CHICAGO Kramers Mandate, a majestic 13-month-old weighing nearly 1,300 lb (590 kg), commanded the highest price for a breeding bull in the 44-year history of an annual auction in Illinois.
At $8,800, the Angus breed with a shiny black coat was the pick of the litter at one of the most heated sales in decades. Another 77 bulls of lesser pedigree also sold for record prices at the February auction.
From Illinois to Montana, the price of U.S. breeding bulls has surged by as much as 70 percent from a year ago, with ranchers and specialist breeding firms competing fiercely for prime specimens that, given time, will help rebuild an American cattle herd that has dwindled to the smallest in 60 years.
Eventually, the rush should translate into greater cattle supply and lower retail beef prices that have reached record heights since last year, tempering fears of resurgent food price inflation and bolstering margins for companies like JBS USA and Tyson Foods Inc (TSN.N), which have been beset by two years of high feed costs and more recently by the "pink slime" debacle.
It also shows that ranchers may be ready to set aside the painful precedent of five years ago, when they rushed to expand production just as grain prices shot up, wiping out margins and forcing many into financial distress.
"Expectations for the future look very promising as cow numbers have declined and demand in the domestic and export markets has been very strong," said Dave Seibert, 67, a retired livestock specialist from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign who ran the Illinois auction.
It is a nervy wait: the gestation period of a cow can typically last nearly 10 months and the animal will spend another five to six months being fattened on a steady diet of corn until it weighs above 1,000 lbs.
Seibert said the sale was one of the most active and well attended he had seen in his more than 30-year involvement with the event.
"The higher price for herd sires (bulls) was driven by the outstanding genetics, weights and performance provided at the sale. Also, impacting the higher prices was the record price of feeder cattle and finished steers," he said.
DROUGHT BLIGHTS PASTURE
It's been a mixed year for America's cattle ranchers.
Retail prices for beef in the United States hit record highs for five straight months, topping $5 a lb in January before easing in February. Prices for cattle in Texas rose to a record $130 per hundredweight in early March as meat companies scrambled to maintain domestic sales and meet export demand from countries such as Japan, South Korea and Mexico.
But the higher revenues come at a longer-term cost: Many ranchers have had little choice but to sell their calves to feedyards months before the animals are usually ready, depleting supplies of young cattle as devastating drought in the southern Plains decimated pastures, causing the price of hay to treble.
The rush to buy bulls is one of the first signs that ranchers are at last investing in expanding their herds.
"This year we are essentially growing our herd. The bottom line is a calf is worth more money," said Sara Rehm, chief financial officer of Cross Four Ranch in Miles City, Montana.
She said the ranch, sprawled over 200,000 acres, had already bought about half of the 25 mostly Angus bulls it planned to purchase this year. The cost of between $5,600 and $6,000 each was about $1,500 to $2,500 higher than last year, she said.
On average, Cross Four Ranch buys anywhere from 20 to 45 bulls per year. It purchased nearly 40 bulls in 2011.
Rehm said Cross Four had also retained more heifers for breeding this spring than in the past, thereby increasing the need for bulls. Heifers are young cows that usually have not yet given birth.
"I'd say that's industry-wide, at least in our country," Rehm said.
Chris Hurt, an economist at Purdue University in Indiana, said retail prices for beef were expected to rise nearly 7 percent this year from 2011 to about $5.15 per lb on average, adding that the amount of beef available per capita would drop to 55 lb in 2012 from 65 lb five years ago.
The average price of Angus bulls sold at auction in the six months through March rose 21 percent from a year earlier to an average of $4,627 per head, according to the American Angus Association. It says data from 444 reported sales shows 31,278 Angus bulls sold for an overall total of $144 million. For the same period of 2010-2011, bulls averaged $3,803 per head worth a total of $121 million.
The use of filler meat called "finely textured beef" by the industry and referred to by critics as "pink slime" has caused an uproar that has hurt demand for beef and made prices tumble.
But few livestock traders see demand waning for the prize bovine specimens that will help restore the cattle herd years down the road, when fears over the filler meat are expected to have faded.
MARBLING MAKES FOR JUICINESS
Marvin Kramer, 52, owns Kramer Angus, a family-run operation in Farina, Illinois set up more than five decades ago by Eugene and Marilyn Kramer. He is also the former owner of Kramers Mandate.
He said buyers prefer pure-bred bulls that rank highly in traits such as ease of birthing for the cow and how quickly calves would mature -- making them less costly to maintain.
Buyers are also looking for bulls that can produce calves with inter-muscular fat or marbling that consumers associate with tenderness and flavor.
"That commands a premium price from the people who are consuming the beef and he (Kramers Mandate) had all of those things going for him," he said.
For the new owner of Mandate, Alta Genetics, the bull's semen will be marketed domestically as well as in other beef-producing counties such as Mexico, Brazil and Australia.
Roger Sosa, beef program director of Alta, based in Alberta, Canada, said Mandate was at the firm's facility in California, where he would breed naturally for about three months.
This summer he will be moved to another location, where his semen will be extracted for artificial insemination.
Mandate's future and the revenue the bull generates for Alta largely depend on his productivity, Sosa said.
"A vial, or straw, of semen can go for $5 to $50 per unit. If everything we expect comes to fruition, you can sell for an average of $30 per unit," he said.
Sosa said Mandate has the potential of producing semen for 10 to 12 years given the way he would be managed.
"He's going to be a very happy bull. For whatever it's worth, everything is going to be brought to him," Sosa said. "He's going to be in a very cushy environment."
(Editing by K.T. Arasu and Dale Hudson)