Sort & Cull

The Mayan Marketing Window

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

There are deadlines and then there are deadlines.

According to the Mayan calendar, the granddaddy of all deadlines is now only a short week away. We're talking check-out time, the ultimate bottom of the ninth, the big bartender's last call.

At least that's how some New Age theologians are interpreting an enormously complicated system of celestial timekeeping first cobbled together about 1,800 years ago. Never mind that serious scholars of Mayan history believe that the ancient stargazers of Central America would spin in their graves if they heard this apocalyptic claptrap.

As a challenged and often clueless reader of market fundamentals, I admire anyone with guts enough to read between the lines of the truly ambiguous and confidently predict the unknowable. Welcome to my world.

It seems like only yesterday that California preacher Harold Camping had the Rapture nailed down to May 21. Sure, the hapless prophet of doom looked pretty silly when he turned 92 on July 19. But it can never be said that the fear of looking like a complete idiot kept him from chasing the greased pig of Holy Scripture.

Why is it that the harshest critics of these shortsighted visionaries are always those extreme pessimists who lack the courage to be calendar-specific themselves?

Of course, I'm just having a little fun with the latest round of end-of-the-world talk. Between the dogged-eared pages of the Mayan calendar and the crumbling edges of the "fiscal cliff," I hope the season's traditional hallmarks of peace, hope, and joy help you keep it all in perspective.

Since cattle feeders are futurists by either nature or necessity, it's tough to imagine any feedlot managers leading double-lives: betting on the spring market by day, stockpiling survivalist gear by night.

Yet the fact that the late-week cash market struggled with the weakest basis seen all year -- with some early morning country sales marked nearly $3 under the eventual close of spot December live -- left me with the silly thought that maybe some producers are keeping Mayan time.

To be sure, there are many reasons why the December basis can drag like Donner and Blitzen on the backhaul. The final fortnight of holidays typically makes for a short marketing window. Sometimes reserving shackle space on the late-year kill floor simply comes at a price.

Timely slaughter can especially become a price consideration when live and carcass weights just keep getting bigger and potentially discountable. Open winter conditions like we are now enjoying have been known to underscore this kind of nervousness.

Finally, while I think some last-minute budget deal will be made, avoiding early year economic chaos, it's understandable why some cattle sellers might just want to get out of the way, even if such caution means losing a step or two to robust futures.

In that regard, maybe today's softer basis had more to with inept Washington fools than angry Mayan gods.…



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