Bigger is not always better, as the old saying goes, and the U.S. cattle industry is taking stock of the role today’s larger animal carcasses can affect beef supply and demand factors.
Cattle carcass weight data for the week ending Nov. 18 showed steer carcass weights at 902 pounds for the third consecutive week, leading analysts to project it is likely the seasonal peak in carcass weights, up 70 pounds from the seasonal low of 832 pounds in early May.
Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist, said the seasonal increase is typical but a bit stronger than the average seasonal increase of 55 pounds from the April-May low to the October-November peak over the last five years.
“The current steer carcass weight is 16 pounds less than the same week last year,” he said. “Steer carcass weights have been lower 44 of 46 weeks this year and the average decrease for the year to date is 14 pounds below last year.”
Heifer carcass weights are currently 13 pounds below last year and have been lower every week of the year resulting in an average of 12 pounds lighter year-over-year to date for 2017.
“The decrease in carcass weights partially offsets increased cattle slaughter and moderates the increase in beef production in 2017,” Peel said.
Steer slaughter is up 2.1 percent for the year to date; an increase of 310,000 head year over year. Lower steer carcass weights is the equivalent of 234,818 fewer head at last year’s carcass weights, meaning the reduction in carcass weights is equivalent to increasing steer slaughter by 81,154 head or 0.6 percent this year.
Decreased heifer carcass weight is equivalent to reduction of 110,067 head in heifer slaughter, reducing the increase in heifer slaughter from the actual 12.2 percent year-over-year increase to an equivalent level of 10.5 year-over-year increase. As a result, year-to-date beef production is up 4.1 percent compared to the 5.3 percent increase in steer and heifer slaughter.
“The drop in carcass weights in 2017 primarily has a short run effect on beef supplies,” Peel said. “Longer run, carcass weights also have implications for beef demand.”
Steer and heifer carcass weights have increased an average of 5 pounds per year for the last 50 years. Peel said current production systems, technology and genetics would suggest there is no end in sight to just how big cattle can get from a production standpoint.
“There is no reason to believe the drop in carcass weights in 2017 is a change in the long-term trend of bigger carcasses, though it could represent moderation or a peak in carcass size,” Peel said.
It is important to remember carcass size is more than just a question of pounds. Larger carcasses mean more pounds of meat per animal but it also means bigger product size for muscle cuts such as steaks.
“The industry has been hearing from consumers for at least two decades that bigger and bigger steaks are not what people desire,” Peel said. “Grocery stores and restaurants both market beef not just on a price per pound basis but on a cost per package or cost per plate as well.”
In short, steaks are increasingly viewed as too big for a meal and too expensive to purchase. Sometimes steaks are simply cut thinner to offset the increasing surface area and thereby reduce package or plate weight and cost.
According to OSU Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources research published in volume 74 of the peer-reviewed Food Policy journal, consumers prefer thicker steaks and cutting steaks thinner ultimately will have a negative impact on steak demand. The research was conducted by OSU agricultural economists Peel; Jayson Lusk, now at Purdue University; and Josh Maples, now at Mississippi State University.
“Of course, bigger carcasses also increase other products such as trim for ground beef,” Peel said. “More research is needed to determine the balance of products that optimizes carcass value relative to carcass size. However, the tradeoff between lower steak demand and increased ground beef production suggests the industry should pay attention to the demand limits of carcass size.”