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Where's the beef price? Sky high

The region's cattle ranchers are getting fat on the Atkins diet. The low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet is one of several factors driving record-high slaughter-cattle prices, said Tim Petry, a livestock marketing economist at North Dakota State ...

The region's cattle ranchers are getting fat on the Atkins diet.

The low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet is one of several factors driving record-high slaughter-cattle prices, said Tim Petry, a livestock marketing economist at North Dakota State University.

"There are actually millions of people going on the diet and, of course, beef has been a fantastic fit for that," Petry said.

A mad cow-induced ban on Canadian cattle imports, a short supply of slaughter cattle and a high demand for beef also have worked in producers' favor, he said.

"The market has gone up just huge. It's unprecedented," said Tom Bresnahan, a partner in Sinner Bros. and Bresnahan Farm and Feedlot near Casselton, N.D.

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The feedlot raises beef cattle, bringing them to slaughter weight before they're sold.

"We're into a market that nobody has ever seen before," Bresnahan said Monday.

The marketing factors are putting more money in cattle producers' pockets, but costing consumers more at the super market.

"The prices have really jumped lately, just huge," said Bruce Anderson, manager of meat sales at Hornbacher's Foods in Moorhead.

"We just had to go up this morning," he said. "We held off on raising prices, but we just couldn't do it anymore."

Beef prices at the grocery store have steadily risen since September, but most of the jump has come within the last few weeks, Anderson said.

In September, the grocery store's rib eye steaks sold for $8.99 a pound. The same cuts today cost $10.99 a pound, he said.

Brian Halverson said he and other cattle producers who have survived low prices in recent years are finally getting their fair share.

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"It's long overdue," said Halverson, who farms and raises cattle near Downer, Minn.

"I've sold some cheap cattle over the years, I'll tell you that," he said.

Halverson said he's never seen cattle prices this high in the 40-some years he's raised them.

Slaughter cattle are selling for an average of about $103 per hundredweight. A year ago, the cattle were selling for about $70.

And the strong prices for slaughter cattle are raising the value of calves needed to replace them, Petry said.

Calves weighing about 550 pounds are earning producers about $17 more per pound than they did this time last year, he said.

"Producers' replacement costs for filling up the feedlot again is astronomical," said Jeff Samson, owner of McDonald Livestock in West Fargo.

Typically, the nation's beef cattle population declines three or four years after a period of peak prices. But cattle producers have been reducing their herds for each of the past seven years. Last year alone, the nation's beef cattle numbers dropped by 171,000 head, Petry said.

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Droughts are largely to blame for producers' thinning stocks. Half of the nation's beef cattle -- in the Northern Plains and western states -- are in areas experiencing moderate to severe drought, Petry said.

A ban on Canadian cattle imports starting in May further tightened the U.S. beef market.

The United States stopped Canadian imports to safeguard against mad cow disease, discovered in a cow in Fairview, Alberta.

While many producers are taking advantage of today's high prices, many didn't survive the tough times, Samson said.

"I've been in the business for about 20 years, and there's just less and less people in this every year," he said. "The small guys are getting out of it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Zent at (701) 241-5526

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