Right now, the average retail price for ground beef is $3.51 per pound, up from $3.37 last year, and sirloin steak is as high as $5.14 per pound. The price hikes are due to a spike in demand coupled with a sharp drop in supply: the country’s cattle herd is the smallest it’s been since 1952, largely because of the drought. Last year, dry weather dried up grasses and decimated corn and soybean crops, causing their prices to spike. Farmers had a hard time finding and paying for feed for their cattle, so they took them to slaughter instead. The drought forced many small ranchers to sell their entire herds and abandon the business altogether.
According to the U.S. drought monitor, major cattle regions may see some relief from drought this summer, but cattle numbers won’t likely rebound anytime soon, as Elaine Johnson, a market analyst with CattleHedging.com, told NPR:
“When you have a drought like this and have liquidated numbers significantly, it typically means that supplies are going to be reduced for two, three, four years, and it’s one of the reasons why we’ve seen such a big increase in beef prices.”
It takes about three years from the time a cow becomes pregnant to the point where her calf is ready for slaughter, so numbers won’t rebound immediately. And the harsh weather of the past few years has made farmers wary about buying more cattle at the first sign of rain. Bill Hyman, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association in Lockhart, Texas, told USA Today that “the weather’s been so weird lately” that ranchers still don’t think they’ll have enough rain to keep their pastures green enough for cattle.
So far, sales of beef are down this summer, presumably in part because of the high prices. If this trend of low supply, high prices and subsequently decreased demand continues, it could help cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — agriculture production in the U.S. accounts for 8 percent of total emissions, and worldwide, agriculture is the third-largest contributor to global emissions. The writers of one recent report on livestock’s contribution to climate change said replacing meat with vegetarian alternatives would “have far more rapid effects on greenhouse gas emissions and their atmospheric concentrations — and thus on the rate the climate is warming — than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”