Beef from foreign-born cattle has bigger impact than expected

Sep 28, 2012

A recent study out of US- DA’s Economic Research Service suggests the proportion of U.S. beef coming from foreign-born cattle is larger than originally anticipated. While Canada and Mexico are well-recognized as important players in the U.S.

beef world, both as a source of feeder cattle and as a destination for U.S. beef exports, just how large their impact on domestic beef supply is was a surprise.

Researchers Michael McConnell, Kenneth Mathews Jr., Rachel Johnson and Keithly Jones pointed out in their study that, while it is easy to identify how much imported beef comes into the country and from what sources, identifying how much meat processed in the U.S. came from foreign-born animals is rather difficult.

“While it is easy to track the amount of meat and the number of individual animals that enter the United States, there are few estimates for the amount of meat produced in the United States from animals which originated from outside the country. This requires quantifying the number of animals which are imported at each stage of the production process, projecting the production of that animal, and comparing it to the total domestic production.”

In this latter vein, the quartet developed a means of estimation utilizing import weight and age records, average daily gains for the respective types of cattle and feeding trends of their destinations, length of time on-feed in the U.S., as well as average slaughter weights recorded in the areas imported cattle typically wind up.

They found that cattle imported from Canada are typically slaughter-weight steers and heifers, with some cull cows and bulls for immediate slaughter, though this latter class of cattle was impacted by age-related import restrictions following Canada’s 2003 discovery of BSE.

Cattle brought in from Mexico, on the other hand, are generally very light feeder cattle bred and raised in the northern states of Mexico intended for feeding in the U.S. Mexican feeder cattle generally come in lighter, gain more slowly (particularly if they come in very light), and stay on feed longer than the Canadian imports.

After presenting their proposed method for estimating the beef-supply impact of imported cattle, the researchers concluded that beef from foreign-born cattle fed and slaughtered in the U.S. account for roughly 8 percent of the beef supply on monthly production. The reported range over the last couple decades (the available data reviewed for the study dated back to 1989 in most areas) was a low of 2.9 percent in June of 2003 just following the BSE discovery in the Canadian herd and a high of 13.6 percent in February of 2006. The researchers also pointed out there are seasonal cycles to this, with foreign-born animals contributing more to U.S. monthly beef production in September than in any other month.

Researcher Kenneth Matthews told Brownfield the findings were surprising.

“We were, I guess, a little surprised that the amount of beef from foreign sources was as large a share of our total supplies as it was.”

Much of the influx of foreign-born cattle and their subsequent impact on the domestic beef supply is attributed to the integration of the cattle and beef industries among the three countries as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993. It is also projected to continue to increase in the future.

“Over the last decade, imports of meat into the United States and meat produced in the United States from foreign livestock have accounted for roughly 18 percent (beef) and 10 percent (pork) of US beef and pork supplies. Market integration between the NAFTA countries is expected to continue.”

At least in terms of imported beef, USDA estimates project the U.S. becoming a net importer of beef by volume in 2013. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor