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Tough winter leads to rising cattle, hog prices

MITCHELL, S.D. -- In a year filled with economic turmoil, cattle and hog prices are rising thanks to an unusually tough winter.

"There's less supply and more demand than a year ago," said Mitchell Livestock Auction partner Marion Rus. "Export demand is also better than a year ago, and imports into this country of meat are also down."

Rus estimates prices rose $10 to $12 per hundredweight since early March in the market for fat cattle -- or cattle ready for slaughter. Feeder cattle -- cattle old enough to ship to feedlots -- averaged $10 to $15 more per hundredweight in the same period.

Hog prices jumped by a similar margin. Rus said butcher hogs spent a lot of time in the low $40 range in 2009, but now they're in the mid-$50 range.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture preliminary price report for April shows that in South Dakota, the "all cattle" price was $105 per hundredweight, up from $97.60 per hundredweight in March and $92.70 per hundredweight in April 2009.

April hog prices were $55.40 per hundredweight, up from $44.80 a year earlier.

Both Rus, as well as Cody Volmer, of Presho, S.D., Livestock Auction, said that cattle weights are generally lower in 2010 than 2009. Both said the winter was hard on cattle, and less beef came to market. Rus said weights are down 25 to 30 pounds per animal, due mostly to the tough winter.

"Cattle just didn't gain as well," he said.

Scott Jones, of Midland, S.D., a member of the state Cattlemen's Association, said higher prices are a just compensation for what it cost cattlemen to get their livestock through the winter.

"We fed our cattle a mountain of hay from mid-December to March, so all our expenses are that much higher," he said.

Jones said that calves, as well as yearling cattle with weights of 400 to 600 pounds, are doing especially well at market this year, and good early grazing has helped weight gains.

Jones also said that the long-term culling of herds by producers that began with past drought years is also beginning to have an effect.

"We're still producing a lot of beef with fewer cows, but I think that maybe the handwriting's on the wall that there's going to be a short supply some time in the future," he said.

Rus believes the upward price trend for livestock will continue, "at least for the next year or two."

"I think people have more confidence in the economy," he said. "It's good times for livestock people."

Ross Dolan is a reporter a The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.