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Data void challenged ranchers, but feedlots adapted

Carol Ryan Dumas
Some Idaho ranchers say lack of USDA market and crop data due to the government shutdown would challenge the marketing of their animals during their biggest marketing period of the year and make planning for the future difficult. Feedlot owners, however, say they felt no impact from the lack of USDA information, sourcing the information they needed from the private sector.

The 16-day government shutdown left a void in data that some ranchers said challenged their marketing efforts during their highest marketing period of the year.

Closures at USDA halted the information flow cattlemen rely on to market animals and plan ahead. Those third-party reports include data on prices, slaughter and supply for cattle and beef and on prices and supply for feed crops, particularly corn.

The lack of data is absolutely having an effect on ranchers, Laurie Likely, a cow/calf operator out of Jerome, Idaho, said.

A continuation of the shutdown would have made it really difficult for producers who hadn’t made short-term and medium-term hedging or marketing decisions. Price discovery is more challenging without USDA’s third-party data, she said.

Information from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is used regularly by ranchers, along with information from the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Ranchers rely on that information to track feeder and fat cattle sales, boxed beef prices, fed cattle trade, slaughter, and corn prices, she said.

Without USDA data, it’s hard to get adequate market information. And a lot of the cattle market is based on the commodity market, especially corn, she said.

"It’s hard to predict the cattle market without it," she said.

The timing of the data void could make things particularly challenging in the Pacific Northwest, where the run of cattle through markets is huge from August through the first of December, she said.

"It’s the biggest marketing time of the year. That’s when calves come to market," she said.

Calves are coming off of cows and grazing land, and cull cows are being brought to town because of drought or winter weather. Fires in the West, drought in different areas of the country and an early blizzard in the Great Plains are contributing to even more marketings, she said.

Pricing at local auctions is representative of markets, but ranchers have to be near those markets to get that data, whereas USDA-AMS provides data on regional markets all across the country. Video auctions are good about listing pricing, but ranchers have to go online to each individual auction to get that information, she said.

"It’s a whole lot easier to go to one or two sources than it is 50," she said.

Cow/calf operator Richard Savage of Hamer, Idaho, said he typically looks at market reports on a weekly basis, especially cattle auctions and especially this time of year. Cattle prices and crop reports have a bearing on cattlemen’s decision making, he said.

"Those reports are definitely important," he said.

Savage said he’s heard lots of comments from fellow cattlemen, concerned with the lack of data, but the shutdown came just a little early to directly affect his operation. He’s been up in the hills gathering cattle and weaning calves, but marketing is right around the corner.

Others in Idaho’s cattle industry say the lack of USDA data has not affected them in the least.

Life goes on and you figure out how to do things a different way. The private sector fills in the needed market information, said Greg Garatea, who runs a feeder and yearling operation at Murtaugh, Idaho.

"It sure hasn’t affected us. There are private entities that do the same thing the government does," he said.

Even if the shutdown had continued, livestock operators would adapt and find other ways to get the information they need, he said.

"From my own personal experience and our own outfit, it’s pretty evident why we call them non-essential employees. We’ve gotten along pretty good without them the last couple of weeks," he said.

Feedlot owner Cevin Jones of Intermountain Producers at Eden, Idaho, agrees, saying the lack of USDA data hasn’t caused him any problems.

"I haven’t missed it much. There wasn’t much time there to impact anything I do," he said.

While he does look at USDA reports, there are lots of private sources for the same data. Even if the shutdown continued, someone would figure out how to source that data, he said.



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