ERS Charts of Note
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Thursday, August 17, 2023
In the United States, most cow-calf operations are relatively small and have fewer than 50 cows though a few very large operations (with more than 1,000 cows) can be found. On cow-calf farms, calves are birthed, raised, and weaned on site. While some calves remain on the farm until they reach slaughter weight, most are either moved directly to feedlots after weaning or retained on-farm for additional weight gain before being sold to feedlots. Unlike many other animal production operations, cow-calf farms generally do not require a major upfront investment in capital assets specific to cow-calf production, such as housing. The combination of relatively lower cow-calf specific startup costs and pasture as a primary source of feed has resulted in a variety of operation sizes on a range of land types for both full- and part-time farmers. Data from USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Census of Agriculture indicate that between 1997 and 2017, most cow-calf operations remained small. In 2017, 54 percent of farms with beef cows had fewer than 20 cows, slightly down from 1997. However, across the two decades, the overall number of cow-calf operations in the United States decreased by 19 percent, while the average herd size of operations grew. These changes in farm number and herd size, while notable, have not been as significant as industry shifts in hog and dairy production. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service report Structure, Management Practices, and Production Costs of U.S. Beef Cow-Calf Farms, published in July 2023.
Wednesday, May 31, 2023
Tight cattle inventories and record wholesale beef prices through the first 3 months of 2023 have supported a stronger-than-expected seasonal climb in fed cattle prices—prices for slaughter-ready steers marketed by feedlots. Reported prices for a 5-area marketing region including Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico; Kansas; Nebraska; Colorado; and Iowa/Minnesota set a record at $180.44 per hundredweight (cwt) for the week ending April 16, 2023, surpassing the previous high in November 2014. Prices averaged over $177 per cwt in April 2023, more than $35 above April 2022, and $46 higher than the 2013–22 average for the month of April. Drought, forage availability, and high input costs have led producers to liquidate their herds over the last few years, shrinking the national herd size. As of April 1, 2023, a more than 4 percent decrease year-over-year in the total number of cattle on feed is evidence of the continuation of this trend. Through the rest of 2023, cattle inventory in the United States is expected to remain tighter than last year, supporting higher prices as beef demand remains strong. The forecast price in the 5-area marketing region for 2023 is $167 per cwt, more than $22 higher than the previous year. With even fewer cattle expected to be marketed in 2024, beef supplies are projected to remain tight while prices are forecast to increase $6 to $172 per cwt. This chart appears in the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook: May 2023.
Thursday, April 20, 2023
Changes in beef cow inventory are related to the phases of the cattle cycle—the expansion (increase) and contraction (decrease) of the U.S. beef cattle herd over time. This cycle evolves gradually and tends to span 8 to 12 years. The cyclical pattern follows the biological nature of beef cattle production and cattle producers’ responses to changes in prices and climate conditions. The current cattle cycle, which began in 2014, is now in a contraction phase, with inventory contracting at an increasing rate each year since 2020. On January 1, 2023, U.S. beef cow inventory was 28.9 million head, 3.6 percent less than the previous year. Drought is a significant contributor to recent declines in beef cow inventory, in part because of the detrimental effects of dry weather patterns on pasture and range conditions. At the start of 2023, nearly 93 percent of U.S. beef cows were in States where most of the pasture and range were rated in “very poor” to “fair” condition based on data from the USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Cattle producers periodically provide supplemental feed, such as hay, to maintain animals when pasture conditions are poor. According to NASS, producers faced record-high prices of non-alfalfa hay during the last two quarters of 2022 and in each month through the beginning of 2023. High hay prices increase the cost of maintaining cattle and provide an incentive for producers to remove cattle from their herds. Except for one month in 2022, monthly beef cow slaughter has been higher year over year since March 2021. Meanwhile, beef cow inventory has settled at progressively lower levels since the 1990–2004 cattle cycle. This trend is consistent with the general decline in cattle inventories observed since 1975. This chart appears in the special article published in the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook: March 2023 .
