Where’s the Beef? What is happening to prices?

I thought that I would take a moment to respond to many questions that I hear in supermarkets, coffee shops and social gatherings.  It seems that everywhere I go, the discussion always leads to the increases in meat prices, and especially the cost of beef . Why is this?  I will try and lay out some easy to follow reasons below.

1. Drought and lots of it.

For the last few years, much of the American west, southwest and central plains have been incredibly dry.  This extreme drought has caused ranchers to sell cows, which have calves, grow up with their momma cow, and eventually end up ready for your family’s table. Usually when one area was dry and didn’t have green pastures for their cows, someone else would buy those cows and they would stay in the overall cattle cycle.  This drought has been different …very different. Vast areas of the American cattle producing states have been incredibly dry for prolonged periods of time.  As a result, no one has had green pastures and extra feed that would allow them to purchase additional cattle. Therefore, many cows have been killed for meat because there was no other option.

This massive decline in the North American cowherd has caused cattle numbers to decline to levels not seen since 1950.  Consider that for a minute.  What did the world look like 65 years ago? Far different population demographics, socio-economic status, and eating habits existed half a century ago.  Far more beef is needed today than 65 years ago.

2. Cowboys are old

Yes, the iconic notion of the old, ragged, weathered, leather faced cowboy is real.  The average age of cattle ranchers, men and women alike, is nearly 70 years old in the United States.  Ontario would not be that much different.


Getting ready to lay out rotational grazing paddocks for the week.

Getting ready to lay out rotational grazing paddocks for the week.

Cattle ranching is a tough life with long hours and tough hours.  Baby calves decide to show up when they want whether it’s 12 noon on a sunny warm day or more often than not, at 2 a.m. in a snowy blizzard.  There are much easier ways to earn a living farming than running a herd of cows.  Although in my opinion, there is nothing I would rather do than raise top quality cows that bring home a big healthy calf in the fall.

As these ranchers get older, they are not willing to expand their herd at any price to build up the North American herd numbers.  These old cowboys are heading for retirement and no one can blame them.  They have lived through tough times, with the toughest being the BSE crisis of 10 years ago.  Their cowherd is their pension, RRSPs, and life savings all in one and they are cashing out.  Therefore, young female calves (it’s a 50/50 split male and female) end up being butchered for beef at of roughly 16 months of age.  They do not get saved to be replacement cows so again the North American cowherd picture doesn’t increase.

So where do we go from here?

That’s a good question.  Until more young ranchers come of age and are willing to take the financial risk of starting a herd, beef prices will likely remain high.  In addition, as climate change continues to surprise all of us in different ways, the cattle industry will be forced to change.  I believe you will see more cattle production move into the U.S. Midwest where rain and consequently feed is more plentiful than in the drought stricken American south.

Raising cattle humanely and in an environmentally sustainable way has the power to both feed us all and reverse climate change through the incredible power of grasslands to pull CO2 out of the air and store it safely in the ground.  Yes, that’s right, sustainable ranching and beef production has the incredible power to reduce global warming.  (Watch the TED talk below to see how)

Finding and supporting young ranchers who raise beef sustainably is something we can all do to ensure that we continue to enjoy steaks and burgers on the grill and a better environment for our collective future.


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