Wholesale Beef Costs Rose as Cattle Prices Dropped During Supply-Chain Disruptions in 2020

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic caused significant disruption to U.S. meat supply chains in the spring and summer of 2020, according to a recent USDA, Economic Research Service report. In the early months of the pandemic, COVID-19 infections caused worker absences at beef packing plants, leading to a slowdown in slaughter rates and even some temporary plant shutdowns. From mid-April to mid-June 2020, the decrease in slaughter rates—combined with a surge in retail demand—drove a historically wide gap between wholesale meat and livestock prices. Wholesale beef prices rose, while cattle prices remained low. The price changes affected the entire supply chain. Cattle producers struggled with low prices for their market-ready animals and consumers paid more for beef at grocery stores.

In the first 3 months of 2020, weekly slaughter rates of cattle were higher than in the corresponding periods of 2019. As beef-packing plants faced increasing COVID-related labor constraints, relative slaughter rates fell after the week ending March 28, 2020. Within 2 weeks, weekly slaughter had fallen below 2019 levels. The week ending May 2, 2020, marked a low point when slaughter was 65 percent of the same week in 2019. Slaughter rates subsequently began to recover. By early June 2020, slaughter levels for cattle were above 90 percent of 2019 levels and continued to rise. They remained at near-2019 levels for most of the rest of 2020.

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