How to trade live cattle

We run through the basics of trading cattle, explaining the dynamics of the market and how to trade it.

Cattle Source: Bloomberg

Cattle trading basics

The global cattle market is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Cattle are predominantly turned into beef to feed the world’s growing population, although by-products are used to create the likes of leather or gelatine.

There are fewer speculators trading cattle compared to other commodities, with many market participants trading cattle to hedge against exposures to risk. Establishing a cattle operation from scratch can take over a decade but just a few years of tough conditions can prove fatal to a farmer’s herd. This makes the market very cyclical and vulnerable to volatile price movements.

We go through the basics of the cattle market and explain how to trade it.

Live cattle vs feeder cattle

There are two types of cattle that are traded: live cattle and feeder cattle. The differences between the two are outlined in this brief description of the cattle production process:

  1. Farmers breed cows and bulls either by natural breeding or, more commonly, artificial insemination.
  2. Calves are born and kept with the mother for six to eight months.
  3. Once the calf has reached a weight of around 500-600 pounds, it is weaned from its mother and raised on the ranch for between six to 10 months.
  4. Once the calf has reached a weight of 600-800 pounds it is classed as feeder cattle: ready to be fattened up with high-energy feedstock before being slaughtered.
  5. Farmers separate the herd, retaining those capable of reproduction for future breeding and earmarking those that are to be slaughtered. Cattle can be chosen for slaughter for a variety of reasons, including bad health, age or high feed costs.
  6. The cattle to be slaughtered are either fed on the farmer’s ranch, in a third-party commercial feedlot (whereby the farmer owns the cattle but somebody else is responsible for feeding and rearing it), or sold on.
  7. Once it has reached a weight of between 1200-1400 pounds (although this varies, with some cattle weighing as much as 1900 pounds) the cattle becomes classed as live cattle that is ready for slaughter.
  8. The live cattle is then either sold directly to food production companies or auctioned off.

In a nutshell, the two categories represent cattle at different stages of the production cycle. Live cattle are a finished product while feeder cattle are an unfinished product.

What moves the price of cattle?

As feeder cattle represent future stock of live cattle the price of both is heavily intertwined. However, while some drivers cause the same effect on the price of live and feeder cattle, prices can be inversely affected by others, namely:

  1. Demand of beef
  2. Price of feed
  3. Seasonality and weather
  4. Cattle on Feed report

Demand for beef

Beef is a more expensive source of protein compared to alternatives like lamb or chicken, and demand can often reflect economic conditions. Demand often falls in times of a recession to push prices lower and rise during times of growth and prosperity. For example, beef consumption on a per person basis is growing in emerging economies in the east as people’s income increases.

In addition, changes in dietary habits also impact demand. This is particularly acute right now amid the rise in popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets in western economies like the US and the UK, where beef consumption per capita is considerably lower than it was decades ago. Still, the rise in the overall population (and therefore overall consumption) means demand for beef in advanced economies is still growing, albeit at a slower rate than others like China, Brazil or Argentina.

Both supply and demand can also be impacted by diseases, such as ‘mad cow disease’ (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

Price of feed

The price of feed is a major driver behind the price of cattle and a primary reason why demand can shift between live and feeder cattle, creating an inverse relationship in prices. Whereas live cattle can be purchased and immediately slaughtered, feeder cattle must be maintained for six to 10 months. This means additional cost inputs have to be considered when purchasing feeder cattle to understand what the ‘finishing costs’ are. This primary comprises the costs to feed the cattle for it to be ready for slaughter, but other factors are also considered such as how much land is needed to raise the cattle or whether vaccinations are needed.

The cost of feed therefore dictates the profit margin that can be earned by buying feeder cattle and selling it on at a later date as live cattle. This is why movements in the price of feed is so influential over the price of cattle and shifting demand from live to feeder, or vice-versa.

Cattle eat a variety of feedstocks but, from an investor point of view, the four commodities worth watching are corn, barley, chicago wheat and soyabeans. When prices of feedstock are in decline the possible margin to be made on feeder cattle is greater and can therefore push up demand. When prices are rising the opposite is true and live cattle become a more attractive investment opportunity. Feed prices can also have other severe effects on the quality and quantity of supply of new live cattle supplies: feeder cattle can be prematurely put forward for slaughter if feed costs are rising higher or held-back when they are in decline in order to bulk up the weight further and maximise the opportunity. This is also why attention is paid to other characteristics of the feeder cattle being purchased, such as the feed-to-weight ratio (the ability to convert feed into weight gain).

Seasonality and weather

The cattle and beef markets are very cyclical, therefore, any disruption to supply or decline in demand can have a severe effect on prices. Weather and natural disasters can play havoc on agricultural markets through the likes of flooding or drought, which can impact both cattle and the crops that feed them. For example, over 40% of all the cattle in Canada is located in Alberta, which has previously been hit by drought. The country’s Agriculture and Forestry department said only last year that a lack of rainfall and high temperatures was causing problems and that farmers in Saskatchewan – responsible for 21% of the country’s cattle – to invest in larger grass caches to protect themselves from future drought.

