Beef prices at Jim's food market here have soared 32 percent in the past 12 months, but Duane Phillips, who runs the meat department, says customers aren't complaining. Walthill is in the heart of cattle country. "People here kind of like the prices up," Phillips says with a chuckle. "They figure they're going to get a little of that back."
Cattlemen in Walthill and other big beef areas in Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Florida and a handful of other states have been getting it back over the past few months - mostly at the expense of consumers. In the face of a new supply shortage that began last November, beef prices nationally have jumped 14 percent so far this year, and are still on the rise.
Moreover, the cattlemen and even big-city economists are agreed that, no matter what anybody does, consumers aren't likely to get much relief for another two to three years. Industry experts say government actions, such as President Carter's order to lift import quotas on foreign-produced beef, probably won't do much good - and many even prove counterproductive.
Carter's move to allow in more Australian beef did blunt the price rise temporarily. In the wake of the president's announcement, cattle prices in the big stockyards at nearby Sioux City, Iowa, dipped from a record $63 a hundredweight to $59 - and still were hovering there Friday. (By contrast, cattle prices were $39 a hundredweight in the 1976 low.)
But experts here say the reaction was only psychological - the kind of "technical correction" that jostles the New Stock markets from time to time - and won't change the long-run outlook. Most analysts say the correction would have come anyway. And the fact is, Australia itself is desperately short of beef now, and couldn't send much more to the U.S. if it wanted.
Moreover, Ray Switzer, partner in Sioux City's second-largest cattle broker agency, says Carter's action and the earlier statement of anti-inflation czar [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Strauss implying that import action was necessary - has created new uncertainty among producers that only will serve to postpone the rebuilding of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] needed to produce more beef and lower [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
John Kroger, a Rosalie, Neb., cattle feeder who just finished selling all his stock to take advantage of the boom, plans to "wait a month or two" before buying more cattle because he wants to "see how far this is going to go."
The reason not much can be done about the rise in beef prices over the next few years is the same one that sent prices soaring last February: Everything is part of a long-term cycle in which beef supplies first rise in response to consumer demand and then overflood the market, causing the price plunge that sends cattlemen trimming their herds until a shortage pushes prices up again.
The beef cycle, as it is known, moves from peak to peak every 10 to 12 years, and experts say there is nothing either the industry or the government can do about it. First, the cattle business is too splintered to make possible any industrywide market planning. Second, the lead time required prohibits any quick turnaround. It takes two years to breed a steer - with no shortcuts available.
The last break in the cycle came in late 1973, when beef supplies outstripped demand and corn and grain prices rose sharply. The market broke almost overnight, setting off a shock wave in the industry that even today has some cattlemen skittish. Beef prices plunged sharply and stayed low through last November. Many ranchers and feeders simply went under.
The major contributor to the prsent shortage was in the severity of the 1974-76 slump. Panic across the cattle ranges prompted the biggest selloff in the nation's history, at least in percentage terms. Many cattlemen liquidated all but a small fraction of their herds. Total U.S. herd levels plunged from a hefty 133 million head of cattle in 1974 to a scant 116 million head today.
The 1974 "crash," as the cattlemen now remember it, was so abrupt and deep it drove many ranchers and feeders out of business entirely. Martin Zobel, one of the area's bigger feeders, figures he lost $700,000 in the period, and Chuck Beerman of nearbt Datoka, Neb., simply gave up and quit. Beerman has no intention of getting back in. "I couldn't take the risk," he says.
Moreover, the impact was exacerbated by a spate of other developments that helped spawn today's supply shortage: First came the Soviet grain deal, sending prices of corn and other basic cattle feeds soaring. Then came a series of droughts - the result of a cyclical flare-up of sun spots which occurs every 22 years.
At the same time, demand rose - unevenly.
What happened last November was that the cutback reached the point where supplies no longer were sufficient to meet demand - nudging prices back up again. In February, the shift took hold in earnest, and cattle prices soared, pushing consumer prices up sharply.
What made the rise such a touchy political problem was that it was so much sharper than anyone expected - the steepest in recent memory. Most industry analysts concede privately the jump was much faster than justified by market conditions, and that the latest "correction" was inevitable. At the same time, they say, almost as inevitably, prices will be rising again soon.
The difficulty is that there is no way policy makers of the industry can reverse the situation to bring about a better balance. For one thing, even if producers wanted to flood the market overnight, it still takes two full years to raise a steer - four to increase herds substantially, if you count the time required to breed extra cows needed to produce the steers.
For another, the supply situation is particularly bad right now because many producers sold their cows during the 1974-77 price slump - so now they have to start from scratch.
As often happens in the case of markets, government actions frequently are counterproductive. Cattlemen still shudder at the impact of the Nixon administration's freeze on red meat prices in mid-1973 - and later lifting of import quotas - which together prompted a massive selloff - breaking the market and plunging the industry into what amounted to a 4 1/2-year recession.
Experts say that, apart from the psychological impact, there is little the government really can do. Even if Australia were able to provide all 200 million pounds of beef for import under Carter's new quota increases, that still would amount only to a minus-cule portion of the 25.3-billion-pound U.S. market - an impact that, as Switzer puts it, amount to "less than six McDonald's hamburgers per person a year."
Some consumer groups also have suggested a grocery shoppers' boycott, such as the one that drove prices down in 1973. But both cattlemen and top government officials are convinced the move would be a disaster - in part because, although some cattlemen have begun expanding their herds again, many others still are liquidating from their 1974 levels.
John Marten, economist Farm Jo* urnal, argues that, although a boycott might send prices plunging for a few weeks, it also would interrupt the current turnaround in herd rebuilding "just when the market seems about to signal producers to stop slaughtering cows." The timing, he says," couldn't be worse for consumers.
Finally, there are bills such as the one sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) that would seek to counter the beef cycle by, among other things, letting in more foreign beef when supplies here are short and tightening import quotas when there's a surfeit. But the administration charges such measures would be inflationary, and cattlemen - at least in these parts - are skeptical about them.
The outlook now is iffy in the short run, but easy to predict over a longer term. Many analysts believe the current market "correction" will send wholesale cattle prices plunging by some 5 to 10 percent in the next few weeks until things get in better balance. Then, prices will take off again and rise steadily - barring a few interruptions - for two or three years.
There is no doubt that these are good times for cattlemen. But even industry critics say the ranchers and feeders still haven't made up more than one-quarter to one-third of their 1974-77 losses. And while cattle-feeders are reaping good profits on stock they bought last autumn, new increases in ranchers' prices have made the short-term outlook less certain.
But consumers may see little even of the short-term relief. Because of lags between wholesale and retail prices - and the reluctance of supermarkets to cut prices until they are sure the reductions will stand - there may be only a brief price slowdown at the meat counter, possibly this autumn, before retail prices begin shooting up again.
What should be done now, almost all parties agree, is simply to wait until the beef cycle turns around again - painful as it may seem. While some cattlemen still are liquidating their herds, most experts believe the cycle has hit bottom now, and a pickup is on the way. Feed grains are plentiful. And new supplies of pork and poultry for consumers to substitute for beef should come in six to 12 months.
Meanwhile, the Carter administration is blessed by the reality that, for all the hue and cry in some quarters, consumers don't seem to be quite as up in arms over the beef price surge as they were in 1973.
Don Paarlberg, former Agriculture Department chief economist, says administration officials should be "listening sympathetically" to consumer protests and "nodding their heads and wringing their hands," but shouldn't take any new or drastic action. Eventually, Duane Phillips' customers may have cause for complaint: Analysts say hamburger and steaks should be a real bargain again between 1985 and 1988.