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International beef trade dynamics

Contributed by Josh Maples Published on 12 November 2020

The latest monthly trade data were released by the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) in early November. The September data continued to show adjustments from the beef production and beef price changes earlier in the year, as well as the impacts of global beef demand.

According to the ERS data, beef exports totaled approximately 239 million pounds during September. This was down 5.6% from September 2019. Through September, beef exports in 2020 were about 6% lower than during the first nine months of 2019.

September showed stronger exports to South Korea, Canada, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Exports to Japan, the largest volume destination for U.S. beef exports, were down slightly according to the ERS data. Beef exports to Mexico continued to lag behind the 2019 pace. During September, beef exports to Mexico were about 38% lower than in September 2019 and were 40% lower for the first nine months of 2020 compared to the first nine months of 2019. Exports to Mexico were 14% of total January-September 2019 beef exports in 2019; in 2020, that share has dropped to about 9%.  

Cattle exports to Mexico continue to be stronger relative to past years. Weekly slaughter cattle exports to Mexico averaged 870 head during September and October, including 1,432 head during the fourth week of October. These are small numbers relative to overall slaughter, but interesting given that slaughter cattle exports to Mexico have been very limited since 2003. More slaughter cattle were exported to Mexico during July-October 2020 (11,226 head) than during all of 2004-19 combined (9,184 head).

Beef exports to mainland China continued to increase in September. During September, shipments to China accounted for 5.3% of total exports. For comparison, beef exports to China during 2019 were around 1% of total exports. The 12.6 million pounds of beef exported to China during September is the highest monthly level on record and is another sign of growth for that destination. 

There were also adjustments in beef imports. Beef imports during September were up 26% from a year ago and totaled approximately 300 million pounds. This followed large import totals in July and August. Beef imports during the third quarter of 2020 were about 1 billion pounds, which is 33% higher than third-quarter 2019. The top four import sources (Canada, Australia, Mexico and New Zealand) have combined for about 80% of total beef imports in 2020 through September. The big jump in beef imports during the summer was most likely a reaction to the record-high retail beef prices during the late spring due to pandemic disruptions. Retail beef prices have moderated in recent months, which will impact imports in future reports. 

Taken as a whole, beef trade in 2020 shows many of the challenges experienced in 2020. For the U.S., the production disruptions in the spring and the resulting price peaks had significant impacts on beef exports and imports through the summer. Globally, though some recovery has occurred, demand for beef in international destinations continues to be influenced by pandemic responses and safety measures. Beef demand at seated restaurants continues to be impacted, and demand in areas reliant on tourism still faces obstacles. The pace of recovery in international destinations will be key for beef exports moving forward and for the value that beef exports add to cattle production.  end mark

This originally appeared in the Nov. 10, 2020, Livestock Marketing Information Center In the Cattle Markets newsletter.

Josh Maples
  • Josh Maples

  • Assistant Professor and Extension Economist
  • Mississippi State University