USDA choice-grade beef hit a record $5.28 in February, according to the LA Times, and drought is the culprit.
Years of sometimes record-setting dry spells have punished the western and southern United States recently, cutting down crops like hay and corn that serve as cattle feed. That’s driven up the costs of raising and maintaining cattle herds, so ranchers spent the last few years selling off and slaughtering more cows than usual in order to keep their finances stable.
That’s driven the nation’s cattle population down to 87.7 million — the lowest its been since 1951, when herds hit a trough of 82.1 million. By contrast, the peak was in 1975, when the cattle population reached 132 million heads. (Though the LA Times noted that was when cows were less meaty and required more feed.)
With no attendant drop in demand, prices started going up as early as June 2013, and have just kept rising. The LA Times said restaurants and slaughterhouses around the country are raising prices to compensate, putting some of them in a precarious economic position. In Texas, the situation even forced the closure of entire beef plants.
It takes almost three years, starting at birth, for a cow to finally become ready for slaughter. So it will take a while for the herds to rebound. And that’s before the uncertainty brought on by the droughts and changing rainfall is factored in. Until they see the weather stabilize, ranchers are likely to hold off on replenishing their herds to avoid being caught again with two much cattle and not enough rain.
Ranchers also use breeding over time to improve the genetics of their cattle, improving the quality and amount of beef. So in an additional blow, the liquidation of many herds means a lot of those improved genetic lines have been lost, the LA Times reported.
Underlying the drought, the rising crop prices and the rising cattle prices is the reality of climate change: higher temperatures generally mean faster evaporation and drier conditions. So rainfall shifts to longer dry spells broken by heavier deluges. As a result, there’s less time for precipitation, when it does come, to add to snowpack or soak into the ground. Changes in oceanic temperatures and currents may also be redirecting major weather streams in ways that bring less rain to American west especially. All of that means reduced water supplies for people, crops and cattle.
Globally speaking, studies suggest climate change could drive up the prices of staple food crops like grains, wheat, fruit, vegetables and rice anywhere from 20 to 40 percent by 2050.
Ironically, cattle herding and the enormous demand for beef from both America and the world as a whole is itself a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emission. Cows, of course, emit a good deal of methane as part of their digestive process. The agriculture that goes into producing cattle feed — running the equipment and using the fertilizer — is also a source of carbon dioxide emissions.
All told, the livestock sector accounts for almost 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with the cattle beef and milk industries contributing two-thirds of that slice.