Derrell S. Peel -- Oklahoma State University
With Mother’s Day behind us, attention now shifts to Memorial Day and the kickoff of summer grilling season. The last year has been characterized by exceptionally strong beef demand that began about a year ago. It appears this demand was driven by post-pandemic pent-up demand combined with surging beef exports. Boxed beef prices have come down from this period of extremely strong demand and adjusted down from a counter-seasonal January peak to current levels, 11.2 percent lower compared to the last week of January. In the last three weeks, Choice boxed beef values have dropped below year ago levels, which were surging higher at this time in 2021 (see figure below). Beef demand is not likely to repeat last year’s levels, but current levels are still relatively high compared to recent years. Comparisons to last year will look weaker for boxed beef and many wholesale cut values but that is not really a valid comparison to judge beef demand in 2022.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about beef demand going forward. Beef prices are near record levels and consumers will face tightening discretionary income as cash reserves and savings are depleted along with reduced purchasing power due to inflation. However, all proteins are higher priced and the ratio of retail beef price to retail broiler chicken and pork prices is actually lower now compared to six months ago. Still, we watch for indications that consumers are “trading down” the from the most expensive beef cuts to cheaper value cuts.
Across a range of wholesale beef cuts, there are mixed signals. There are growing indications in the past couple of weeks of some weakness in beef demand. Wholesale ribeye prices have decreased the past four weeks at a time when they are typically increasing seasonally. Conversely, beef tenderloin prices increased strongly ahead of Mother’s Day. Tenderloin prices declined the first week of May and typically drop a bit into the summer as steakhouse traffic slows when folks are outside and doing more grilling. Wholesale brisket prices have adjusted down the past three months from the exceptional levels of the previous year, holding generally steady heading into summer. The increasingly popular beef tri-tip has maintained strong prices so far this year and is increasing seasonally, though nowhere nearly as strong of an increase as this time last year.
A bellwether indicator of summer grilling demand is strip loin prices, which typically and reliably increase seasonally going into summer. So far this year, strip loin prices have increased only modestly and have actually weakened since mid-April. This may indicate some demand weakness and bears watching in the coming weeks. Relative weakness in some chuck product prices may be related to slower growth in export demand. The ground beef market continues very strong due to fundamental demand.
In general, while there are some red flags, there is no broad-based indications of weaker beef demand and consumers trading down from high value beef products. A sunny, warm Memorial Day weekend may provide a better indication of beef demand for the summer.