Monday, February 6, 2023
Researchers at USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) examined rotational grazing systems on beef cow-calf operations and found that as average paddock size increased, farmers and ranchers tended to rotate their cattle less frequently. Rotational grazing systems are those in which livestock owners rotate animals among a series of paddocks (fenced pasture areas), allowing forage to recover before returning the cattle to graze in that spot again. A key decision for ranchers and farmers that affects forage growth is the number of rotations for a given number of paddocks. A large portion (84 percent) of intensive rotational grazing (IRG) operations with small paddocks (paddocks of 19 acres or less) rotated their cattle so that each paddock had four or more rotations per year. Intensive rotational grazing systems use an average grazing period of 14 or fewer days per paddock. In contrast, researchers found that about 52 percent of IRG operations using large paddocks (40 acres or more) rotated cattle four or more times per year. This pattern of smaller paddocks and more rotations was even more evident for basic rotational grazing (BRG) operations, which use an average grazing period longer than 14 days per paddock. Around 67 percent of BRG operations with small paddocks used four or more rotations per paddock per year, but the share drops to 35 percent for BRG operations with large paddocks. The relationships between rotation frequency, paddock size, and system intensity highlight the complexity underlying the practice of rotating cattle through multiple paddocks. This chart appears in the ERS report Rotational Grazing Adoption by Cow-Calf Operations, published in November 2022.
Monday, January 30, 2023
Rotational grazing is a management practice in which livestock are cycled through multiple fenced grazing areas (paddocks) to manage forage production, forage quality, animal health, and environmental quality. In a recent study, USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers found the highest rate of total rotational grazing adoption (49 percent of operations) in the Northern Plains and Western Corn Belt region, and the lowest level (25 percent of operations) in the Southern Plains region. The researchers classified two systems of rotational grazing: basic, in which average grazing periods are longer than 14 days per paddock; and intensive, in which grazing periods are 14 days or fewer per paddock. Researchers used detailed cow-calf operation data on grazing system management decisions to compare the adoption rates of basic rotational grazing systems with intensive systems. For four of the five regions analyzed in this research, basic rotational grazing was more common than intensive rotational grazing. The exception was the Appalachian region, where 25 percent of cow-calf operations used intensive rotational grazing and 22 percent used basic rotational grazing. Major drivers for regional differences in adoption could include varying forage types, which may respond better to rotational grazing than others, and differing climates. This chart draws on information in the ERS report Rotational Grazing Adoption by Cow-Calf Operations, published November 2022, and in the ERS Amber Waves article Study Examines How and Where U.S. Cow-Calf Operations Use Rotational Grazing, published in November 2022.
Tuesday, January 24, 2023
U.S. farm cash receipts from animals and animal products totaled $195.8 billion in 2021, led by receipts for cattle and calves at $72.9 billion (37 percent). Poultry and egg products made up the next largest share of 2021 cash receipts at $46.1 billion (24 percent), followed by dairy at $41.8 billion (21 percent), hogs at $28.0 billion (14 percent), and other animals and animal products at $7.0 billion (4 percent). As part of its Farm Income and Wealth Statistics data product, each year in late August or early September, USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) releases estimates of the prior year’s farm sector cash receipts from agricultural commodity sales. These data include cash receipt estimates by type of commodity, which can help in understanding the U.S. farm sector. The estimates may be revised as new information becomes available. Additional information and analysis are on the ERS Farm Sector Income and Finances topic page, updated December 1, 2022.
Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Rotational grazing is a management practice in which ranchers rotate cattle through a series of paddocks. It is an alternative to continuous grazing in which cattle stay on a single pasture. About 40 percent of all cow-calf operations reported using a rotational grazing system, with cow-calf/retained stocker producers leading adoption. Retained stockers keep one or more of their calves through the initial feeder stage for later sale to feedlots. Based on data collected from the 2018 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) Cattle and Calves Cost and Returns Report, 54 percent of retained stocker operations have adopted some form of rotational grazing. This adoption rate is more than the rate for strictly cow-calf producers, who sell all calves at or around weaning (38 percent), or retained finisher producers, who retain calves until market weight (50 percent). Retained stockers are much more likely to employ intensive rotational grazing systems, which use an average grazing period of 14 or fewer days per paddock, than strictly cow-calf operations and finishers. Across all forms of cow-calf operations, 16 percent of producers use intensive rotational grazing and 24 percent use basic rotational grazing (using an average grazing period longer than 14 days per paddock). The type of grazing system an operator selects can be part of managing forage production, forage quality, animal health, and environmental quality. This chart appears in the USDA, Economic Research Service report Rotational Grazing Adoption by Cow-Calf Operations, published in November 2022.
