Meat sales boom, cattle prices drop hurting local ranchers

USDA investigating pricing in cattle industry
Posted at 5:22 AM, Apr 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-14 20:27:18-04

YODER, COLO. — The novel coronavirus outbreak is having an impact on all of us. News5 has learned cattle ranches are facing some of the toughest times of their lives.

Out on the eastern plains, ranchers say despite meat sales booming in grocery stores, cattle prices are tanking at a point in time when they can’t afford to come up short.

Russell Freeman's family has run a cattle ranch near Yoder for generations, but now they face some of the biggest challenges they've experienced in 120 years on the ranch.

"Cattle prices are down and continuing to nosedive and that's problematic," said Freeman.

Even with the social distancing ease in this rural part of the state, the economic impact of COVID-19 is a real danger.

"If the cows don’t make enough check there's no supplemental deal," said Freeman. "It's either it works or it doesn't work and you can cut back so far but eventually you got to quit."

Freeman say cattle prices are down 35% since the start of COVID-19 shutdowns. The confusing part is, this comes at a time when meat sales are booming. The National Grocers Association says they are up 91%. Research shows ground beef sales alone were up $180 million from last year for the week of March 22.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it will be investigating price fixing allegations within the cattle industry.

“It don’t add up," said Freeman. "There's a big gap where somebody is making a pile of money in the middle."

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) says it's important to get some answers for the ranchers behind this vital part of our state's agricultural industry.

“Agriculture continues to be one of the foundational economic pillars of Colorado and we need to make sure that it's secure that it's strong," said Gardner.

Ranchers say right now they are handcuffed by extended restaurant closures and regulations that restrict local beef producers from selling cuts of meat directly to Colorado consumers. State lawmakers in Wyoming removed those restrictions. Freeman says Colorado should do the same.

"So if you're you're buying a quarter beef it’s about $800. There's not many walking around with $800 cash right now," said Freeman. "So, if if that little bit of red tape could be averted I’d go through the pain and suffering of divvying-up stakes because that's another way I can market it."

If you can afford it, both Freeman and Gardner say finding ways to buy beef from a local cattle ranch is a great option to help them through. In the meantime, Gardner says all lawmakers should be taking a closer look at ways to slash the red tape holding them back.

“We should eliminate some of that red tape because it would result in more local food consumption and in the ability of a farm or ranch to sustain themselves because of that new market and not have to be beholden to a middleman that is getting the premium while the farmer, ranched gets by with very little," said Gardner.

While the future for business out in the pasture hangs in the balance, Freeman says there's still a chance the economy could rally in a big way.

Generally between Memorial Day and 4th of July, that's when the biggest portion of Americans are eating burgers and cow prices go up because you've got to grind all this beef," said Freeman. "If that happens and cows can help us get out money back and make our payments and pay our feed and do all the things I think it'll be alright. But it’s one of those things if it continues in this direction I think that's the concern for everyone."

Cattle ranchers hope generating support from their neighbors can help them push through these difficult times and they hope raising awareness about their struggles can lead to change to help their families produce quality food for another 100 years.