Shrinking Beef Supply Spurs Record Prices as Sales Decline

U.S. feedlots probably bought fewer cattle last month as a Texas drought reduced the number of available animals, signaling tight beef supplies, record meat prices and higher costs for restaurants such as Sonic Corp.

Purchases probably fell 3.2 percent to 2.385 million head of cattle from a year earlier, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 10 analysts. The government will report inventories at 3 p.m. in Washington. In the 12 months ended Oct. 1, Texas, the leading beef producer, had the driest period since records began in 1895.

This week, cattle futures for December delivery rose to $1.24475 a pound in Chicago, a record for the most-active contract. Sonic, a drive-in hamburger chain, said that beef was one of the “primary cost drivers” in the quarter ended Aug. 31. Ground beef jumped to $2.868 a pound in September, the highest since at least 1984.

“Because of drought, we’re going to have fewer cattle for the next several years,” Tim Petry, a livestock economist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, said in a telephone interview. Lower placements at feedlots last month “should be the start of a trend that will ultimately go to lower beef production,” he said.

Fed-steer prices next year may average $1.22 a pound, up 6.1 percent from a projection of $1.15 a pound in 2011, an all-time high, Petry said. Record prices may extend into 2013, averaging $1.27 a pound, he said.

Annual Rallies

Cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange have climbed 13 percent this year after surging 26 percent in 2010. U.S. consumers may pay 9 percent more for beef in 2011, more than any other food group, the government has forecast. The December futures rose 0.3 percent to settle at $1.2215 a pound today.

More than 72 percent of Texas is in “exceptional” drought, according to the University of Nebraska’s U.S. Drought Monitor. In June and July, producers sent cattle to feedlots earlier than normal and in larger numbers, government data show.

Feedlots in the U.S. buy year-old cattle that weigh 500 pounds (227 kilograms) to 800 pounds, called feeders. It takes about four or five months on a diet of mostly corn before the animals weigh about 1,200 pounds, when they are sold to meatpackers.

Feeder-Cattle Record

Feeder-cattle futures, which reached a record $1.4875 a pound today, have climbed 32 percent in the past 12 months.

The total feedlot herd on Oct. 1 probably totaled 11.229 million head, up 4.1 percent from a year earlier, according to the Bloomberg survey. Producers sold about 1.811 million fattened cattle to slaughterhouses in September, up 0.5 percent from a year earlier, analysts said.

Stephen C. Vaughan, the chief financial officer of Oklahoma City-based Sonic, said on a conference call on Oct. 18 that the company plans to make a “small price increase this fall.” The latest earnings trailed estimates by analysts, and the shares have slumped 33 percent this year.

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