DESPITE lacking the budget to conduct a major midyear cattle inventory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has added a monthly report tracking the grass-fed beef market to its portfolio of agricultural market data products.
The monthly "Grass Fed Beef Report," first published in September, covers cattle prices, wholesale beef prices and direct retail prices.
According to a release announcing the new report, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) created the report in response to a request from the Wallace Center, a Virginia-based organization that "supports entrepreneurs and communities as they build a new, 21st-century food system that is healthier for people, the environment and the economy." The organization asked USDA for a data product that might help them attract more producers to grass-fed beef production.
"This monthly report will bring market clarity and exposure to assist the grass-fed industry in marketing their products," AMS administrator Anne Alonzo said. "This report will fill a significant data gap for the industry and increase transparency in the marketplace for all participants."
AMS's Market News service tracks myriad markets and metrics in a wide variety of commodities and products, often on a daily basis. Its reports are considered vital to an efficient marketplace — a reality that was underscored by the extended government shutdown in October.
Alonzo said the shutdown left the agriculture industry in the lurch, as farmers had no benchmark to accurately evaluate the market and disrupted pricing functions at the wholesale and retail level.
The grass-fed industry, generally speaking, has been flying in the proverbial dark from its inception. Basic estimates of the size and scope of the market itself are hard to come by, with most pointing toward grass-fed production as being less than 5% of all U.S. beef produced.
"The Wallace Center's pasture project focuses on improving water quality in the Mississippi River Watershed by reducing agricultural impact from nearby farmers and ranchers and addressing barriers that limit the expansion of grass-based production systems in the Midwest," AMS deputy administrator Craig Morris explained. "With the new market report and better access to information, USDA is helping farmers and ranchers who are considering converting to grass-fed operations and those who are already producing grass-fed beef."
Besides the live cattle, wholesale beef and direct market prices, Morris said as the number of market-reporting participants grows, USDA will expand the report by including trading volume data and adding graphs and other visuals.
In the October report, AMS found that grass-fed cattle sold in the range of $200-255/cwt. on a dressed basis ($127-162/cwt., live basis), and wholesale prices trended from a median price of $3.12/lb. for 70/30 ground beef to $17.53/lb. for whole tenderloin.
On a direct basis, ground beef ranged from $5.98/lb. to as much as $10.00/lb., and steaks were priced as high as $55.90/lb. for filet mignon.
While the grass-fed industry will have at least some data at its disposal now, the beef industry as a whole was disappointed to learn last month that USDA would not conduct a midyear cattle inventory for a second year in a row. Due to budget cuts mandated by the sequestration, USDA suspended a number of statistical reports in 2013, most of which were of little concern to the feed and livestock industries.
The absence of the July cattle report, on the other hand, means that the annual inventory report, released each January, will be the only official estimate of the beef breeding herd for the next calendar year. Current estimates indicate that the herd is at its smallest level in more than 50 years.