If you are an avid consumer of beef, you may have noticed that beef prices have been coming down in the grocery store over the past few months. This is due to a large number of factors, one of which is there will be a larger number of cattle slaughtered through this next year than in the past two years.
When prices were higher, I was frequently told, “you cattlemen need to hurry up and raise more beef, pronto!”. Prices were high because all kinds of meat were in short supply (also due to a large number of factors). Some folks thought ranchers and farmers were holding back on raising more cattle to keep prices high longer, or were just too lazy to make more beef sooner.
Quite frankly, ranchers were doing everything they could to increase the beef supply. The trouble is bovine biology makes increasing the supply a slow process. To illustrate, look at what occurred in the spring of 2014. The U.S. had the fewest number of cattle there had been for 40 years. Consequently, the price for beef rose.
Because of this price increase, cattlemen worked hard to expand the size of their herds (and Mother Nature cooperated with this goal). But in order to do this, it meant we needed to send less females into the food supply to stay on the ranch as momma cows. That caused the supply to become shorter, which drove up the price further.
The real problem with correcting the supply shortage is the fact that cows take a LONG time to have calves. In order for a rancher to expand their herd by keeping more of their young females, the female calf needs to grow up (which takes 15 months), become pregnant (which only 85-90% of them will), give birth (9 month gestation) and then raise a calf (another 6 months). Once the calves are weaned at 6 months, they have a minimum of another 6 to 7 months of growing before they can be slaughtered and increase the beef supply. So, the rancher that decided to expand his or her herd in 2014 in response to the good prices will not lead to an increase in the beef supply until 2017!
Another way to increase herd size is to not sell old cows so they can raise another calf. This is a faster process, as it only takes the 12-13 months for that calf to enter the beef supply. The trouble is old cows typically raise smaller calves while using the same number of resources. This is less efficient and not the way we like to do things, but in response to very high prices it happens to fill the temporary need.
The last way the beef supply is increased is by slaughtering cattle at a heavier weight. This happened a lot in the past two years. The trouble with this technique is two-fold. First, cattle can only grow so big, so it limits how much more beef you can produce.
Second, growing cattle bigger makes the steaks bigger. So your normal 10-12 oz. ribeye steak becomes 14-16 oz. or larger. While meatpacking businesses tried to remedy that by cutting the big steaks in half to make smaller ones, the consumers who buy beef did not really want them that way–they wanted the 10-12 oz. steak they were used to. So while increasing the size before slaughter lead to a modest production boost, it was only a patch to get us through until 2017 when the 2014 decisions can finally have results.
So yes, we’re doing the best we can to make more beef. But we cannot get a cow to grow up and make babies any faster. So hold tight, more steaks are coming your way in the not-too-distant future.