In 1995 there were nearly 114 million head of beef cattle in the United States. Beef prices were still somewhat affordable due to the abundance of cattle for slaughter. Then many areas known for raising beef cattle began battling droughts and other factors. Areas of Texas were so dry that entire ranges dried up and blew away in reminiscence of the Dust Bowl nearly a hundred years ago. Ranchers were forced to sell off much of their herds before they died of thirst and starvation.
By 1997, the number of beef cattle in the United States had dropped to about 109 million, but the droughts and decline in numbers were not over. By 2004, the number of beef cattle had dropped to about 103 million.
The price of beef in the stores began to climb as the number of cattle declined. Not only were there over 11 million fewer cattle, but their quality was not what it was as many were not nearly as plump and fat as ranchers were used to producing.
There was a slight recovery from the droughts in some areas and cattle numbers recovered to nearly 105 million by 2006, but then conditions really began to deteriorate and so did the number of beef cattle.
By 2014, the number of beef cattle had dropped to less than 96 million head. While that may not sound that drastic, consider the fact that the condition and health of many of the remaining cattle had continued to deteriorate. Ranchers also need to maintain a certain number of stock for breeding, so they cannot afford to sell off as many head of cattle as you may think. Also consider the demand for beef, especially in the fast food industry and all of the burgers that are served nationwide on a daily basis.
The result in the drop in the number and condition of cattle caused beef prices to climb higher and higher. In 1995, the national average price for a pound of ground beef was $1.40 a pound. By 2003, the price of a pound of ground beef had risen to $2.23 a pound. By 2014, at the height of the decline in herd numbers, the average price of a pound of ground beef had skyrocketed to $4.16 a pound. That’s an increase of about 297% in just 19 years.
With rains returning to much of the cattle ranges, the USDA reports that the number of beef cattle has increased to 103 million head as of July 1, 2017. Additionally, they report that the latest crop of calves is expected to hit about 36.3 million head this year, an increase of 3% over the calf crop of 2016. They report there have already been 14.5 million calves born in the first half of this year and ranchers are expecting another 9.8 million calves to born in the second half of the year.
In their report, the USDA states:
“Cattle and calves on feed for the slaughter market in the United States for all feedlots totaled 12.8 million head on July 1, 2017. The inventory is up 6 percent from the July 1, 2015 total of 12.1 million head. Cattle on feed, in feedlots with capacity of 1,000 or more head, accounted for 84.5 percent of the total cattle on feed on July 1, 2017. This is down 0.1 percent from 2015. The combined total of calves under 500 pounds and other heifers and steers over 500 pounds (outside of feedlots) is 37.0 million head. This is 5 percent above the 35.4 million head on July 1, 2015.”
This begs the question everyone wants to know – will the price of beef come down since there are more cattle heading to slaughter than in the past few of years? Will a family be able to once again afford to feed their family some beef more than once or twice ever week or so? We can only hope.