Beef prices high, cattle counts low

Joshua Lucero: Staff photo Rising beef prices are changing the buying habits of shoppers at local markets.

Joshua Lucero: Staff photo
Rising beef prices are changing the buying habits of shoppers at local markets.

By Joshua Lucero and Rick White
Staff writers

Retired school teacher Joyce Pollard said her shopping choices have changed to compensate for the rises in the price of beef, which are the highest in almost three decades.

“You kind of have to do a replacement with the beef,” Pollard said. “So you do turkey, chicken, you know, other than beef. Even if you prefer beef, you kind of have to look at something different.”

Gaylon Peele is also substituting other meats or poultry for beef.

“I buy beef about half as much as I used to. I buy less beef and buy more pork and more chicken,” Peele said.

Steak is out for now, said Clovis resident Betty Mitchell, who lives with her mother.

“We eat a lot of hamburger now,” Mitchell said. “We are both on fixed incomes and we can’t afford steak.”

Persistent drought across the Midwest and Southwest and a dwindling cattle herd are the culprits, according to R.T. Ervin, professor of agriculture at Eastern New Mexico University.

The cattle herd in the U.S., the world’s largest beef producer, has dropped to its lowest level since 1951.

Ervin said high feed prices and the drought have combined to hit cattle producers hard.

“It’s purely economics,” Ervin said. “(The cattle ranchers) have to be able to recoup their investment.”

In February, the cost of USDA choice-grade beef reached a record retail price of $5.28 per pound, compared to nearly $5 at the same time last year, and nearly $4 in 2008. That’s the highest price for beef since 1987.

Ervin said prices likely will stay high for a couple of years until there’s enough rain to convince cattle producers to start to rebuild their herds.

Lindy Stansell, co-owner of Stansell’s Thriftway, said beef sales at his store have dropped.

“They’ve quit buying beef and are buying something else,” Stansell said.

“It’s never done this before,” Stansell said of what seems like weekly increases. “We really can’t make any money on it. This is the first week the prices have remained steady.”

Ervin said a spike in beef prices has a greater immediate impact on the family wallet than that of most food items because beef is a single-ingredient item. “It’s the largest expense on your plate.”

Beef isn’t the only meat with higher price tags, Stansell said. The price of pork also has climbed, largely due to a virus that has killed millions of young pigs.

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