Let’s talk beef … and biofuel … and PED

Facts, figures and data are as essential to journalism as verbs, nouns and dangling participles. In fact, journalism without facts is a cup of tea without tea.

We also understand that erudite farm and food conversationalists — like you, for instance — are often on the prowl for convincing evidence and fresh facts to inform the unknowing and inspire the faithful.

For example, while New Zealand is but the world’s 75th largest country by size, it is the world’s fifth largest beef exporter.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, New Zealand exported 529,000 tonnes of the 620,000 tonnes of beef it produced in 2013. Forty-six percent of all those exports, or about 244,000 tonnes, went to the United States.

That’s 536.8 million pounds of New Zealand beef imported by the U.S., the world’s largest beef producer, when we grew 11.7 million tonnes of beef ourselves, or nearly 19 times the total production of New Zealand.

According to the USDA, America’s cattle numbers were so low last year that we also imported 989,406 head of cattle from Mexico and 1,038,584 head from Canada.

In fact, predicts the USDA, total American beef production will decline another 684,000 tonnes, or more than all of New Zealand’s 2014 production, as U.S. ranchers hold back young stock to rebuild breeding herds this year.

Declines are also forecast for American ethanol production as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works on new rules to balance today’s smaller American gasoline market with previously enacted mandates for increased use of biofuel. As might be expected, farmers who grow corn, the main feedstock of ethanol, aren’t happy.

At a recent Senate agriculture committee hearing on “advanced biofuels,” however, chair Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, cited Iowa State University research to support expanding ethanol use rather than cutting it.

She said Iowa State found that “ethanol reduced the cost of gas by 89 cents (per gallon) across the country — and by as much as $1.37 in the Midwest” in 2010.

The average American family used 892 gallons of gasoline that year, which means it would have saved $794 because of biofuel.

However, a May 2012 update by Iowa State put those dramatic numbers into a broader context.

“(The report’s) results indicate that over the period of January 2000 to December 2011, the growth in ethanol production reduced whole-sale gasoline prices by 29 cents per gallon on average across all regions.”

Stabenow’s numbers aren’t wrong; they just focus on the “marginal impacts on gasoline prices” that “are found to be substantially higher given the dramatic increase in ethanol production and higher crude oil prices” in recent years.

However, the most hog wild mixed message of the winter has been the impact of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), a pig-only virus that has infected hog herds in 28 states.

The virus, when it strikes, is deadly. Mid-winter estimates pegged baby pig losses nationwide since May at 2.7 million to six million head, or five to 10 percent of the U.S. herd.

USDA’s March 28 Quarterly Hogs and Pigs Report saw the number closer to the low end of the low end, or about five percent.

That means, said extension economist Chris Hurt of Purdue University, that record high hog prices will rule for producers not heavily affected by PED, and 2014 will be “a record profit year.”

With that in mind, I suggest buying bacon for those summer BLTs now.

Alan Guebert is an Illinois-based agricultural commentator.

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