A shortage of beef blamed on the worst drought in a half century will likely mean higher prices at the supermarket checkout across eastern New Mexico.
Experts predict at least a 10 percent hike in retail beef prices during the year. That's because nationwide, cattle numbers are at their lowest since 1952, according to Roosevelt County Ag Agent Patrick Kircher.
The USDA reports that as of January, the total of all cattle and calves in the U.S. was 89.3 million head, 2 percent below the same period a year ago and the lowest inventory in 60 years. With no relief from the drought being predicted soon, USDA forecasters see beef herds getting even smaller.
Locally, beef ranchers such as Frank Blackburn of Clovis have trimmed their herds by almost half because of the drought. Where once more than 2,000 head grazed, Blackburn estimates this year's herd at around 1,200 cows.
"If you own cows, you just got to have grass," said Blackburn, who is also a Curry County commissioner.
Blackburn said without rain, as has been the case the last two years across most of the Southwest, there's no grass. In Blackburn's case, he used to graze beef on dryland wheat.
"I have no dryland wheat pasture at all," said Blackburn. "There just is no dryland wheat anywhere with this drought and it's been pretty well like that the last two years."
Without moisture to nourish forage for cattle, beef ranchers like Blackburn have had to turn to the more expensive alternative of feeding grain and hay. But once again, because of the drought that grips the Southwest and crippled much of the nation's midsection last year, feed is scarce and expensive — almost double the price it was just a year ago in some cases.
Corn that sold for $250 a ton now fetches about $307. A protein supplement many ranchers use, DDG, that sold for $150 a ton last year now sells for $300 a ton.
"Feed ... it's just not available," said Blackburn, "and if you can find it, you can't afford it."
Or as Kircher says, "When you sit down and do the math ... you can't stand cattle up and feed them out of a sack. It won't work." Even, Kircher and Blackburn said, considering higher prices for beef at the wholesale level can't make up for the phenomenal increases in feed.
"If you've got nothing to feed them," said Kircher, "even though the (wholesale) price is really enticing, with no feed you just can't afford to do it."
All of these conditions translate into higher prices for beef at the consumer end.
"There's a finite point," said Kircher, "where the consumer will no longer choose beef if the price goes too high."
And those are the kind of words no one likes to hear in cattle country.
"I hate to say that," said Blackburn. "I'm a producer. But that's what's going to happen."