Beef prices have ridden a world-class roller coaster in recent years, making profitable cattle marketing an enormous challenge. Prices peaked in 2014, going as high as they’d been in recent memory. However, they began a downward slide in mid-2015 before tanking through most of 2016.
Troy Hadrick is a producer from Faulkton, South Dakota, who rode the highs and lows in beef cattle prices, experiencing firsthand the challenges that low prices present. While fed cattle prices had rallied from October of 2016 into early this year, the business is cyclical and low prices will come around again. Hadrick said it is possible for beef cattle producers to make it through the down times, provided they’re willing to try new things.
There are a lot of theories as to why prices began a free-fall in 2015, falling at an unprecedented pace. Before prices got to that point, Hadrick says beef saw a perfect storm of conditions that drove prices to record highs in 2014. A large number of pigs in the U.S. had died of PED so pork production was way down. An Avian Influenza outbreak had pushed chicken and poultry production lower as well. Combine those facts with the lowest cattle numbers America had seen since the 1940s and you have the recipe for high beef prices.
“There wasn’t enough beef and protein to go around,” Hadrick said, “so our industry did what it always does. It responds and makes a bunch more of the product.”
But the number of cattle head in the herd doesn’t paint the full picture. It’s more about the pounds of product the industry produces. High prices meant producers were getting cattle as fat as possible to produce as many pounds as possible. The industry was at record carcass weight during the boom.
“We were producing carcass weights of approximately 850 pounds at that time,” he said. “Our recent carcass weights were around 814 pounds. So if we kill approximately 500,000 head a week, take that times 30 pounds a head, and look at the difference. The population stays the same as we’re killing the same number of head but the amount of product we’re producing is different.”
Needless to say, prices going from record highs to unbelievably low prices came down hard on the beef industry. There’s no doubt producers were pushed out of business as profits margins shrank to razor-thin levels. Theories ranging from oversupply to market manipulation abounded as the industry was under stress. Hadrick is very sympathetic to the plight of his fellow producers, having gone through the downturn himself. He does want to point out that if producers are willing to try new things, it’s possible to weather the downturns more efficiently.
Back in 2012, the Hadricks began changing their breeding and marketing programs for their cattle. There are different grades of beef and those grades are priced differently.
Higher quality beef demands a higher price because there’s less of it available. There’s a good demand for higher quality beef because it tastes better.
“We started shooting to produce cattle that would give us the beef that would qualify for these premium programs, such as Certified Angus Beef and USDA Prime,” he said. “If you produce cattle that fit into those categories then you get a nice premium price for your product.”
They did a couple of different things to try to speed up the process of producing premium beef. The family implemented an AI program on the ranch that covered the entire herd, using the best genetics they could find on the market to help them produce the highest quality beef. There’s a lot of data being collected on sires and they looked for the bulls that could get the job done.
So, with that as their focus, here’s where they did something different from what might be considered the ‘norm’ in beef production. Their cattle go down south to be finished but the Hadricks retain ownership.
“Those cattle are then marketed on a grid,” Troy said. “They harvest those cattle, they hang on the rail, and they’re graded by a USDA Inspector. Based off of that grade and the weight, that’s how the price we receive is calculated. We don’t know the final value of the cattle until they’re hanging on the rail as meat.”
Obviously, there’s a risk of being discounted when you market on a grid. The actual grid is just like other grids you may have seen. For example, if a particular animal graded Prime and was a Yield Grade 3, you follow those two columns and where they meet, that’s what the price was that week for that animal and that’s what we’re paid.
“We started our program with AI and then combined it with genomic testing,” Hadrick said. “We would take DNA samples from some of our cattle, get it analyzed, and that would give us an indicator as far as which cattle would perform well on the grid. We’d also keep back those females that would produce the best calves.”
Between those two technologies, Hadrick said their production went from grading 90 percent Choice, 35 percent Certified Angus Beef, and no Prime, to cattle that finished 57 percent prime, and 100 percent Choice. Hadrick said producers get really good premiums for numbers like that.
“The nice part about it is it doesn’t cost us any more money to raise those cattle,” he said. “It doesn’t cost us any more to feed them, either. Of course, we have to get them bred, but at the end of the day, they’re worth more money.”
There is an additional cost with the genomic testing, but Hadrick says it’s worth it to them because the idea is to identify the cattle that are going to make the family money and those that won’t. They sort cattle accordingly and market those cattle accordingly.
The Hadrick cattle are harvested through a cooperative called U.S. Premium Beef. It’s a rancher-owned cooperative based in Kansas that owns parts of the National Beef Packing Plants in Dodge City and Liberal, Kansas. Hadrick said some visionary people put this idea together back in the 1990s.
“They wanted to give producers the incentive to produce better beef,” Hadrick said, “and they wanted food service businesses and consumers that need beef to be able to come and know they’re getting the highest quality beef. They also wanted to reward the producers that could give them the highest quality beef consistently.”
The grid system runs off what they call plant average. Hadrick said in order to get the premiums, producers have to bring in cattle that are better than what everyone else brings in. That can be a big challenge as they’re attracting a lot of cattle that are high quality right from the start.
The plant isn’t buying cattle from the Hadricks, but instead, they’re buying carcasses. Hadrick said that makes it much harder for producers to try to sneak a bad one through the plant. There’s no hiding a poor carcass once the hide comes off.
He said the new system has advantages from the traditional way of doing business in the cow/cattle industry.
“On the farming side of things, we got into ethanol, we got into crushing soybeans, in order to get our product closer to the end point,” he said. “The closer you sell your product to the final consumer of your product, the more you’re going to get for it because you’ve added some value to it.”
He said doing business this way isn’t easy. Producers have to manage risk more, they have to have a relationship with the packer, and with the feedlots they work with. Producers also have to know their cattle because they won’t get away with trying to slip a bad one through the chain.
“If you market average cattle, you’re going to get an average price,” Hadrick said. “We’re trying to do things a little differently to do things better.”