RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Drought conditions in much of the country have eased, but the Great Plains region is still in trouble. The nation's cattle herd is down to 1950s numbers. As Luke Runyon of member station KUNC reports from Colorado, that means the price of beef will go up this summer, just in time for grilling season.
LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: At Edwards Meats in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, near Denver, grinders churn out a steady stream of ground beef.
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RUNYON: Workers divvy up the bright red meat into trays and slide one into a glass display case. A laminated price tag is the final touch. Recently, the number on that slip of paper has been getting higher.
DARIN EDWARDS: In the last three weeks, it's really jumped. Most of our prices have gone up at least a dollar a pound or more.
RUNYON: Owner Darin Edwards says you always see a price increase when people start firing up their backyard grills, but this year is different. Prices for certain cuts of beef have jumped to historic highs, giving sticker shock to some of his loyal customers.
EDWARDS: We have that happen sometimes. You throw a couple big, thick T-Bone steaks up on the scale, and it's 30, 40 bucks. And they're, like, yeah, I can't afford those.
RUNYON: Edwards says it's the same story for New York strips, tenderloins and ribeyes.
GERALD SCHRIEBER: Aye yai yai yai.
RUNYON: About 90 miles east in the small ranching community of Last Chance, rancher Gerald Schreiber pulls handfuls of weeds from dusty soil.
SCHRIEBER: I'm not very optimistic, right in this spot.
RUNYON: Last summer, a combination of drought, wildfire and wind transformed Schreiber's pastures into a blanket of invasive, noxious weeds. The fields haven't recovered.
SCHRIEBER: There's a lot of dead plants right in this area, and that's what we find.
RUNYON: Here's the reason for the price increase: There just isn't enough feed. Because of the drought, there's a smaller supply of hay and dense grasses. Ranchers are having a tough time finding feed, and when they do, it's more expensive. During the winter, Schreiber paid more than double what he usually does for hay. Recent research shows more than half of the country's beef cattle are in states where the pasture can't support large herds.
SCHRIEBER: This is pretty unpredictable country. You've got to get the rose-colored glasses off, like we're doing here.
ELAINE JOHNSON: A rancher has to make a decision.
RUNYON: That's Elaine Johnson, a market analyst with cattlehedging.com.
JOHNSON: Do I buy expensive hay and try to hang on for another year? Or do I just liquidate my cows? Tighter and tighter supplies means higher and higher prices.
RUNYON: And higher prices mean more people could choose to forgo burgers and steaks this summer. Sales of beef have been down so far this year, while less expensive options, like pork, are up. Johnson says expect to pay more for beef until ranchers can build up their herds.
JOHNSON: When you have a drought like this and have liquidated numbers significantly, it typically means that supplies are going to be reduced for two, three, to four years, and it's one of the reasons why we've seen such a big increase in beef prices.
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RUNYON: Back at Edwards Meats, owner Darin Edwards says even with the higher prices, he's absorbing some of the cost. That's not something he can keep up for long.
EDWARDS: Hopefully, it does come back down. If it doesn't come back down in the next couple of weeks, we'll have to adjust our prices accordingly.
RUNYON: Right, sure. I mean, eventually, you see that in your bottom line.
EDWARDS: For sure. We just kind of bite the bullet for a little bit.
RUNYON: He'll be waiting a while. Most economists say prices will stay high the rest of the year. For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
That story is from Harvest Public Media, a public radio project reporting on agriculture and food production issues.
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