Cargill to shut Tex. beef plant as U.S. herd shrinks

Agrifood giant Cargill, one of the United States’ largest beef processors, said Thursday it will close its Plainview, Tex. beef plant on Feb. 1 in reaction to the smallest U.S. cattle supply in more than 60 years.

"The U.S. cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1952. Increased feed costs resulting from the prolonged drought, combined with herd liquidations by cattle ranchers, are severely and adversely contributing to the challenging business conditions we face as an industry," John Keating, president of Cargill Beef, said in a statement.

The company also cited overcapacity in beef processing in the Texas Panhandle, where Cargill operates two of four beef processing plants.

Shares of rival beef producer Tyson Foods rose Thursday, as one less beef plant should benefit the industry.

"Industry capacity utilization rates in beef packing have been deteriorating in recent years thanks to fewer available cattle. With a big plant out of commission, capacity utilization rates should rise and packers should gain some leverage," JP Morgan analyst Ken Goldman said in an email.

Meat industry analysts and economists have speculated for months that the smaller cattle herd, due to three years of severe dryness in top cattle states Texas and Oklahoma, would force at least one packing plant to close this year.

Cattle previously sent to the Plainview plant, which processes about 4,500 head per day, will be diverted to Cargill’s beef plants at Friona, Texas; Dodge City, Kansas; and Fort Morgan, Colorado.

"That will more consistently provide a 40-hour paycheque for 15,000 people in our beef business. We intend to maintain our position in the marketplace," Cargill spokesman Michael Martin said in response to an email request.

The company’s regional U.S. beef facilities at Fresno, California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, nor its beef plant in Schuyler, Nebraska, are affected by this closure.

The company’s Canadian beef plants, at High River, Alta. and Guelph, Ont., are also not affected by this decision, Cargill said in Thursday’s release.

"We are retaining the Plainview plant and property with the hope that someday there will be a need for additional processing capacity in the region, but we do not foresee that happening for a number of years," Martin said in the statement.

Cargill plans to lay off some of the plant’s 2,000 employees, with others filling positions at other company locations or with other employers.

The smaller cattle herd has had beef processors competing for cattle and paying historically high prices for them. While beef prices have increased, they were still not high enough to offset the cost of the cattle, analysts said.

"It’s simply that packer margins have been in the red pretty consistently since early last summer," said Dan Vaught, an economist with Doane Advisory Services in St. Louis.

"The industry was waiting on someone to blink, and it turns out to be Cargill," he said.

HedgersEdge.com, a Colorado-based livestock market advisory firm, put the average beef packer margin for Thursday at a negative $36.95 per head, compared with a negative $46.90 on Wednesday and a negative $66.75 on Jan. 10.

– Theopolis Waters and Christine Stebbins write for Reuters from Chicago.