Thursday, September 22, 2022
The stay-at-home orders implemented during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic disrupted the U.S. meat and poultry industries as consumers shifted from purchasing food-away-from-home (FAFH) to food-at-home (FAH). In the weeks before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, the volume of meat sold in grocery stores fluctuated modestly from between 3 percent below to 8 percent above 2019 sales. When the WHO declared a global pandemic the week ending March 15, 2020, the quantity of meat sold at grocery stores increased sharply to 75 percent above that week’s 2019 sales volume. Meat sales reached their pandemic peak the following week at 84 percent above 2019 sales. This increase in retail meat sales was consistent with overall consumer patterns in March–April 2020, when restaurant closures led to a surge in FAH sales relative to 2019 as FAFH sales fell. After the peak, weekly meat purchases slowed yet remained roughly 30 to 40 percent above 2019 sales for most weeks until mid-May. Sales may have slowed partly because consumers had stocked up on meat supplies in the previous weeks and because FAFH expenditures rose as COVID-related restrictions were lifted. For the remainder of 2020, total weekly sales of meat at retail remained higher than weekly 2019 sales for most weeks. This chart was drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service COVID-19 working paper, “COVID-19 and the U.S. Meat and Poultry Supply Chains,” published February 3, 2022.
Monday, August 15, 2022
Annual U.S. retail prices for beef and veal are projected to rise 6 to 7 percent in 2022 relative to 2021. In May 2022, the farmer’s share of the retail value of beef also increased year over year, but rising input costs, especially for cattle feed, may limit farmers’ ability to benefit from higher cattle prices. Based on the USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) commodity cost and return estimates, feed expenses are the largest operating cost for cow-calf producers, comprising 75 percent of these costs in 2021. Prices for beef cattle feed were up 16 percent in May 2022 relative to May 2021. High fertilizer prices have contributed to increased feed costs while drought conditions have squeezed feed grain and hay supplies. The 2021/22 season-average farm price (SAFP) for corn—the primary grain fed to cattle—is currently projected at $5.95 per bushel, the highest SAFP since the 2012/13 marketing year. Like corn, the SAFPs for other feed grains including sorghum, oats, and barley are projected to increase in 2021/22 relative to 2020/21. The SAFP for hay, an important supplement to cattle grazing, is estimated to be 16 percent higher in 2021/22 compared to the average price over the preceding 9 years. As of August 9, 2022, it was estimated that 46 percent of hay is growing in areas experiencing drought. In addition to rising feed costs, elevated diesel fuel and farm labor costs have also put pressure on farmer margins. This chart appears in the ERS Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook, July 2022.
Friday, April 8, 2022
Imports of beef from Brazil have spiked in the last two years as U.S. demand for processing-grade beef has substantially increased. In January 2022 alone, imports reached nearly 100 million pounds—a more than 500 percent increase relative to the same month a year earlier—with fresh beef accounting for 83 million pounds. Historically, imports from Brazil primarily consisted of heat-treated beef products, including prepared or preserved beef. In February 2020, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service determined that fresh beef from Brazil was eligible for import. As a result, beef imports from Brazil have risen. Record high U.S. beef prices and drought-impacted supplies in Australia, where the United States would otherwise source beef, have also contributed to growing imports of processing-grade beef from Brazil. Further, in September 2021, China—the destination for more than 40 percent of Brazilian beef exports in 2021—temporarily embargoed imports of Brazilian beef based on animal health concerns. The embargo was lifted in December 2021, but not before some of Brazil’s beef was redirected to other markets, including the United States. Further increases in U.S. imports of fresh beef from Brazil are limited by the tariff rate quota system. Beef imported from Brazil enters the United States under the open quota system. Once the quota is filled, imports of fresh beef from Brazil would be subject to a higher tariff, reducing the beef’s competitiveness with sources from other countries. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service’s March 2022 Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.
Monday, September 20, 2021
Reduced supplies and rising demand for ground beef in the United States could potentially be reflected in the cost of fall tailgating parties across the Nation. While the United States is a major global supplier of beef, it also imports beef and processing-grade beef (used for ground beef) to meet a growing consumer demand. Historically, Australia is the predominant supplier of processing-grade beef to the United States, with smaller amounts coming from Brazil, Canada, and New Zealand, among other countries. As Australia rebuilds its cattle herd after a two-year drought, suppliers in that country are curtailing slaughter, limiting the amount of exportable beef and increasing the prices of those exports. In February 2021, imports from Australia reached a price of $240 per hundredweight (cwt) for 90-percent lean beef, and the volume dropped to under 17 million pounds, almost 27 million pounds lower than the 5-year average. In July 2021, that price rose to $274 per cwt. From January to July 2020, beef imports from Australia accounted for 20 percent of all U.S. beef imports whereas in 2021 Australia accounted for 12 percent. Intermittent monthly imports from other countries have partly offset reduced imports from this key partner. Meanwhile, as the economy reopens, the demand for beef and ground beef is expected to support beef prices. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service’s September 2021 Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.
