Harrington's Sort & Cull

The Strange Feedlot Diet Center of 2016

John Harrington
By  John Harrington , DTN Livestock Analyst

I've never been chosen by Nielsen Company to keep a log of my television viewing. Perhaps this fact is nothing but a statistical reality. Then again, maybe the judiciary of ratings has been informed by certain family members that when it comes to owning the remote control, honesty is not my long suit.

I can't help it. So many shows that prove personally addicting are simply too embarrassing to mention. For example, take the last 17 seasons of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." Here's a reality show with a total production budget of no more than $79 that shamelessly cashes in on the emotionally scarred lives of the massively obese.

It's deplorable in so many ways and I can never get enough of it, smugly camped in an overstuffed recliner with a huge mixing bowl of ice cream balanced on my rising stomach.

Fortunately, I experience neither hypocrisy nor dishonesty when it comes to the monitoring of cattle weights. In fact, the remarkable carcass data collected over the last month or so has me on the verge of contacting NBC executives to pitch a brand new version of TBL.

For the week ending May 7, steer carcasses averaged 862 pounds, 6 pounds lighter than the previous year and 8 pounds below 2015. Packers haven't railed a smaller steer carcass since early July 2014. Furthermore, this represents the first time lighter-than-year-ago scale-check since January 11, 2014.

Since the first of the year, steer carcasses have shrunk no less than 42 pounds. Think of six gallons of water strapped your waist or a border collie on your back. It's a chunk of weight.

Of course, fed weights typically decline from a winter peak through the spring as the predominance of the slaughter mix shifts from older cattle to younger cousins. Yet last year's loss of steer heft over the same period was only 27 pounds. The 5-year average was no more than 28.9 pounds.

Two other factors elevate the 2016 YTD weight loss from impressive to extraordinary. First of all, the general feeding winter was relatively open, a weather bonus that should have theoretically boosted tonnage instead of limiting it. Note that steer carcasses imploded by 54 pounds in the first four months of 2003, a winter from hell if there ever was one,

Second, this year's price of feed has been significantly lower than last year. Specifically, the average price of corn in the Platte Valley of Nebraska between January 1 and May 1 was $3.45, 23 cents cheaper than the same period last year. Again, you might have thought that more economic rations were likely to encourage more days on feed, not fewer.

So what explains this season's episode of the incredibly shrinking steer? (Eroding heifer weights are only marginally less impressive.)

My guess is that the persistence of historically tight fed numbers forced packers to harvest closer and closer to the stem, even when processing margins were less than banner. More important, the stubborn discounts of live cattle futures through the first third of the year motivated all feedlot managers to market soon rather than later.

Indeed, my guess is that beef producers are still pulling ready cattle forward, aggressive marketing efforts that may keep carcass weights falling like a bowling ball for another 30-60 days.

For more from John see www.feelofthemarket.com

(CZ)

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