Data is the driver that helps the beef industry deliver high quality beef to consumers in a timely manner. From pasture to plate, from EPDs to shear force tests, data allow every sector to make continuous improvements in the production, marketing and processing of live cattle, and selling of beef at home and abroad.
Market analysts use data to make prognoses about the state of the market and forecasts on everything from feeder cattle supplies to whether cattle or wholesale beef prices will go up or down. All this helps producers determine when to sell their cattle. The data also help the futures market set a price for live cattle well into the coming year.
It was a shock then to data watchers to read the following on April 28 on USDA Market News Service’s website concerning its weekly actual slaughter report; The slaughter data for this report is currently unavailable and it is not known when the issue will be resolved.”
The response from analysts was immediate. “This unprecedented and unanticipated lapse adds significantly to the struggle to understand cattle and beef markets,” wrote Oklahoma State University’s Derrell Peel. I agree. In one stroke, USDA failed to provide two of the most important pieces of weekly information about actual slaughter levels and carcass weights for steers, heifers and cows. Even worse, it gave no indication as to when its weekly report might resume. The only action worse than this would be if USDA suddenly stopped reporting boxed beef prices.
Weekly slaughter and carcass weight data have been a key data flow for many years, says Peel. These data are important for two reasons. The weekly flow of estimated kills, followed by actual slaughter numbers, represents the only near real-time information on meat production relative to currently observed market prices for cattle and beef. This provides the sole means to having a timely and reasonably complete picture of current supply and demand conditions, he says.
Second, slaughter data are direct data and as such, are among the more reliable data available to the industry, says Peel. Slaughter data provide a critical benchmark to validate statistically-based measures such as cattle on feed and cattle inventory reports. Lack of ability to “true up” other data series against slaughter data will lead to the reduced reliability of a much broader set of livestock industry data, he says.
Almost as ominous is why the report failed to appear, plus suggestions that other USDA reports might be under threat. The failure appears to stem from two problems, says Peel. The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the originating agency for slaughter data, does not seem to consider provision of this data a high priority. Second, like several data series, slaughter data pass through several USDA agencies on the way to being publicly released. There appears to be a lack of emphasis on interagency cooperation, from the highest levels of USDA administration, to ensure that the data are provided and released in a proper and timely fashion, he says.
Moreover, this is not the only data issue facing the beef industry, says Peel. Anticipating budget reductions, some USDA agencies have proposed reductions and eliminations of data that may have significant impacts on the industry. The National Agricultural Statistics Service, (NASS) for example, has provided a list of possible data changes, including: quarterly instead of monthly Cattle on Feed reports; eliminating the July Cattle Inventory report; changes to livestock slaughter data.
Several changes in crop yield and production estimates are also proposed, which would reduce the ability of the livestock industry to understand and anticipate feed market conditions. Yet the need for USDA to maintain the role of primary provider of agricultural production and market price data is more important now than at any time in many years, says Peel. I agree and urge producers to voice their strong concerns.