By Nina Sparling
As the sun rises over three cowboys and one cowgirl are already at work in the Sierra Valley. They’re negotiating with dozens of cattle waiting to be shipped to their next destination, a feedlot, and eventually, processing.
They sort the cows by size and record their weights. An hour later the cattle trailer kicks up dust driving down the one-lane dirt road. Ben Azevedo scatters hay throughout the truck and counts off.
“Let’s go, six, seven, seven, fifteen, and five,” he says, telling the cowboys how many cattle he’ll load into the truck at once.
Azevedo manages Bar-Y-Cattle, a cattle hauling company, and runs his own cattle in Oregon. This year, his business on the road has dropped by half.
“It’s just slow,” Azevedo said. “It’s slow because the market has taken a big hit.”
COVID-19 has caused massive disruptions to the beef industry, making this one of the most difficult years Azevedo remembers. Slaughterhouses started reporting cases of the virus just weeks into the pandemic. The numbers grew, quickly, and many plants closed or significantly slowed their operations.
Immediately, ranchers in Sierra and Plumas counties saw the prices they could get for their cattle plummet. For the most part, ranchers in these mountain valleys are “cow-calf” operations, meaning they raise cattle on grass to sell to feedlots, which then market the animals for slaughter.
“Anywhere in that chain there becomes a kind of a logjam, that will bring down the price because nobody wants the cattle,” said Russell Reid, a rancher in American Valley in Plumas County and professor at Feather River College.
COVID-19 provoked exactly that kind of logjam. With slaughterhouses closed or at significantly reduced capacity, feedlots had nowhere to sell the cattle they had on hand, so they weren’t buying any new ones.
“If processors aren't buying cattle, there’s this huge unexpected increase in supply,” said Tina Saitone, an associate cooperative extension specialist with UC Davis. That drives down the price, she said. When prices fall, ranchers might try and hang on to their cattle until the market picks back up, which is part of why Azevedo saw his business decline.
Relatively few meatpacking plants process the vast majority of beef that Americans eat, so any disruption to that infrastructure has a major impact throughout the supply chain.
Annie Tipton grew up on a cattle ranch in Sierra Valley, and watching the prices this spring was nerve-wracking. She and her husband just bought about 330 cattle from her mom and took over the family business last fall.
“When we see the market tank and we've got a lot of loans to pay off because we're trying to build our business, it was a little terrifying,” Tipton said.
By the time Tipton’s cattle were ready for market, prices had started to pick back up. In part, that’s because President Donald Trump issued an executive order classifying the meat industry as critical infrastructure. Many meatpacking plants reopened as a result, despite growing case numbers inside and outside the plants.
Seeing prices fluctuate is part of the job for ranchers. But Azevedo, the truck driver, says the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a bit different.
“Meat’s running off the shelf,” he said. “It’s not because we aren’t offering the cattle, it's just we aren’t getting the price."
While the prices ranchers were getting for their livestock fell, the price of beef to the consumer went through the roof: as much as 35% compared to last year.
The USDA is looking into that: the agency is investigating some meatpackers for violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act — a piece of legislation intended to prevent price fixing and monopoly control of the industry. State senators have asked both the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to investigate consolidation, too.
For Tipton the past few months have shown the disadvantages of an industry so reliant on such a small number of meatpacking plants. The answer doesn’t seem as simple as opening plants back up.
“You wonder, is a packing plant going to shut down because someone there gets COVID. That tends to take the market because there's not many packing plants,” she said.
Her livelihood is tied to whether or not those plants in the Midwest stay open and feedlots keep buying her livestock. Prices are okay now, but COVID-19 cases continue to rise in meatpacking plants, and workers are still getting sick.
Ultimately, Tipton would like to see more places processing beef, closer to home.
“A lot of people are kind of going like, okay, why isn't someone taking up the opportunity to start a plant closer?” she said.
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