Ranchers grapple with COVID-19 aftershocks

OKEECHOBEE — Although the state of Florida is now going through the first phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s reopening plan, cattle ranchers in Okeechobee are still dealing with the aftershocks of COVID-19.

The supply chain between ranchers and processors has been strained by the changing marketplace caused by COVID-19. Processors had to adjust from less demand from restaurants, hotels and cruise lines to more in grocery stores.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/
This graph produced by the USDA shows the sharp decline in federally inspected beef production beginning in April.

Another factor affecting processing speed is packing plants either shutting down or having to reduce their workforces to adhere to COVID-19 sanitation standards.

“Local ranchers are facing some challenges,” said Lauren Butler, Okeechobee County Extension director with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “The slower supply chain has caused the ranchers to receive a reduced price on their calves as they sell in the local market. Larger ranchers that sell their calves in lots are also receiving lower prices than normal.”

Mrs. Butler reported some of those same concerns during an Okeechobee County Commission meeting last month.

“Some of the plants out there have started shutting down because of the virus,” Mrs. Butler explained. “Either they have to sanitize the locations or they need to keep the social distancing, so that is really slowing down their processes. And some have to shut down completely. There are some really big processors that are impacting our meat production right now.”

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) documented that drop in beef production in a report released on April 30.

According to the data released by the USDA, beef production in the first quarter of 2020 was initially up and had actually set a first-quarter record. Even as retail demand for beef increased in late March as consumers prepared to shelter in place, the USDA reported that beef held in cold storage at the end of March 2020 was 11 percent above last year and 2 percent above the previous month.

However, after hitting its peak in late March, federally inspected beef production fell almost 32 percent through the week ending on April 25 as the rate of cattle slaughter declined at several beef packing facilities.

“The slowdown in cattle slaughter limited beef production at these facilities where operations temporarily closed or shifts were reduced due to labor force absences caused by the spread of COVID-19,” the report released by the USDA stated. “At a time when cattle slaughter numbers increase seasonally, cattle slaughter rates for the week ending April 25 were down 28 percent year-over-year.”

With ranchers receiving lower prices than normal, while some consumers find themselves paying more for meat, some have called for a ban on imports of foreign beef. But Florida Cattleman’s Association (FCA) President Matt Pearce threw cold water on the idea that trade is hurting the cattle business.

“Healthy trade adds $100 to a calf coming out of Okeechobee,” Mr. Pearce said. “So for the summer calves that I’ll sell this year, I’ll lose $100 per head if we stop all trade. We don’t want that as producers. Let the markets work and let products go where they’re most valuable. We import products that we find value in and export products that other folks find value in such as tongue, liver other value cuts. And in that process we get a financial windfall of $2 billion.”

“We’ve been through hard times before,” said Mr. Pearce, “whether it be hurricanes, floods, droughts or a downturn in the economy. We’ve been through it and we’ve come out of it. And we will do it again. Adversity breeds character. So we’re going to do things a little different; we’ll take some risk management. What I challenge my fellow cattlemen to do today is to come together. Let’s all come together and come out of this as one.”

The FCA has created a list of ranchers who are selling beef directly to consumers in the state in response to the crisis and slowdown in meat production. The list can be found at floridacattlemen.org/resources/buy-florida-beef/. Trinity Ranch Custom Beef in Okeechobee is among the nearly 40 ranchers on the list. They can be reached by phone at 863-634-7366 and 561-267-2660.

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