Eat your burgers while you can; the price of beef is going up

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Farm Forum

May 28 was National Hamburger Day.

You got a beef with that?

It’s an unofficial holiday, so if you ate a turkey sandwich, a bowl of soup or a salad, don’t feel guilty.

Americans eat 14 billion burgers a year, 60 percent of all sandwiches sold. If you put all of those burgers in a line, they would circle the earth more than 32 times.

I’d bet you would have a helluva time keeping the pickles and ketchup from flying off into outer space. And where in the world would you find enough buns?

But back to the burning issue of burgers.

Anyone who has bought meat lately has noticed an increase in the price. It’s enough to induce heart failure, especially in cholesterol- and fat-choked arteries.

It gets worse if you’re a fan of bacon cheeseburgers. Hold onto your chocolate shake when you read this.

Bacon and beef are the two fastest-rising grocery items. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average cost of bacon in March was $5.55 per pound, a 53-percent jump in four years.

The major reason for that is Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, which sounds disgusting and is very deadly. One in 10 hogs may die from it this year and with the supply dropping the price will be on the rise.

The price of beef has risen 35 percent in four years. Ground beef now regularly sells for $4 or more per pound, often over $5 for a leaner cut.

There are many factors behind this. Drought, less land set aside for pasture and grazing land as farmers rush to plant profitable crops, and an aging base of farmers who are less willing to care for cattle — all that helped raise prices.

On Jan. 1, it was estimated there were 87.99 million head of cattle in the country, the lowest total since 1951. The national cattle herd has been on a decline for several years and that will likely continue as farmers, whose average age is now over 57, don’t want to deal with the hassles of beef on the hoof.

In addition — am I spoiling your appetite? — there’s a lot less land for those cattle to graze on. Farmers are plowing up rangeland and pasture to plant corn and other profitable row crops.

You can’t blame them for cashing in during these times of high commodity prices. But just be aware of the impact of Farmer Fred’s decisions when you belly up to the burger bar.

Something else to consider is the rising competition for our beef. China, Japan, South Korea and other Asian nations are increasingly hungry for more protein and more beef. Notice all the trade missions South Dakota officials are on in recent years?

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, the U.S. exported 130,112 metric tons, or $823 million worth, of beef to Hong Kong/China in 2013. The U.S. also exported $1.39 billion in beef to Japan in 2013.

That’s good news to cattle ranchers and other businessmen, but it helps raise the price of our steaks and burgers here. It also adds a little heartburn to the rest of us.

So fire up the grill, heat up a pan or toss a frozen patty in a microwave. Just be aware that the price of that burger is getting higher all the time.

And that kind of bites.

Fourth-generation South Dakota native Tom Lawrence has been writing about the state since 1978. Write him at sdwriter26@gmail.com, and read his blog at sdprairie.blogspot.com.