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Light Weights, Heavy Impact

Weather and market conditions important to annual low carcass weights.

USDA carcass-weight data for the week beginning April 30 brought us closer to the anticipated 2018 low mark for fed steer and heifer carcass weights. It’s commonly understood that the youngest calf-fed, spring-born animals comprise much of the fed-cattle harvest in May. That pulls carcass weights down to their annual lows, as seasonal data have proven time and again.

Fig. 1: Steer carcass weights

steer Carcass Weights

In the past five years, the exact week marking that annual low has varied from early to late May and we have no certainty as to exact timing. The USDA report on actual carcass weight is always two weeks in arrears, but the first week of May’s estimated weights showed dressed weights still declining, down 6 pounds (lb.) on the week prior. The graph depicting Certified Angus Beef® (CAB®) brand carcass weights matches very closely with the USDA fed steer and heifer report, with CAB brand carcasses running just 4 lb. heavier than the average of all steers and heifers so far this year.

Fig. 2: CAB® carcass weight trend

CAB® Carcass weight trend

That disparity comes from the fact that the lightest carcasses often represent leaner cattle with fewer days on feed. Those carcasses would have two strikes against them in terms of probability of reaching the ever-important premium Choice marbling requirement needed to earn the CAB brand. Although CAB does lose some carcasses due to excess carcass weight above the 1,050-lb. limit, that’s not an important factor this time of year.

Two other features important to the rapid carcass-weight decline these past few weeks are weather and market conditions. The late-April storm hampered fed-cattle performance with results becoming evident in lighter finished weights in May, especially for contracted cattle that must be harvested on time.

Just as important, however, is the historically strong (record-wide) June basis (difference between futures and cash). With the June live cattle contract ranging near $105 per hundredweight (cwt.), last week’s $122-per-cwt. cash market gave cattle feeders a huge incentive to market cattle early to capture the premium that existed between the available cash price and the much lower price represented in the June contract. That made them very willing sellers and also quite profitable for cattle that fit the timing of this marketing scenario, cattle just barely finished enough to market to packers hungry to build carcass numbers in May. A scenario much the same played out last year at this time.

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Editor’s Note: Paul Dykstra is a beef cattle specialist with CAB. Read more of Dykstra’s biweekly comments in the CAB Insider at






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