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Beef prices rise for consumers; cattlemen struggle

Staff Writer

The price of a pound of hamburger has jumped to as high as $7 or more a pound and grocers are worried about keeping meat on their shelves as shoppers from larger cities encounter shortages.

But area cattlemen are holding on as long as they can and hope the market will recover before they need to sell as shutdowns at meatpacking plants forced by outbreaks of COVID-19 continue to wreak havoc on supply chains.

Heading off hoarding — again

Dale Franz, owner of Dale’s Supermarket in Hillsboro, can only sigh as he fields calls from out-out-town shoppers checking on the price and availability of meat.

It’s not quite a rerun of the scramble for supplies that COVID-19 touched off months ago, but he still wants to protect his regular customers.

“They want to know if they can have 20 or 30 pounds of ground beef. I say ‘nope,’ ” said Franz who, once again, has set buying limits.

“Now it’s five pounds,” he said. “If you drive an hour away to clean out the locals, you get five pounds. It might be two or three here soon.”

Catherine Weems, owner of Peabody Market, says she has fielded calls from customers as far away as Wichita and El Dorado looking for meat.

“They tell me the Walmart shelves are cleaned out in their town, or there is very, very little product,” Weems said.

Peabody Market has not had to restrict buying yet. But if they are not able to keep their shelves stocked they may have to, she said.

“I hope it doesn’t happen,” she said. “We will wait and see.”

Franz is a little astonished at demand considering the price, which, he expects will jump to more than $7 a pound.

He said he is absorbing most of that cost himself.

“I am not price gouging,” he said. “My percentages have dropped considerably because of that.”

Some customers have noticed and been angered by the jump, despite grocers’ efforts to absorb costs, said Greg Carlson, owner of Carlsons’ grocery in Marion, where ground beef was $7.99 a pound at press time.

“We can’t get meat and then it’s way up, high prices,” he said. “Beef and pork is really bad right now. We may all end up being vegetarians.”

Meat packing plants are running at about 40 percent, despite the fact they have reopened, creating a bottleneck in supply, said Franz said.

“My meat guy at the warehouse two weeks ago said the head count on cattle slaughter was 250,000 head in a week,” he said, “That makes a big difference.”

Invoices for orders at Dale’s are still marked ‘COVID-19 long term outage’ for many other goods — including toilet paper.

“Honestly I don’t know,” he said. “Once the supply chain empties out, getting everything filled back up will take some time. It’s not just going to get better overnight.”

Cutting their losses

The current instability in the market has Lincolnville feedlot owner Mike Beneke counting his blessings.

“If there is anything good about this, it’s that I don’t have anything on the market immediately like some other people would.”

About two-thirds of the cattle he owns are contracted at decent prices for delivery in the fall, he said.

At current futures prices, he would get $300 less per head for his cattle.

“At 1,000 head that’s a pretty substantial number,” he said.

Tampa beef producer Leona Hajek said she and her husband, Ron, sold cattle a while back at a better price and are hanging on to them for now.

“We had heifers we kept for breeding, we have those as cows,” she said. “But we had some that we would have sold this spring.”

In four or five months, they will have no choice but to sell again, she said.

Heifers are usually offered for sale at 800 pounds. Larger than that, and producers are docked on the price.

“You lose money on the prices,” she said, exasperated. “And if the feeders you have to sell weigh more than what they want, then they dock you — you lose money on that also.”

Hajek said producers have heard many explanations about the current logjam at packing plants.

That outbreaks of COVID-19 have closed them down and they will not be able to get animals to slaughter.

That there is an overmass of beef animals — or that there is a short supply and they are not slaughtering.

“You don’t know what to believe anymore,” she said.

Beef producers are survivors, she said, but she has never seen anything quite like a pandemic that shuts things down completely.

“It is a tough time, but farmers are tough,” she said, “They enjoy watching their cattle grow, and enjoy doing what they were raised to do.”

Last modified May 14, 2020

 

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