‘Hard to fathom numbers’: Beef farmers see prices plummet amid pandemic

Local farmers point to processing plants shutting down and reducing staff as reason for beef backup.
Beef prices low
Beef farmers in Wisconsin and the nation are seeing prices slip because of a lack of processing resources during COVID-19 crisis.

La Crosse, Wis. (WKBT) – Some farmers are dumping milk down the drain and beef farmers are seeing their dollars flushed as well. Two beef experts say demand is great, but there are fewer resources to get the product to the kitchen table.

“How long will it take us to work through this and get back out of it?” said Bill Halfman, an agricultural agent, from the Monroe County Extension.

This question is on everyone’s mind. The harmful side effect of a pandemic is felt in every person’s wallet.

“It’s not good and it’s not just the livestock producers, dairy,” Halfman said. “A lot of things have changed.”

The pocketbook of the farmer is feeling especially light.

“You see a 30-35 percent reduction in a two week period of what the animals are worth as far as the future markets go,” said Matt Ludlow, president of the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association. “You can’t stomach that.”

Farmers are also affected by lower corn prices due to decreased demand for ethanol. Ludlow said farmers are dumping milk down the drain. He is watching his cattle farm’s money flow down a different pipe.

“We’re out there every day,” he said. “We are still raising cattle.”

Demand he said is not the problem. The processing plants that turn the meat into usable products are closed or reducing staff due to COVID-19.

“We have a supply chain issue where these packing plants have a lot of people who work in a facility at one time,” Ludlow said.

His farm is witnessing the consequences.

“We have some cattle on feed actually right now that need to go to market,” he said. “We can’t get them sold.”

This will result in $13.6 billion dollars lost nationwide, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

“Astronomical numbers,” Ludlow said. “Hard to fathom numbers.”

Halfman said the dairy industry is trying temporary fixes.

“Some of the creameries have worked with their producers to try to reduce milk production for a while,” Halfman said.

He said cattle don’t have an expiration date but supplies are backed up which makes things uniquely challenging.

“It’s not as simple as flipping a light switch and we can go from one to the other,” Halfman said.

Relief is on the way. The USDA announced $19 billion in funding to help farmers last Friday.

Ludlow and Halfman have known life on the farm all of their lives. This pandemic is a whole new learning curve for them.

“[We] hope to never again,” Ludlow said.

He said he hopes their resilient industry will find a way to fix this issue, just in case.

“Some people are going to go broke in this deal,” he said. “There’s no way around that. It’s unfortunate but I think it will be a learning experience on the backside.”