No beef shortage, says industry rep, but a processing slowdown

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Consumers may not find be able to buy hamburger or a favorite type of steak in the supermarket on a given day but there isn’t a beef shortage, said an official with a national beef association.

“We don’t have a national beef shortage,” said Colin Woodall, the chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

What the nation has now are nearly one million cattle waiting for processing at meat packing plans around the U.S., Woodall said.

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Woodall said the one million cattle is an estimate and a “moving target” because the landscape of processing changes daily.

As more packing plants re-open and increase processing, the number of waiting cattle will change, he said.

Restaurant chains such as Wendy’s have announced menu changes to reflect a shortage in its supply of beef or supermarkets such as Hy-Vee which are limiting the amount of fresh meat consumers can buy in one a shopping trip. Such actions don’t accurately reflect a beef, or meat shortage, Woodall said.

When the public hears about such actions it may encourage consumers to panic buy, Woodall said.

“We have been trying for weeks now to reassure the consumer that we are still producing beef,” Woodall said. “But if we do see panic buying then that will increase these local shortages. That will increase issues we are seeing in the supply chain.”

“We are seeing instances where a meat case might be full one day, it might be empty the next but then refilled the following day,” Woodall said.

Those situations are created by a slowdown at meat processing plants and issues with supply distribution to meet demands across the nation and in certain markets.

A consumer may be able to buy wanted steak one day but should use patience and wait to buy more for a couple of days to help makes sure beef is available as meat processing plants continue to ramp up production, he said.

The Upper Midwest including South Dakota has been hit hardest by the COVID-19 related meat processing plant shutdowns, Woodall said.

A good portion of the estimated one million cattle waiting to be processed are in the Upper Midwest, he said.

South Dakota has about five beef cattle for every resident, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers are able to keep those cattle but they still need to spend money to feed and maintain them.

Woodall said his organization is worried about the financial burden COVID-19 could create for some producers.

“We are extremely worried that this is going to have some long-standing implications for us,” Woodall said.

Beef production is on a two-year cycle and some producers are making decisions today such as reducing future herd sizes, Woodall said.

There is another potential worst result.

“There are going to be cattle producers who are not going to be able to survive this,” Woodall said.

About 50% of South Dakota farms have beef cattle, according to the state’s ag department. Data from Ag United, a group of farm associations including soybean growers, beef producers and similar, says that the state has 13,298 beef farms. The beef industry has an annual economic impact of about $2.2 billion.

It was important to include livestock producers in the CARES Act to provide some financial relief. His organization is anxious to see how the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out a CARES Act plan.

The COVID-19 situation is also a reminder that the market including prices paid to beef producers needs changes, Woodall said.

Woodall said the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is working now to help make sure needed changes result in consistent fair prices paid to producers.

Beef production has direct ties to the corn and soybean produced in the state. Beef and dairy cattle consume about 19.4 million bushels of corn, 31,756 tons of soybean meal, and 3.6 million tons each of hay and silage, according to Ag United. Fewer beef cattle would mean less corn, soybeans, hay and silage would be consumed.

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COVID-19 isn’t only impacting the beef industry but all of the livestock protein industry, Woodall said. Pork and poultry producers are challenged by shutdowns at meat packing plants and related issues, he said.

While cold storage numbers released each month by the USDA may indicate an available supply of meat the figures are for the prior month.

Woodall said month-old cold storage statistics aren’t very reliable as COVID-19 has rapidly changed the supply system.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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