The cattle market surprised many in November by not only holding its own but actually moving upward. Choice Slaughter steers in the Amarillo feedlot area ended the month at $71/cwt.

Feeder cattle and calves also held up well but showed more price volatility during the middle of the month. Heavier weight feeders were again very scarce in the Amarillo area and price quotations on these kinds were difficult to obtain.

Cattle and calves on feed for the U.S. slaughter market in feedlots with capacities of 1,000 head or more totaled 11.46 million head on Nov. 1. This is 6% above 1998 and 4% larger than November 1997.

States with the most substantial percentage increases in on-feed numbers were Washington, Idaho, Iowa, Arizona and Nebraska. The major cattle feeding state - Texas - was up only 4%; and Kansas with the largest absolute increase - 130,000 head - had 6% more.

Fed cattle marketings in October totaled 1.82 million head, 3% above a year ago. Largest percentage gains were reported in Idaho, Iowa, Colorado and Washington. Ironically, Texas marketings were actually 9% lower, probably explaining some of the October price strength in that state.

October feedlot placements reached 3.09 million head, up 9% from a year earlier. This substantial rise in numbers placed on feed was even more spectacular when viewed by states. For example, Arizona increased placements 78%, South Dakota 32%, Oklahoma 19% and Nebraska 15%. In contrast, Texas - with the largest number of placements at 810,000 head - was up only 8%.

Even more unusual in the cattle feeding data was the shift in weight groups in cattle and calves placed on feed. During October, the lightest calves - weighing less than 600 lbs. - were up 32%. The 600- to 699-lb. class was up 23% from a year ago. The heaviest feeders, those weighing 800 lbs. or more, were actually down 46%. That means 59% of all the cattle and calves placed on feed during October were below 700 lbs. In contrast, the year-ago figure was only 50%.

The Year In Review Year 1999 provided an exceptionally good market for both cattle feeders and cow/calf producers. Fed cattle prices jumped above and below year ago levels in the first half of the year and then really skyrocketed in the second half.

Feeder cattle moved above the 1998 levels by midyear and continued to improve. Unfortunately, viewing only averages does not provide us with a full picture of the price variations that may have existed during the year.

While our tabular data of the cattle market usually offers quarterly price quotations, the actual market prices during the past year show considerably more variation. For example, our quarterly price averages for Amarillo Choice fed steers ran from $63.11/cwt. to $69.64/cwt., showing about a $6.50/cwt. spread. Monthly price averages, however, ran from $61.46 to $70.28 - a good $8.80 range. Weekly prices displayed even a wider range of prices - from $60.99 to $71.00 - a $10 spread.

It now appears that the year, and the millennium, will end with a fairly strong cattle market. A slight weakness may develop during the final holiday weeks since some slaughtering plants will be closed.

Any price problems that might develop are not even anticipated until the latter part of the first quarter of 2000, and that may come because of the much larger placements of the last three months.

The feeder cattle and calf market could similarly show some late year weakness. In this case, however, it will probably come from a combination of things: some year-end selling, dry range conditions in the Plains states and maybe even some Y2K fears. As we move deeper into the new year, feeder prices will probably again make ranchers smile.