COMMODITIES

Commodity Insights

Competitive Commodity Insights: Grilling season could get ugly. A supply outlook update

Grilling could get costly this summer

With summer grilling season ready to kick off even as the U.S. Labor Department reported beef prices in February posted their biggest monthly gain in more than 10 years, what's in stock for meat supply and demand in the months ahead?

Beef

Heavy winter and spring rains in some western States still weren't enough to abate the overall lingering impact of drought in the southwestern United States. Now that ranchers liquidating their herds in reaction to resulting scarcity of feed have finally reached the end of their supplies, cow slaughter has begun to taper off, and cow prices have increased. Meanwhile, as higher cattle costs for beef packers have likewise squeezed their profitability margins, their ability and willingness to bid the price of market-ready beef cattle up has become erratic, USDA reports. In fact, with margins in the red, packers could begin to reduce slaughter, which would further impact supply--although that strategy may be only partially effective with market-ready cattle as scarce as they are now. Wholesale beef cutout values, while moving higher--into record terrotory for 50-percent lean trim--have still not gone high enough according to USDA to offset the record high prices packers are paying for cattle. All-fresh beef prices continue to set higher records each month--$5.04 per pound in January, for example--in part sustained by the current consumer popularity of ground beef products. On top of that supply/demand scenario, U.S. beef exports also rose 5 percent in January, and USDA increased its forecast for 2014 beef exports to 2.435 billion pounds due to higher demand in Asia. At the same time, beef imports fell 9 percent from a year earlier. Potentially importable cattle inventories remain tight in Mexico after several years of drought resulted in substantial herd liquidation, and inventories have also declined in Canada. Thus, imported cattle shipments are not expected to strengthen in 2014, and the forecast for overall U.S. beef imports in 2014 is only 2 percent higher than in 2013.

Beef supply outlook

 

Pork

With consumers likely already substituting pork in place of continued very high-priced beef, pork demand in the United States is now officially "white hot," according to USDA. That demand continues pushing prices upward, even as slaughter data indicate supplies of hogs remain ample. Estimated federally inspected hog slaughter during the last two weeks of February was about equal to the same period last year; therefore, the supply of slaughter hogs does not appear to be what pushed late February average prices of lean hogs fully 13 percent higher than a year ago. Adding to that beef-driven increase in domestic pork demand, January pork exports, starting the year on a positive note, increased 4.5 percent over a year ago. Higher domestic pork prices are eventually expected to limit pork exports in the second half of 2014. U.S. pork exports are expected to be 5.1 billion pounds, an increase of not quite 1.5 percent over 2013.

Pork supply outlook

Chicken

Broiler meat production fell by 2.8 percent in January due to a decrease in the number of birds slaughtered but a slight growth in average weights per bird, USDA reports. Overall production for 2014 is estimated at 38.7 billion pounds, down 175 million from USDA's previous estimate. Although the large broiler companies had been expected to expand production in 2014 primarily due to a decline in feed costs from a year earlier and relatively high prices for competing meats that should spur demand, the number of chicks they reported they had placed on feed in early 2014 declined unexpectedly to around only 0.5 percent higher--much less than the 1 percent to 1.5 percent reported for late 2013. With that higher broiler meat production expected in the first-half of 2014 and higher stock levels at the start of 2014, wholesale prices for most broiler products have been facing—and are expected to continue facing—downward price pressure. The impact these factors have on prices could vary considerably by product and will be impacted by price changes for other meats and the strength of any response to lower prices in the export market. In February, the national whole broiler price was $0.92 per pound, down 9 percent from the same period in 2013 and 4 cents lower than in January. Prices for most other broiler products were also lower.

Pork supply outlook

Competitive Commodity Insights: How will consumers react to rising meat prices?

Oklahoma State economics professor Jason Lusk regularly surveys shoppers to maintain an ongoing sense of preferences and sentiments on the safety, quality, and price of food, with particular focus on meat demand. His monthly on-line survey with a sample size of at least 1,000 individuals, weighted to match the US population in age, gender, education and region gives an ongoing glimpse into some sentiments and plans regarding meat and meal alternative pricing.

Consumer willingness to pay for meat and alternatives

 

Consumer plans in response to food prices

Competitive Commodity Insights: Have chicken prices peaked?

Why the jump in chicken prices?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed national average prices for fresh whole chickens hit their all-time high in the final quarter of last year. In the last ten years, BLS says, the price has risen 51 percent, from $1.02 in October 2003 to October 2013's $1.54 per pound. At the same time, USDA was cautioning that  projections for retail poultry prices were continuing to point upward, at an estimated 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent increase.

"Poultry demand continues to be very strong," a USDA economist said in an agency broadcast earlier this fall. "Even though supplies are healthy and there are no real issues with supply, the demand for poultry is very strong and the whole industry is still dealing with relatively high feed prices."

