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Pasture conditions, cattle numbers affect beef prices

What is up with the price of roast beef? This used to be the poor man's Sunday dinner. Now it costs more than steak sometimes. Just because they call it Choice or Steakhouse or Select shouldn't make it more expensive! Any thoughts? 

— Linda S. via email

Well, Linda, there are two things that have driven up the price of beef: Low cattle inventories and one of the worst droughts on record in the western United States. With less available grazing pasture, ranchers are raising fewer beef cattle, increasing the cost at the market.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2014-2015 Food Price Report, beef and veal prices rose 0.8 percent from October to November 2014, and have risen 18.1 percent year-over-year.

"Pasture conditions have improved somewhat in the Southern Plains and Southwest but not significantly in the West," the report says. "In addition, improved crop yields allow cattle producers to feed cattle longer and to hold cattle for expansion. However, signs of herd expansion at this point are anecdotal at best. Many producers are holding on to their inventory to increase live weights, as steer and heifer prices have hit record highs."

As to the price of certain grades of beef, USDA Prime and Choice have always been more expensive than Select, which has the least marbling, so the low cattle inventory has only driven prices of those cuts higher.

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