LINCOLN — With beef prices continuing to rise, Connie Gage says her food budget is tighter than it used to be.
The Lincoln mother cooks for a family of six, including four children ages 4 to 11. She tries to serve meat three to four times a week.
On a recent trip to Russ’s Market, a Lincoln grocery store, she put a package of pork chops, on sale at $2.79 a pound, and a $5 package of ground beef into her cart. The hamburger will be used to make spaghetti sauce.
“I get more pork and less hamburger these days,” Gage said. “Pork still tends to be cheaper. Do I ever buy steak? Never.”
Gage, like other consumers in the region, is paying the price for national and international trends that are forcing beef prices upward. Area grocers and meat retailers say prices are significantly higher for hamburger and steak than they were a year ago, and they expect the trend to worsen as summer continues.
From steaks to hamburger, beef probably costs $1 to $1.50 more per pound than it did last summer, said Jason Perry, first cutter in Russ’s meat department.
The U.S. cattle herd, hammered by several years of drought in the Southern Plains, is at its smallest numbers since 1952 — three years before Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s Corp. hamburger stand. Higher feed and fuel costs also are driving up beef prices.
Meanwhile, export demand, aided by a comparatively weak dollar and the waning of the Mad Cow Disease scare, has recovered to pre-2003 levels. Cattle futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange have climbed 16 percent in the past year, outpacing most other investments. The Livestock Marketing Information Center predicts record beef prices for this year.
“The take-home message from the consumer standpoint is don’t expect any real decrease in prices anytime soon,” said Jeff Stolle, vice president of marketing for the Nebraska Cattlemen.
Nationally, beef and dairy farmers held 90.8 million cattle on Jan. 1, a 2.7 percent decrease from a year ago.
Nebraska saw a slight increase in parts of its herd, with some cattle moving into the state from drought-stricken areas such as Texas and Oklahoma and with ranchers hanging on to more female calves to build their herds.
The need to rebuild herds after the drought actually will further tighten supplies, with fewer females being sent to market and more being held for breeding, Stolle said.
The public outcry over so-called pink slime also has contributed to higher hamburger prices.
Rick Hayden, co-owner of Rick’s Meat in the Elkhorn area, said chuck and round cuts that he uses to grind hamburger are more costly now because packers also are grinding more of those cuts, instead of relying on the filler product, officially known as “lean, finely textured beef.”
Hayden said he’s been paying higher wholesale prices but will delay boosting his retail prices until after Father’s Day.
Currently, an 8-ounce filet costs more than $10.
“People seem to be buying it, thought maybe not as often,” he said. “We expect the trends to change as summer wears on. Folks might start deciding chicken breasts or a hamburger on the grill isn’t that bad.”
Heidi Osborne, a customer at Leon’s Gourmet Grocery in Lincoln, stopped at the meat counter to buy a pound of ground sirloin for meatloaf.
The higher prices don’t faze her, she said. She doesn’t buy meat often and is willing to pay for quality.
She said the meat is almost addictive. “I love it,” Osborne said.
This report includes information from Bloomberg News.
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