 as drought conditions impacted most of the important cow-calf states from Texas to North Dakota. In late 2022 USDA reported 76% of the U.S. beef cow herd was experiencing various levels of drought conditions. Beef cow slaughter in 2023, while still historically high, declined 11% year over year as drought conditions improved.

Weekly U.S. beef cow slaughter hit a yearly high of 83,200 head in mid-November, even slightly higher than in 2022. There were some reports from important cattle producing states of higher than normal open cows and heifers occurring and being marketed, which may have been partially due to the several previous year’s drought conditions.

The Southern and Northern Plains saw nice improvement in moisture conditions in 2023. By the end of the year USDA reported 35% of U.S. beef cows were in still some level of drought.

A year over year decline in U.S. beef cow slaughter will likely occur again in 2024.

The Northern Plains beef cow price chart shows the recurring annual seasonal price pattern and the year over year cyclically increasing prices.

After reaching a cyclical low in 2020, beef cow prices have averaged $15/cwt. to $20/cwt. higher in each subsequent year. Cow prices are starting 2024 about $20/cwt. higher than last year, and a normal seasonal price pattern is expected.

The highest cow prices will likely occur when beef cow herd rebuilding is in full swing. Heifer retention, reduced cow slaughter, and lower beef production will buoy prices.

The wild card in when herd rebuilding will start in earnest is U.S. pasture and range conditions. While drought conditions continue to improve, drought does persist in some beef cow regions with USDA reporting 30% of the U.S. cattle area experiencing drought.

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