In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.

You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry more consolidated than beef-packing. Just four companies slaughter 83.5 percent of cows consumed in the United States. In standard antitrust theory, a market stops being competive when the four biggest players control 40 percent.

The beef industry’s extraordinary concentration gives the Big Four massive leverage to dictate how beef is raised and sold. Their economies of scale give them power to squeeze their smaller competitors, who have to scramble to keep costs down to survive. Their suppliers, known as “calf-cow” operations, essentially have to accept the price the Big Four offers.

The recent downer-cow scandal in California, as well as the brewing health and ecological crises around feeding cows ethanol waste, are just two recent examples of the sorts of corners being cut by firms desperate to survive in a hyper-consolidated market.

Unbelievably, the beef market is about to get dramatically more consolidated.

JBS, the Brazil-based beef-packing powerhouse, has stormed into the U.S. market, emboldened by the U.S. dollar’s steady drop against the Brazilian real. Last year, JBS bought Swift, the third-biggest U.S. beef packer. And in the last several days, it had signed deals to buy the fourth-biggest packer, National Beef Packing, as well as the beef-packing assets of hog giant Smithfield, the fifth-biggest beef packer.

If U.S. antitrust regulators wave the deals through — and nothing in recent history suggests they won’t — JBS will control 33 percent of the market, Reuters reports. One company will slaughter one in three U.S. cows.

So what will that do for CR4, economists’ jargon for the proportion of the market controlled by four players?

Let’s look at the latest report (PDF) from Mary K. Hendrickson and William Heffernan, those indispensable documenters of concentration in U.S. ag markets. Here’s what Hendrickson and Heffernan tell us:

Beef Packer Daily Slaughter Capacity
Tyson 36,000 head
Cargill 28,300 head
Swift & Co. 16,759 head
National Beef Packing Co. 13,000 head

CR4 = 83.5 percent. CR4 is the concentration ratio (relative to 100 percent) of the top four firms in a specific food industry.

They add that Smithfield Foods is the “fifth largest beef packer after a series of acquisitions,” but don’t give a number for daily slaughter. The Wall Street Journal reports that JBS will boast a daily slaughter capacity of 42,500.

So that gives us a new Big Three that looks like this:

Beef Packer Daily Slaughter Capacity
JBS 42,500 head
Tyson 36,000 head
Cargill 28,300 head

To figure out CR4, we’d have to know what the old sixth-biggest packer was, because that one will now be No. 4. But we can figure out CR3.

Adding up the slaughter capacity on the Hendrickson/Heffernan chart, we find that the old Big Four could slaughter 94,000 cows every day. The new Big Three’s daily slaughter sums to 106,500 cows. Going back to high-school algebra, and extrapolating from the above numbers, we find that the Big Three alone will control more than 90 percent of the market.

Let’s hope regulators scotch this deal — not for jingoistic reasons, but because this insane level of concentration is almost sure to harm consumers and ranchers alike.

Dairy farmers: squeezed to the last drop

Dairy farmers live in brutal times. Feed costs have skyrocketed, but the price they get for their milk from the big dairy processors hasn’t risen nearly as steeply.

An article in Dairy Herd Management magazine tells the story. The journal tracks a metric known as the “milk-feed price ratio,” which uses a complex formula to compare the price farmers get for milk to the amount the pay for feed and other inputs.

According to Dairy Herd Management, when the number “meets or exceeds 3.0,” it’s profitable for farmers to buy feed and produce milk. When it drops below 3.0, dairy farmers lose money. And that’s the situation farmers now face. Reports the magazine:

The milk-feed price ratio continues to descend. According to the USDA’s announcement of feed-price ratios on Feb. 29, the February ratio is 2.36. That is a 0.3-point loss from the January revised ratio of 2.66. It also is a mere 0.03 points higher than a year ago.

Since farmers are now losing money producing milk from confined corn-fed cows, might they switch to grass-based feeding?

Well, yes, there is talk in that direction. Over in Missouri, evidently, dairy farmers are sick of losing money cramming cows into confinements and stuffing them with corn. They’re considering rolling the dice and putting the cows to pasture — which, after all, is much healthier for the cows and the land, and produces more-nutritious milk.