Kitchen & Cooking

Why Fatter Cows Could Mean Lower Beef Prices

Is there such a thing as too much beef?

By clicking one of our links you're supporting our labs and our independence, as we may earn a small share of revenue. Recommendations are separate from any business incentives.

According to USDA data, American cattle are the fattest they’ve ever been. But don’t worry—it's not a sign that the obesity epidemic has spread to cows.

Instead, it's a byproduct of supply-and-demand economics. Feedlot owners are keeping their cattle alive longer than normal (up to 60 extra days) before shipping them off for slaughter. The cattle gain about four pounds per day in the feedlots, so the bulk adds up quickly. As a result, the average cattle this year weighed 1,390 pounds, up 2.6% from 2014. But why are we fattening up our cows?

Simple: The beef bubble may be about to burst.

Beef prices have risen steadily over the past few years. In 2012, for the first time in history, we ate more chicken than cow. A month ago, medical researchers linked beef (and other meats) with cancer. With high prices and health concerns in the news, perhaps it's no surprise that demand for beef has gone down.

Ranch and feedlot owners are getting paid less per animal, to the point that it makes more economic sense to keep the animals alive longer and let them grow heavier. It’s cheaper to feed them low-cost grain and corn for 60 days than sell them to a processing plant (often at a loss) and wait for a new herd to mature.

So will the price of burgers be coming down? Time seems to think so, and it makes sense. It’s simple economics: High supply and low demand will drive down the price of any commodity.

Will that bring beef back to the American dinner table? When the price for a pound of sirloin becomes reasonable again, it’s not a stretch to think American beef consumption will once again outstrip poultry. Sorry, chicken farmers.