WILLARD -- When the price of a corral full of young heifers ended at $1.82 a pound, the owner of the Anderson Livestock Auctions shook his head and said, "That's a lot of money."
Utah ranchers these days are enjoying an all-time high price for beef cattle. Their good fortune, officials say, is because supplies nationally have fallen to historic lows and demand has increased while the number of cattle in Utah has stayed the same.
"In the last month, prices have gone up," said Mike Smoot, a market news reporter for the United States Department of Agriculture and the Utah Department of Agriculture.
"That's probably an all-time high price for beef," he said, citing the $1.82 per pound figure last week.
Smoot noted that typically the highest supplies of young cattle are sold in the fall and early winter.
As the numbers of cattle at auction have dropped with that season ended, prices have continued to shoot up, Smoot said.
Beef prices have continually increased for about three years, Smoot said, estimating the price of beef at auction to be about $1.25 a pound two or three years ago.
"It's a good time to be in the cattle-raising industry in Utah," said Dillon Feuz, a professor and an agriculture marketing specialist at Utah State University.
"The future looks pretty bright," he said. "In general, the health of the industry looks pretty good."
Feuz said demand continues to increase as lower- income countries develop throughout the world.
"They generally tend to want to add things like beef into their diets rather than beans," he said.
Feuz said a decline in the number of beef cattle throughout the country in the last five years and a drought last year in Texas and surrounding areas has helped the Utah area.
Feuz said with a lack of forage for their animals, many ranchers had to sell their herds last year, further limiting the current national supply.
The National Agriculture Statistics Service Utah Field Office reported last week that the U.S. cattle and calf inventory in January was 90.8 million, down 2 percent from January 2011.
Beef cows across the country were at 29.9 million head, down 3 percent, and milk cows at 9.2 million head, up 1 percent compared to January 2011, according to the report.
The same report stated that the total Utah cattle inventory in January was 800,000 head, which was unchanged from January a year ago.
The calf crop from last year was 365,000, about the same number as the year before.
But of that number, calves under 500 pounds were at 105,000, down 5 percent from January 2011.
But cattle being fattened for market were 26,000 head, up 4 percent from the year before.
Utah Farm Bureau spokesman Matt Hargreaves said the low numbers and subsequent high prices for beef have been the result of several market forces.
He specifically named high prices in feed as well as political uncertainty regarding future use of public lands for grazing as two of those forces.
Smoot also listed those forces, blaming those he called radical environmentalists for much of the move for ranchers to quit the business.
He said claims that ranchers damage public lands is inaccurate.
"It doesn't do any good to destroy the range land," Smoot said. "It's your livelihood."
Smoot said this particular winter has been especially friendly to area ranchers.
"Snow has been minimal," he said. "Normally, when there is a lot of snow, they have to feed more hay."
This fact may explain why current high costs of feed don't seem to be affecting ranchers in this area.
Feuz said those in the business of buying feed and using it to fatten cattle may not be in as good shape as those who have grazing lands.
Citing an all-time high cost of feed here, he said some in the business of fattening older animals locally may have experienced a net loss last year.
But Jerry Anderson, the owner of Anderson Livestock Auctions, disagreed, saying all those involved in the industry seem to be making money as far as he has observed.
"It costs a lot to replace them but they are getting a lot out of them too," he said, specifically talking about those who buy 8-month-old cattle to fatten up.