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North Dakota counters trend of fewer beef cows

FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Rancher Frank Matejcek has been raising black Angus cattle since 1966 with his wife, Lucy, at Red River Angus north of Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS — In almost five decades of raising cattle, Frank Matejcek hasn’t seen prices as high as they are today.

That’s due in part to a decreasing number of beef cows in parts of the United States. Matejcek, who runs the Red River Angus farm north of Grand Forks with his wife Lucy, noted that cattle are like any other commodity that goes through price cycles.

“We’re just enjoying one of the higher cycles,” he said.

While national numbers are down, North Dakota has been able to largely avoid the drought conditions that have helped reduce herds in southern states. In fact, the number of beef cows increased in North Dakota last year.

But that doesn’t mean local meat market owners or consumers are immune to price increases.

That’s because beef is traded on global markets, meaning prices will follow larger trends.

“Just because we are fortunate and have more (beef cows) in North Dakota does not mean our prices for beef would be less here,” said Tim Petry, a livestock marketing economist for NDSU’s extension office. “Our prices parallel U.S. prices.”

Beef cows totaled more than 29 million across the country on Jan. 1, down 1 percent from a year prior, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. North Dakota, meanwhile, saw a 2.3 percent increase in beef cows, up to 943,000.

Price jumps

Most retail prices for beef are at record highs even after adjusting for inflation, according to the USDA. The price for ground beef has increased by 29 percent in the past two years, chuck roast has increased by 15 percent, and sirloin steak has jumped 18 percent.

A pound of lean ground beef now costs about $5.36, according to the USDA.

Brian Holmer, owner of Michael’s Meats in Thief River Falls, said some customers are adjusting by buying less beef or switching to cheaper cuts. They might also turn to other meats like pork and chicken.

“With beef prices going up, you turn around and that puts a strain on the pigs … and that price is going up,” he said. “And that’ll put a strain on chicken, and chicken’s going to start rising up.”

“It’s kind of a domino effect when it comes to meat,” he said.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted some national restaurants are raising prices or changing up their menus. JL Beers, which has a menu focused on burgers, chips and fries, hasn’t had to change up their menu despite higher beef prices, according to Lance Thorson, the chain’s part-owner.

“We’ve tried to maintain the same pricing and stuff throughout,” Thorson said. “Being that we have a pretty simple menu, we haven’t skimped on portions or sizes.”

Inventory decline

A recent USDA report cited increasing beef exports, flat imports, and a prolonged drought in the south as reasons for high beef prices.

“The drought in Texas and Oklahoma has worsened somewhat in the last month, providing further complications for the beef production industry,” a June USDA report stated. The beef cow population decreased by 3 percent and 2 percent in the previous two years, according to report Petry wrote in March.

Six of the top 10 beef cow-producing states saw decreases in their herds. The largest decrease took place in the biggest beef cow producer: Texas. The Lone Star State went from 5.03 million beef cows in 2011 to 3.91 in 2014, according to Petry’s report.

Droughts can limit the size of a herd by reducing the available pasture or hay, Petry said.

“Prices have been high enough that would encourage them to maintain their herds but they just physically can’t because they don’t have the forage to do so,” Petry said.

North Dakota became the ninth-leading beef cow state in 2014, up from 13th in 2010. Jason Zahn, president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said he expects North Dakota’s numbers to continue to climb, even if the national figures decrease.

Petry said consumers can expect to see higher beef prices for at least another year.

“It’s a very slow process to rebuild herds,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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