Cattle on Feed report

The monthly Cattle on Feed report is released on the third Friday of each month and provides insightful statistics into the US cattle market, which is the largest in the world. It collects data from over 2000 ranchers, representing over 98% of US supply.

The report contains three important elements of information. The first is the number of marketings, representing the amount of cattle that have been moved from feedlots to be slaughtered and demonstrating the amount of current supply in the market. The second is the number of cattle that have been placed in feedlots, representing the amount being readied for slaughter and supply that will come into the market within a few months. The third is the number of calves that have been weaned and moved onto feed, which represents future supply over the longer term.

Other countries that release data on cattle markets include Canada and Australia. CanFax reports numbers for the two biggest regions in Canada, and Meat and Livestock Australia provides figures for Australia.

Cattle trading strategies

Trading cattle is a global game with participants often investing to hedge against inflation or to capitalise on rising demand as a result of global growth. The price of cattle and other livestock often suffer from inflation when economies are hit by a recession and when economies are growing consumer purchasing power increases to push demand for beef higher, with the latter proving particularly true in emerging markets in South America and Asia.

The prices of live cattle and feeder cattle are highly correlated, so traders try to profit from the spread between the two. For example, some trade the spread available on the price of live cattle versus the price of feeder cattle plus the grain needed to feed them. This sees traders purchase live cattle futures and sell futures in feeder cattle and corn, or vice-versa.

Traders can also look for imbalances in the price between live and feeder cattle. As feeder cattle represent future supply then any disruption should feed through to the price of live cattle, and if there is an oversupply of live cattle then this should weigh on the price for new cattle coming onto the market, and so on.

Another option is to trade meat production and processing stocks, such as Tyson Foods, the biggest exporter of beef out of the US, or UK-based FTSE 250 constituent Cranswick. However, investors must consider the slew of other variables that applies to stocks like this: the price of cattle is just one driver of their share prices.

Cattle market: a global snapshot

The global beef market is worth over $300 billion1 and demand is expected to outstrip increases in production over the immediate future, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The US is by far the biggest cattle market in the world, being the biggest producer, consumer and importer of cattle in the world. However, the fastest growing countries are in emerging economies, with demand increasing in the likes of China and South Korea and exports increasing in countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
Top players in global cattle market in 2019 (% of global share)

Top producers of cattle in the world

Rank Producer Market share
1 US 20%
2 Brazil 16%
3 EU 12.3%
4 China 11.6%
5 India 6.8%
6 Argentina 4.7%
7 Australia 3.4%
8 Mexico 3.1%
9 Pakistan 2.9%
10 Turkey 2.2%
11 Russia 2.1%

Top consumers of cattle in the world

Rank Consumer Market share
1 US 20.5%
2 China 14.1%
3 Brazil 13%
4 EU 12.7%
5 India 4.4%
6 Argentina 3.9%
7 Mexico 3.1%
8 Russia 2.9%
9 Pakistan 2.9%
10 Turkey 2.4%
11 Japan 2.1%

Top importers of cattle in the world

Rank Importer Market share
1 US 16.2%
2 China 15.2
3 Japan 9.8%
4 Hong Kong 6.9%
5 South Korea 6.5%
6 Russia 5.4%
7 EU 4.3%
8 Eqypt 3.8%
9 Chile 3.7%
10 Canada 2.9%
11 Mexico 2.5%

Top exporters of cattle in the world

Rank Exporter Market share
1 Brazil 20.8%
2 India 15.4%
3 Australia 14.3%
4 US 13.9%
5 New Zealand 5.6%
6 Argentina 5.4%
7 Canada 4.9%
8 Uruguay 3.9%
9 Paraguay 3.4%
10 EU 3.3%
11 Mexico 3.1%

What is the outlook for the global cattle market?

Global production of cattle is forecast to grow 1% year-on-year in 2019 to 63.6 million tonnes, according to the USDA, driven by Brazil, Argentina and the US. Both South American nations are increasing output to meet growing demand in Asian markets and to capitalise on the tough conditions in Australia, which is a key exporter of beef to countries like Japan. The two are expected to offset lower exports from Australia and India to keep overall global exports flat at 10.6 million tonnes in 2019.

Read about the top 10 emerging market economies in 2019

Five steps to trading cattle

There are five steps a trader should take before opening a position on cattle:

  1. Learn how CFDs and spread bets work
  2. Create an account and deposit your funds
  3. Analyse supply and demand factors in the cattle markets
  4. Choose the trading strategy that works best for you
  5. Open, monitor and close your first position

1Grand View Research, based on 2017


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