Monday, May 24, 2021
The United States is the world’s largest producer of poultry and beef and the third-largest pork producer. Abundant exportable supplies have enabled trade of major U.S. meats and products to run a continual surplus overall, with high demands for U.S. animal proteins in Asia and favorable trade agreements driving quantities exported above quantities imported for pork, broiler meat, and turkey. By volume, broiler meat (broilers are a subset of chickens) was the most traded U.S. meat in 2020. Exports of broiler meat accounted for 92 percent of total poultry (total chicken plus turkey) exports and exceeded imports by almost fiftyfold. Pork exports further contributed toward the growth in the meat trade surplus. In 2020, pork exports were sevenfold higher than pork imports, increasing more than 15 percent, or almost 1 billion pounds from a year earlier. In contrast, apart from 2018, the amount of beef imported by the United States has exceeded exports 7 of the last 8 years. Last year, U.S. beef exports declined more than 2 percent from a year ago, while beef imports rose more than 9 percent over the same period. This trade deficit reflects, in part, a robust U.S. demand for processing-grade beef. Turkey imports were up 72 percent and turkey exports were down 11 percent in 2020, with export levels resulting in a trade surplus for turkey. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service’s April 2021 Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.
Monday, April 19, 2021
Since 2000, U.S. imports of beef have represented about 11 percent of U.S. production and exports about 9 percent. U.S. beef trade is largely dependent on domestic production, and shocks to production can lead to a boost in import demand and a reduction in supplies available for export. The 2003 discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada and then in the United States disrupted beef trade in North America. As a result, U.S. imports of beef rose to record levels in 2004 and 2005. U.S. beef exports, however, plummeted as trading partners banned U.S. beef. Consequently, as trade barriers were resolved, U.S. beef exports steadily grew. In the late 2000s, drought conditions caused reductions in the U.S. cattle herd. The herd shrank to its smallest size since 1952, lowering beef production in 2014–15 to levels not seen in 20 years. In the second quarter of 2020, weekly beef production fell as much as 34 percent, compared with the same period in 2019, at facilities where operations temporarily closed or shifts were reduced as COVID-19 spread through their labor forces. In 2021, U.S. beef exports are expected to grow as a percent of production, while imports are expected to fall. This chart is based on data released in the USDA, Economic Research Service’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook, April 2021.
Monday, March 1, 2021
Despite shipping record-breaking volumes of U.S. beef to China from July to December 2020, the United States supplied only 1.3 percent of China’s total imports of beef. Beef-exporting competitors of the United States—Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Uruguay, and New Zealand—account for the vast majority (93 percent) of the total volume of China’s total beef imports worth $9.518 billion. This may be in part because the U.S. value per pound of beef shipped to China is higher than most of its competitors in the China beef market, with the exception of Canada. Both the United States and Canada primarily export a grain-fed product distinct from what China typically imports from other countries. In 2020, the U.S. unit value per pound of frozen boneless beef—the product the United States has been exporting to China in recent years—averaged $3.42. Canada’s unit value for beef imported in China exceeded that of the United States at $4.01 per pound, while other competitors’ unit values ranged from $2.08 to $2.85. Despite a higher unit price of U.S. beef, China’s commitment to purchase an additional $200 billion of American-made goods and services over 2020 and 2021 under the United States–China Phase One trade deal could lead to continued growth of U.S. beef exports. This chart is drawn from the USDA, Economic Research Service’s January 2021 Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook.
Thursday, April 30, 2020
Beef production in the first quarter of 2020 set a first-quarter record. Even as retail demand for beef increased in late March as consumers prepared to shelter in place, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that beef held in cold storage at the end of March 2020 was 11 percent above last year and 2 percent above the previous month. Since its peak in late March, federally inspected beef production fell almost 32 percent through the week ending April 25 as the rate of cattle slaughter declined at several beef packing facilities. The slowdown in cattle slaughter limited beef production at these facilities where operations temporarily closed or shifts were reduced due to labor force absences caused by the spread of COVID-19. At a time when cattle slaughter numbers increase seasonally, cattle slaughter rates for the week ending April 25 were down 28 percent year-over-year. As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to evolve quickly, the Economic Research Service continues to closely monitor the latest USDA data and industry news. Some of this information is discussed in the Economic Research Service’s Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Monthly Outlook report from April 2020 and is updated using data from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Thursday, April 23, 2020
A sharp increase in the wholesale value of beef, along with a modest decline in the value of steers between February and March 2020, produced a larger monthly increase in the farm-to-wholesale price spread for Choice beef than ever before. The farm-to-wholesale price spread calculates how much the farmer receives versus how much the wholesaler receives on a per-pound basis. The price spread increase of 42 cents per pound of retail product in March 2020 was the largest since August 2019 when the spread rose over 36 cents per pound in one month, reaching the all-time high. At that time, a beef plant in Holcomb, Kansas which comprised about 6 percent of U.S. beef packing capacity, had caught fire and shut down, instantly tightening wholesale supplies. The March run-up in wholesale beef prices may be attributed, in part, to an increase in grocery store demand for beef, as consumers prepared to shelter in place due to COVID-19 and supply chains adjusted to stronger retail demand and weaker food service demand. This chart is drawn from the Economic Research Service’s Meat Price Spreads data product.