Can supply going forward keep pace with that demand?

USDA thinks so. The agency reported in mid-January that generally higher production over the last several months and higher overall cold storage levels had started to pressure prices for many broiler products downward. Most of the decline has come over the last several months, as year-over-year average prices for 2013 were lower for many broiler products. Wholesale prices for whole broilers averaged 95 cents per pound in December, 3 percent lower than in December 2012, although the annual average for 2013 was $1 per pound, a 15-percent gain from the 2012 average of 87 cents per pound. The price for boneless/skinless breasts followed the same pattern, with the December average 3 percent below the previous year, but with the annual average 15 percent higher. This pattern of price changes was also similar for boneless/skinless thighs.

Many of the price changes at the wholesale level are a reflection of the stocks changes over the last several months. With cold storage holdings at the end of November up fully 64 percent from the same period in 2012, prices of leg quarters fell, with the December 2013 average at just 42 cents per pound, a decline of 17 percent from the previous year. Prices for wings have also fallen sharply compared with the previous year. Average prices in December were $1.20 per pound, down 37 percent from 2012. Much of this drop can be attributed to increases in cold storage holdings, which at the end of November were 36 percent higher compared with the same period in 2012. In past years, wholesale wing prices have gradually strengthened in the fall and peaked in late January or early February. With the much higher level of cold storage holdings, wholesale wing prices are not as likely to reach their levels of past years.

With higher stock levels to start the year and higher production expected, broiler prices are expected to be under some downward pressure. The extent of the pressure will depend on the impact general domestic economic conditions and higher beef prices have on the demand for broiler products.

Competitive Commodity Insights: Pig epidemic reaches Nebraska. Will it impact pork prices?

Pig virus a threat to pork supplies?

Nebraska is now the most recent state to be hit by a new pig virus known as Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea. That now brings the total number of states affected to 20, USDA announced this month. The virus, which kills baby pigs in large numbers on affected farms, had never been reported in North America until it was discovered in the United States in May, fueling widespread speculation it will cause a deep decline in pork supplies next spring and summer, when the losses in young pigs will be first felt. For instance:

  • "Pig virus migrates to US, threatens pork prices," the Associated Press breathlessly headlines its July 7 story.
  • "Spreading Pig Virus May Curb U.S. Pork Supply, Veterinarians Say," according to Bloomberg News.
  • "Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus Migrates To U.S., Threatens Pork Prices," Huffington Post claims.

But are the predictions true?

The presence of the virus, known as Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, or PED, in at least five of the nation's top pork-producing states does have the pork industry nervous over its potential impact. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that after it was first found in China three years, the virus spread rapidly through southern China, eventually killing more than a million young pigs there. The virus now being found in U.S. hog farms is nearly identical genetically to the Chinese one, and it is displaying the same tendency to be highly deadly to very young piglets. It often kills from half to all the baby pigs on an infected farm.

The virus is not believed to pose any infection risk to other animals or to humans, so pork from PED-infected pigs should be safe to eat. However, the potential for large-scale animal losses does beg the question: Will it lead to widespread pork shortages?

Not likely, for several reasons:

