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Its What’s For Dinner

Hamburger, it’s what’s for dinner! We hear that a lot these days, don’t we? Well, we are going to hear more about it, as hamburger has become the top beef product.

I’ve written about hamburger before in this column, but it just stays in the news. Hamburger is big news in the meat industry, and most likely, it has a large part in keeping prices up for cattle at the ranch – not only the yearling market but also, and more importantly, the cull cow market. It’s just out of sight – over one dollar per pound and some really fat cows bringing over $1,200. The days of loading cull cows up and heading to the auction are ending as we all look for better ways to put some weight on the cull cows and take advantage of the markets and timing of the markets.

With the drought in Australia, Mexico and New Zealand, beef for hamburger is getting hard to find, so a lot of good quality fed cattle end up as a source of hamburger, and that raises the price. The price difference between high-end cuts, such as steaks and hamburger, has narrowed, mostly because the price of hamburger has risen so high. 

At some point, if it keeps going up, it could hurt our beef industry. I’m hearing already that some fast food outlets are using only dairy cattle for their hamburger. With sexed semen these days, they can ensure that the dairy cows have a bull calf, unless they need replacement heifers. That bull calf turns into a feeder steer that takes a long time to feed to a finish weight of 1,800 pounds, and then it is slaughtered. 

As we read a while back, Don Close, a Rabo AgriFinance economist, told us how we are becoming a ground beef nation, and that is reason enough for the U.S. beef industry to take a serious look at whether or not it needs to tweak its production systems to more efficiently meet this consumer dynamic. 

He said, “Burgers, sauces and tacos are on the plates and in the drive-thrus of Americans, while at the same time, the U.S. cattle industry is operating within an infrastructure that pays a premium for high-performing cattle. This contradiction must change for beef to remain competitive with other proteins and for the industry to remain as efficient and profitable as possible. Early identification of end use and managing the choice/prime and select grade animals in a manner consistent with their best end use, is key to the U.S. cattle industry developing a long-term, sustainable future.” 

He goes on to say that between one-third and one-half of the beef animals should be raised primarily for ground beef, and the end use of cattle should be determined as early as possible, so animals can be directly managed toward the end goal. As a result, some of us would raise and feed cattle just for ground beef. 

I know I’m dating myself, but I remember times when I was a kid at the ranch where, if the cook ground up some beef for hamburger, that was a no-no. It was ok to cut it up in small pieces for stew or chili, but ground beef was looked down at. Times do change.