Many of the cattle are going to feedlots that typically buy year-old animals that weigh 500 pounds (227 kilograms) to 800 pounds, called feeders. They are fattened on corn for about four to five months until they weigh about 1,200 pounds, when they are sold to meatpackers.
Ranchers haven’t had much help from the heavens lately. In July, the St. Louis area got only about 0.72 inches of rain, less than a fifth of the normal amount, while the mean temperature was 88.1 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 percent higher than the average, according to National Weather Service data.
The drought doesn’t just kill the grass heifers rely on to grow, he said. The heat makes it difficult for cows to gain weight, meaning producers need to supply more nutrition at the same time their herds have lost their natural forage.
With everything brown but the weeds and rain the only hope for rejuvenation, most area ranchers are hesitant to feed animals any more grass, for fear that overgrazing will leave them with nothing to grow back next year, Korte said.
“If it rains, I can save hay for the winter, use the grass for now and save all my cows,” Korte said. “If it doesn’t rain, then I use my hay, and when winter comes, then what? I need to sell more cows, and it can take a long time to build back a herd.”
In the short term, what’s bad for ranchers may be good for consumers. The increased sales of animals to slaughterhouses will boost beef supplies and slow price increases at the supermarket, Lapp said. The USDA last month lowered its forecast for beef-price inflation for 2012 half a percentage point to 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent. For 2013, the expectation is a gain of as much as 5 percent.
“Near term, there is an adequate supply of meat from all species,” Michael Martin, a spokesman for Minneapolis-based Cargill, said in an e-mail. “As we move into 2013, the supply of beef, in particular, could be constrained by the U.S. herd being the smallest in 60 years.”