News Column

Livestock Prices Hitting Record Highs in Lewis County

August 9, 2014

By Christopher Brewer, The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash.

Aug. 09--With a cacophony of whoops and a smattering of raised hands, ranchers attending Friday's auction at Chehalis Livestock Market took their turns in a spirited bidding process for feeder cattle.

Back and forth prospective buyers went as Joe Parypa moderated the action on the microphone as employees herded, quickly rattling off prices as bidders signal their intent to buy: two dollars, thirty-five cents -- then 36, 37, 38, 38.5, 39, and SOLD for $2.40 per pound.

Cattle are commanding a high price these days in Washington, and Lewis County ranchers report a noticeable boom in the overall livestock market. Organizers of the weekly auction at Chehalis Livestock Market said they have never seen prices for cattle as a whole so high.

"We've never sold cattle for this much money, ever," said Brenda Balmelli, whose husband Dave co-owns the market. "It's unprecedented for us."

At Friday's auction, several feeder cattle sold for as high as $2.40 per pound, with dairy cattle ranging from the low $1,000 to low $2,000 range depending on weight.

Several who keep tabs on the market statewide and nationwide said a variety of conditions are factoring into the market boom. Jerry Owens, vice president of the Lewis County Farm Bureau, said numbers of cattle are down across the nation overall.

"We're fortunate compared to the Midwest and the South. The number of cattle across the nation are down due to a lot of loss," Owens said. "We've seen an increase in numbers in price per pound and price per head."

The United States Department of Agriculture'sNational Agricultural Statistics Service conducts a census of farms every five years. From 2007 to 2012, Lewis County's total revenue generated from animals -- which includes sales of cattle and beef products, among other animals -- jumped $22 million. The USDA reported $81.2 million in total animal revenue for Lewis County in 2007, which rose to $103.3 million in 2012.

The local jump in animal revenue, much if not most of which involves cattle, is reflective of what's happening across the state of Washington in general, according to WSU Extension Director Gary Fredericks, who keeps close tabs on livestock and small farms in Cowlitz, Lewis and Pacific counties.

"Inventories are low in many areas and have continued to get lower and lower, and as people need cattle they'll go to where they need to go to get them," Fredericks said. "Say you've got a plant processing animals and you've got to keep that plant full. Prices are important but if you can't find cattle to keep your plant running, you go where they are."

Fredericks said it's possible more cattle buyers are coming from out of state for just that reason. Weather events in several states have played a big role in the numbers of cattle being down, with droughts in the Midwest over the past couple years and biting temperatures in the winter in states such as Montana and the Dakotas taking their toll on plant and animal populations.

Washington, however, has been insulated so far from many of the weather issues that have wreaked havoc in cattle markets elsewhere. Fredericks said the national inventory as a whole will take some time to get back up to normal levels.

"Livestock doesn't regenerate quite so quickly. Inventories are down nationally and will stay that way for awhile, but there's some question as to how long they're going to stay that way," Fredericks said.

Back at the auction house, Balmelli said she has seen more people from out of the area swing by for their Friday events.

"We're getting more from Oregon and we've recently had some come from up by the Canadian border," Balmelli said.

The Chehalis Livestock Market sells cattle for consigners, in turn receiving a commission on what they sell. The market sells three types of cattle: dairy cows, feeder cattle and cattle for slaughter, with each commanding its own price range.

The market boom, however, has had its effect on consumers in addition to ranchers. Higher prices for beef at the auction house transfer to people paying a premium in stores -- again, a byproduct of supply and demand.

"It's one of those things where the shoemaker's kids have no shoes," Balmelli laughed. "As a consumer, I've definitely noticed the prices going up."

Meanwhile, Fredericks said as long as America as a whole continues to consume beef in large quantities, the market should see stability through the coming months and years.

"Simply put, we are a nation of beef eaters," Fredericks said.

Christopher Brewer: (360) 807-8235


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Source: Chronicle, The (Centralia, WA)

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