By Evelyn Pyburn

The US Department of Justice is taking the concerns about distorted cattle prices seriously, and an investigation is underway, according to the President of Montana Stockgrowers  Association, Fred Wacker. Wacker in discussing Montana’s beef market with the Yellowstone County News, said he has had recent contact with the Department of Justice, and while he is confident that the matter is being pursued he is not authorized to discuss details.

In an interview, Wacker not only commented on the status of the investigation, but explained the status of the cattle market in Montana and how it has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis – a very important issue to Montana since the cattle industry is the state’s largest industry, according to Wacker. When the cattle market struggles, the state struggles.

Hopefully, the worst of the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the industry is over, according to local cattle buyer, Brian Okragly, Billings, who reported that the number of cattle being slaughtered weekly, is once again on the rise, after plummeting with the closure of the packing plants. Beef prices, too, are coming back into alignment, he said, in an interview with Yellowstone County News.

Okragly is a licensed and bonded cattle dealer, who has spent the past 27 years buying and selling feeder calves, yearlings and finished cattle.

Besides his leadership role in the Montana Stockgrowers Assoc., Wacker raises black and red Angus cattle in the Miles City area on the Cross Four Ranch. His cattle are non-hormone and non-antibiotic grown to serve outlets such as Whole Foods. Much of what he raises is sold to Europe, Japan and China.

“We raise cows and calves!” he stated. And, Montana raises the best cattle. “They are sought after,” said Wacker, “Buyers drive through four and five states to get them”

Montana’s Attorney General Tim Fox, along with AGs from 21 other states sent a letter in early May to US Attorney General William Barr, to request an antitrust investigation of the beef processing industry to determine if the packing companies have entered into agreements that thwart competitive bidding. The beef packing business in the US is dominated by four major companies.

Puzzling everyone was why cattle prices were so low for ranchers but are at record high levels at the grocery counters. In simple terms, as explained by Wacker, “We are getting $1.90 pound, but the packer is getting $4.65 per pound. ..We feel it is Ok for packers making $300, but when it is double and three times that; it is very excessive.”

The rancher typically hopes to make about $50 to $100 profit per head.

“We don’t think there is enough cattle being bartered,” Wacker said, “That’s what makes it a market.”

Another aspect of what’s happening in the cattle market is the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, which have created shortages in the retail beef supply, which are alarming consumers. Besides meat prices in the grocery stores being at all -time highs, the shelves are often empty, and signs are commonly posted limiting the amount of meat the customer can buy.

To some extent the shortages reflect deeper problems within the industry. Beef packing plant closures have squeezed narrow supply lines and unveiled weaknesses of the highly regulated and concentrated beef industry.

It’s not just beef that has been impacted by plant closures. The coronavirus caused the closure of chicken and pork meatpackers and other food processing plants, as an estimated 12,000 plant workers tested positive for the disease and 48 workers died. Other workers went on strike, concerned about working conditions.

As of April 28, according to Bloomberg, processing plant shutdowns wiped out a quarter of the nation’s pork-processing capability and 10% of that for beef.

As the plants closed so did the processing of fat cattle – animals ready for slaughter and distribution to grocery stores and restaurants.

Before the COVID-19 virus hit, the industry was experiencing record kills nationwide of about 650,000 a week, according to Okragly. “We were looking really good,” he said, “The futures market looked good.” As COVID-19 hit workers and forced plant closures, the slaughter number dropped 200,000 animals a week – down to 450,000, and the futures market dropped 25 to 30 percent.

The reduction in the number of animals being processed, began a backlog of fat cattle and then of feeder calves, and on down the supply chain to the ranchers’ rangeland.

Not liking the prices they were being offered ranchers began deferring sales. There were reports that some producers – of cattle, pigs and chickens —  were having to euthanize animals because of no ability to place them, or feed to feed them.

With most packing plants now open and kill numbers coming back to 600,000—“almost at full capacity,” things seem to be improving, but “We are going to have backlog down the road. What that will do to feeder cattle this fall is uncertain,” said Okragly.

In addition, the carcass weight of the back-logged cattle will be heavier, by about 48 pounds per head – “that’s a lot of tonnage on the market.”

The heavier carcasses and backlog will play together and cause a build-up of numbers,” he continued. How that will work itself out with the resumption of normal supplies, “is hard to tell.” The industry has never experienced anything like this. “There is no play book for what lies ahead.”

One positive of the situation is the grain and corn prices are low, which Okragly hopes remain low. “We need to market the beef and hope and pray for a big beef demand, domestically,” said Okragly. Even at that, Okragly said he expects a market lower than it was last year at the same time – but he added predicting the cattle market is like predicting the weather.

Wacker explained that ninety percent of the calves raised in Montana are shipped to “mid-west feedlot states.” Weighing 500-600 pounds the calves are fattened to about 1400 pounds and then sold to one of the four major packing companies.

About 15 percent – around 300,000 head — of Montana calves are retained by growers who “winter” them and then sell them in the spring as “yearlings” that weigh about 950 to 1500 pounds to be “finished” in Montana feed lots.

There are no major packing plants in the state. Wacker said that he wished there were.  “I would love to see more [cattle] stay in Montana. , I would love to see more competition.  I’d like to see feed lots and a nice processing plant,” he said, “It would be a great growth thing for the state.”


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