  • Food estimates of the total number of piglets killed by the disease so far are hard to pin down. Because PED is not a disease that must be reported by law, any estimate you read is likely to have been pulled out of the air by multiplying the number of reportedly affected farms by an assumed number of deaths per farm. Chances are, the mainstream media have overstated the losses.
  • Likely the most reliable estimates have come from Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, an Iowa market consulting firm. Meyer predicts the overall impact of PED has the realistic potential to fall in the range of about 4 million pigs over the last seven months. He reports that industry observers now believe roughly 1.5 million sows are now infected. Using some estimates based on anecdotal evidence, about 2.7 pigs will be lost for every sow on the infected farms, leading to his 4 million head loss over seven months. That decrease in supply of pigs has led at least one of the large pork integrators to hold the pigs it does have to heavier weights before selling them, in order to try to make up for losses in numbers of pigs with higher poundage of pork. He believes it is also contributing to record high market prices for young pigs to feed to harvest weights. Where the losses will stop is the great unknown at this point. "The consensus at a major pork producer meeting was that the disease may not stop until it has infected the entire U.S. herd," Meyer writes. The question then remains how long it will take before sow herds beging to build sufficient natural immunity to the disease in order to prevent any greater nationwide losses.
  • But even if the worst estimates are true, it's important to keep in mind they so far would not eclipse normal, market-driven swings in supply from year to year that can easily run in the 1.5 percent to 3 percent range. The old rule-of-thumb was that for each 1 percent drop in supply, price (for live hogs) should rise about 3 percent. So although the exact price impact remains to be seen, it's obvious losses would have to be substantially larger than they probably are at this point in order to make for devastating increases in pork price. Meyer does believe an anticipated reduction in supply of young pigs is now buying bid into their market price. However, his loss estimates are likely to be at least partially offset by herd expansion, as farmers begin increasing their inventory of breeding animals to take advantage of expected decreases in feed costs next year. Bottom line: Some price impact will be felt, but it's likely to be minimal at the wholesale level.
  • American pork farmers are no stranger to new and even exotic diseases like PED that eat into their supply of marketable animals, and history has yet to witness a significant pork shortage related to them. When the last "mystery disease" jumped borders to infect the U.S. pig herd in the late 1980s, it went on to become endemic in the nation's herd and to this day still costs the average pig farmer an estimated $115 in lost productivity annually for every female the farm breeds. That disease has been estimated to cost U.S. farmers nearly 10 million pigs and 2.5 billion pounds of lost pork every year. That supply loss has no doubt led to some increase in pork prices over the last three decades, yet wholesale pork has remained affordable over that frame in comparison to other meats.
  • It's likely that although the PED can be devastating to individual farms, on the larger scale it likely is a relatively "containable" disease. Today's farms use numerous methods to prevent diseases like PED from entering their farms and to contain them should they do so. Any disease like PED would face a difficult time turning into a widespread epidemic on today's modern farms. Those methods include:
    • Controlling entry of people, supplies, feed ingredients, food items, and anything else that could carry infective disease.
    • Thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting anything coming onto the farm.
    • Requiring visitors to prove they have not been on another farm or near other hogs for a specific period of time.
    • Taking care when disposing of dead stock to prevent disease spread.
    • Isolating and quarantining newly arriving animals and testing them for diseases that could infect the farm.
    • Requiring visitors and workers to shower and to change boots and clothes every time they enter barns.

Competitive Commodity Insights: About that 'Turkey Shortage' You've Been Reading about

Relax. USDA says there's plenty of turkey.

"Butterball's Turkey Shortage Might Ruin Your Thanksgiving," the Huffington Post breathlessly warned online readers a couple of weeks ago. The story, apparently spurred by a press release from a small New England grocery chain, made the Internet rounds, claiming that Butterball, with a 20 percent share of the U.S. turkey market, had halved its nationwide shipments of fresh turkeys bigger than 16 pounds because of production issues that had delayed their growth.

The National Turkey Federation cautioned against panic, noting that all but 20 percent of U.S. turkey sales are frozen, not fresh. Even Butterball said fresh turkey accounts for only about 15 percent of its stock. So what's the real turkey supply situation?

USDA reports turkey meat production in third-quarter 2013 was down 2.7 percent from a year earlier, at 1.44 billion pounds. The decrease in turkey production was due to a lower number of turkeys slaughtered--down 5 percent from a year ago--as average liveweights at slaughter were actually higher. This is the fourth quarter in a row where the number of birds slaughtered has been lower than in the same quarter a year earlier; however, the drop in the number of birds slaughtered was partially offset by gains in the average liveweight at slaughter to 29.9 pounds, 2.5 percent higher than a year earlier.

Turkey meat production in fourth-quarter 2013 is forecast at 1.48 billion pounds, 4 percent lower than a year earlier. Again most of this decrease is expected to come from a smaller number of turkeys slaughtered, with only a small gain in average liveweight at slaughter. Turkey meat production in 2014 is forecast to be 6 billion pounds, which would be an increase of 1.7 percent from the previous year. Production is expected to begin to expand in the second half of the year as turkey processors determine that falling feed costs more than offset lower prices and strong competition from the broiler industry in both the domestic and export markets.

Yet even with lower turkey meat production over the second and third quarters of this year, overall turkey stocks have remained above the previous year throughout 2013. Cold storage holdings of turkey products at the end of September were 542 million pounds, 4 percent higher than a year earlier. Stocks of turkey products totaled 216 million pounds at the end of the third quarter, almost identical to the previous year. The fact that stocks of turkey products are about even with the previous year is due partly to the lower overall turkey production and partly to continued relatively strong turkey product exports. For 2014, the quarterly ending stocks forecasts are expected to be slightly higher throughout the year. With higher stocks of whole birds, there has been downward pressure on whole turkey prices. Prices for whole frozen hen turkeys at the wholesale level averaged $1 per pound in third-quarter 2013, down from $1.08 per pound in third-quarter 2012. Whole frozen hen prices are expected to average $1.01-$1.05 per pound in fourth-quarter 2013, down about 3 cents from the $1.06 per pound average in fourth-quarter 2012. The quarterly price forecasts for frozen whole hens in 2014 are expected to be very-close-to-slightly-lower than the levels seen in 2013.

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