With Beef Backlogged, The Market In Flux, Montana Cattle Ranchers Face Tough Choices


The beef supply chain in the United States typically starts on a ranch like Marty Malone’s, in Paradise Valley, with the birth of calves. After a summer of grazing, a cow reaches about 500 - 700 pounds. Then the cow is sold to a feedlot in the Midwest or Great Plains, where it eats feed like corn and barley to fatten up. At about 1,200 pounds and 18 months of age, it’s slaughtered at a nearby packing plant. Then it’s shipped to a wholesaler, who sells the meat to a restaurant or grocery store, where an end customer purchases it. 

One month into nationwide stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19, that supply chain has been disrupted in the middle, with many of the nation’s largest packing plants shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities. That means fewer cattle are being slaughtered, which means fewer are being taken off feedlots, which means fewer are being purchased from ranchers like Malone. On Friday, April 24, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 23% fewer cattle were put on feed in March 2020 than in March 2019.

Regardless, Malone and other ranchers still have the same amount of cattle. And in what was anticipated to be a record year for beef producers, prices are now down about 30% since the beginning of the year.

“It depresses the market, and there’s a backlog all the way back to the cow-calf guy,” Malone said


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