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CME: US Imports Measurable Amounts of Beef in CY19

11 February 2020

US - In calendar year 2019, the US imported measurable amounts of beef from 18 countries, based on summarising the monthly data provided by USDA’s Economic Research Service, according to Steiner Consulting Group, DLR Division, Inc.

The biggest source was Canada, rounding-out the top four were Australia, Mexico, and New Zealand. In order, the next three largest sources on a tonnage basis were Nicaragua, Brazil, and Uruguay. The bulk of the imported tonnage is lean beef used for manufacturing purposes (e.g., pizza topping) and hamburger. The exceptions are Canada and Mexico, which export relatively more beef cuts.

As a percentage of US production, beef imported tonnage in 2019 was 11.2 percent. Note that we are calculating beef and NOT beef plus variety meats. For the next two years, the Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC) forecasts declines in that percentage compared to 2019’s level. How much of a decline? That depends on several interacting factors.

First, will be prices of 90 percent lean beef product in the US, of which two keys will be the level of US cull cow slaughter (i.e., how much it declines compared to the huge levels of 2019) and the growth rate of the domestic economy. Besides high prices, the US can become a more attractive market to foreign firms if the value of the US dollar increases, which could happen in 2020.

Second, will be demand from China for beef from around the world. Of course, that is clouded by Chinese issues in their pork sector (i.e., African Swine Fever), their slowing economic growth rate, and for the next few months a range of issues in the face of Novel coronavirus. China has been buying increasing amounts of beef from the US, but more importantly, from the rest of the world, including the major exporters to the US.

Third, is how forage, crop, and economic conditions unfold during the next few months in Australia. Australia has been in a multi-year drought, there were significant rains finally in January and early February, but recovery of grasslands and rebuilding cowherds is a multi-year journey.

Recent reports from Australia provide useful insights. The first 2020 industry projection report by Meat and Lamb Australia (MLA) was released on their cattle/beef sector (the full report is here). In 2020, the cattle herd is expected to be the smallest since 1992. MLA currently forecasts that adult cattle slaughter in 2002 will shrink by 15 percent year-over-year to 7.2 million animals.

Beef tonnage exported is forecast to decline by 16 percent compared to 2019’s. Their major premise is regarding weather: "Close to average seasonal conditions have been assumed for the majority of Australia’s cattle-producing regions until April 2020, with the assumption of a return to average seasonal conditions for the remainder of the projections period."

That looks reasonable given January’s precipitation and based on the fact (per reports by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences) that the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) has dissipated. When positive, the IOD (which is often referred to as the Indian Nino) is associated with Australian droughts.

MLA forecasts that the Australian herd will continue to decline through June 2020, primarily due to the scale of breeding animal destocking that occurred during the second half of 2019. Their current forecast is for cattle slaughter to bottom in 2021.

Although there are caveats, MLA concluded their prices discussion with "Given the aforementioned influences, especially the assumed improved seasonal conditions, historically high (if not record) cattle prices will likely be reached and maintained in the next few years."

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