Thursday, December 5, 2019
Over the last 50 years, U.S. beef production (measured as volume of meat produced) steadily increased by 25 percent, even while the number of cattle destined for beef production decreased by 6 percent. When beef production, numbers of cattle, and average cattle weights are viewed as indices (with a base year of 1970), the trend becomes clear. Since 1970, beef production has increased by roughly 25 percent. Over the same period, however, the number of cattle used in beef production has fallen by 6 percent. The decline in the number of cattle has been countered by a more than 30-percent increase in average cattle weights, driven mainly by increases in the average weights of steers and heifers, which represent 80 percent of cattle destined for beef production. Changes in breeding practices have produced heifers and steers with higher growth rates and higher feed conversion efficiencies in pastures and feedlots. USDA forecasts beef production to reach record levels in 2019 and again in 2020. Both years are expected to surpass the previous record set in 2002, but with 8 percent fewer cattle than in 2002. This chart appears in the ERS Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook newsletter, released in May 2019. This Chart of Note was originally published June 5, 2019.
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
Over the last 50 years, U.S. beef production (measured as volume of meat produced) steadily increased by 25 percent, even while the number of cattle destined for beef production decreased by 6 percent. When beef production, numbers of cattle, and average cattle weights are viewed as indices (with a base year of 1970), the trend becomes clear. Since 1970, beef production has increased by roughly 25 percent. Over the same period, however, the number of cattle used in beef production has fallen by 6 percent. The decline in the number of cattle has been countered by a more than 30-percent increase in average cattle weights, driven mainly by increases in the average weights of steers and heifers, which represent 80 percent of cattle destined for beef production. Changes in breeding practices have produced heifers and steers with higher growth rates and higher feed conversion efficiencies in pastures and feedlots. USDA forecasts beef production to reach record levels in 2019 and again in 2020. Both years are expected to surpass the previous record set in 2002, but with 8 percent fewer cattle than in 2002. This chart appears in the ERS Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook newsletter, released in May 2019.
Monday, July 2, 2018
If cheeseburgers are on your menu for July 4, they will cost you 20 percent more than their inflation-adjusted cost from 20 years ago. And that greater cost is due to higher ground beef prices. In 2018, the ingredients for a home-prepared, quarter-pound cheeseburger total $1.69, with ground beef making up the largest cost at $0.92. This same cheeseburger would have cost $0.91 to prepare in 1998, the equivalent of $1.40 in 2018 dollars, with ground beef accounting for $0.55 in 2018 dollars. Today’s higher ground beef prices in grocery stores likely reflect cattle supply disruptions in the early 2000s and early 2010s, resulting in higher-than-average increases in retail ground beef prices during those years. Although U.S. beef production has since increased, prices are slower to retreat at the retail level. In contrast, efficiencies throughout the food supply chain helped lower prices for the other cheeseburger ingredients. Inflation-adjusted retail bread prices between 1998 and 2018 fell by 2.8 percent, tomato prices by 12.3 percent, lettuce prices by 27.9 percent, and cheddar cheese prices by 5.7 percent. More information on ERS’s food price forecasts can be found in ERS’s Food Price Outlook data product, updated June 25, 2018.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018
In June 2017, the United States began shipping beef to China after a 14-year absence. U.S. beef was banned from China following the discovery of isolated cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)–commonly known as mad cow disease–in the United States and Canada in 2003. Prior to 2003, China was among the top 10 U.S. beef export markets, but still significantly smaller than leading U.S. partners like Japan, Canada, and Mexico. In recent years, China has expanded its global beef imports and ranked as the second largest global beef importer behind the United States in 2016. U.S. beef shipments to China have grown since June and reached almost 2 million pounds in September alone. While 2 million pounds is less than 1 percent of September’s total U.S. beef exports, shipments to China are expected to grow as more U.S. suppliers receive proper USDA verifications to supply this market. This chart is drawn from the ERS Livestock and Meat International Trade Data product updated in December 2017.