U.S. beef cattle exports slow, quality high

The U.S. is at its lowest number of beef cattle since 1951, reducing available exports. “Tremendous” trade volume continues with a neighboring country, while exports increase in others.

After a “phenomenal” 2022 in beef cattle exports, 2023 finished about 15% off, a downward trend Don Close, Terrain Ag senior research analytics officer, anticipates will continue.

Close recently spoke with Farm Press at CattleCon24 and the National Cattlemen’s Association Trade Show in Orlando.

As the U.S. is at its lowest number of beef cattle since 1951, Close expects exports to continue to slow. “As our supply contracts, we don’t have the product to export,” he said.

The strength of the U.S. dollar in 2023, in relationship to the currencies with which U.S. customers are buying, impacted exports and will also likely continue.

“Those two issues are going to be with us for the next several years,” Close said, noting China specifically. “There’s just so much volatility with China and pressures on that economy.”

For the last two years, China has reported a population decline. “I have heavy reservations that China will ever be the scale of customer that they got to be. I think Southeast Asia collectively still looks very bright. A lot of growth there,” he said.

Despite the export reduction, Close said the U.S. is on solid footing. “North America is absolutely in the catbird seat because we are the supplier of ultra-high-quality beef products to the world. I think that as we go on, we can further concrete that position.

“Australia’s feeding more of their slaughter supply than what they once did, up to 50% now. Brazil talks about concentrated feeding but isn’t making a lot of headway. Where I’m going with this is we have a lot of knockoff competitors and a lot of wannabes in the premium quality beef space, but the U.S. has such a lead, we’re in a good space.”

Increased beef exports

Regions where U.S. exports are increasing also include Central and South America. “While those countries are certainly smaller, we’re seeing growth in that business, and I think there’s additional opportunity there.”

Mexico continues to be a “wonderful partner,” for total U.S. protein exports, including pork, Close added. “We think that will stay the same and grow.

“Mexico is sending more product here than we’ve sent them, but when you add the total protein complex of pork and broilers, we are a huge net exporter of protein to Mexico.”

Growth continues in smaller countries such as South Korea and Taiwan.  “Japan is still a good partner, but as their population not only declines but ages, we’re not seeing the volume to Japan that we once did,” Close said. “But that relationship is solid.”

The EU is another story. “The EU, with the diminishing population and animal protein space, there’s nothing happening there.”

Close added that the demographic trends in Japan and the EU, and their impact on U.S. exports, will continue for the foreseeable future.

Mexico/Canada trade

Close anticipates that overall net changes will be seen in the nation’s North American partners of Mexico and Canada. “We’re seeing tremendous trade volumes with Mexico, particularly on pork,” he said. “We’re still sending a lot of high-quality product to Mexico.”

Regarding Canada, “We’re still a net importer of product and cattle. That will continue for a while. Canada is set up to be a supplier to the States; that’s not going to change.”

“I think trade, over time, will increase between the three partners.”

Cow/calf space

In 2024, those in the cow/calf space “are clearly going to be in the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future. That revenue stream back to that sector of the business is desperately needed,” Close said.

As a result, Close anticipates change coming to the cow/calf producer of the past.

“If you incorporate the average age of U.S. producers, being something on top of 60 years of age, when we look at that in context of the average U.S. cow herd, it bounces between 45 to 47 head. We see a new generation of producers replacing this retiring age. I think we’ll see fewer total operations, but those operations will be bigger,” Close said.

“The classic cow owner farmed and had some cows or had an off-farm job and ran some cows. The new players coming in will be full-time cow/calf producers and be of a scale to earn a household income.”