Falling beef prices could make for prime grilling season

CHICAGO — Brush the snow off that grill and get ready for a grilling season that could be prime for butchers and beef eaters alike.

Retail beef prices on average have been slowly but steadily declining from historic highs two years ago that were largely the result of a yearslong drought in cattle country.

The beef industry has rebounded in a big way. This year is expected to be the largest commercial beef production year since 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Add to a competitive grocery industry and, eventually, some decent weather, and beef prices could be just right for consumers this spring and summer.

“We’re going to see some of the most aggressive advertising for beef cuts of all types because (retailers) are striving to not just be competitive with their profits, but they’re also competing for market share,” said Lance Zimmerman, manager of research, analysis and data for Cattle Fax, a beef industry research group.

As the beef supply has replenished in recent years, the drop in cattle prices has outpaced the decline in retail beef prices.

Consider the average steer price for 2016 was about $121 per hundred pounds of meat, its lowest since 2012 when it was about $123, according to the USDA data.

But the 2016 annual average for all fresh beef retail prices — a composite value of beef cuts used to estimate the average retail value of total beef production — was about $5.73 per pound, significantly less than $6.03 in 2015 but still an increase of more than 22 percent from $4.69 in 2012.

That’s in part because retailers have taken the opportunity to recoup some of the profits lost two years ago, Zimmerman said. But rising per capita incomes in the United States and a strong export market for American beef also have kept demand high.