Sometimes overlooked in the discussion of U.S. beef and international trade is the beef imported to the U.S. from other countries, which represents another opportunity to increase the value of domestic beef.

One key opportunity, in over-simple terms, revolves around the fact that the U.S. produces too little lean trim to support the nation’s expansive ground beef market without having to grind higher value domestic beef. Importing lower-cost lean trim means more of the domestic supply can go toward higher-value markets.

Although beef imports to the U.S. increased year over year in the last few months, Derrell Peel, Extension livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University, points out they were running 2.8% less than last year through August.

In his market comments this week, Peel explains that the five largest sources of imported beef—New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Canada and Brazil—accounted for 90.5% of the imports. Throw in Uruguay and Nicaragua and it’s 98.8%.

“Imports have regionally shifted this year,” says Katelyn McCullock, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, in the latest issue of In the Cattle Markets. “While Australia and New Zealand still supply the lion’s share of imported beef, about 1 billion to 1.5 billion pounds annually [carcass weight], Central and South America have been increasing shipments this year.” She notes that through August, imports from Mexico were running 31% more than last year. Imports from Nicaragua were up 26%.

“Imports from these two countries surpassed annual imports from Brazil and Uruguay in 2010 and have not looked back, posting double-digit increases in seven out of the last 10 years,” McCullock says. “This trend will be an interesting one to watch as markets shift and new trade agreements unfold. Canada still plays a major role in imported beef to the U.S., ranked second in 2016 on a tonnage basis, larger than Mexico and Nicaragua combined.”

Live cattle imports edge higher

On the other side of the packinghouse door, live cattle imports are up slightly from last year, Peel says.

Live cattle imports to the U.S. are primarily feeder cattle and fed cattle from Canada and feeder cattle from Mexico. Year to date through August, Peel explains total live cattle imports from the two countries was 3.9% more than last year. Imports from Canada were 16.5% less. Imports from Mexico were 21.7% more.

“Canadian feeder cattle imports were down 34% through August and slaughter cattle imports were up 9.7%,” Peel says. “Slaughter cattle imports from Canada for the year to date consist of 68.8% slaughter steers and heifers and 31.2% slaughter cows and bulls.”

Looking south, feeder steers imported from Mexico were up 13.6% year over year through August, Peel says.

“Year to date, feeder heifer imports from Mexico have more than doubled from last year with heifers making up 15.3% of feeder cattle imports from Mexico,” Peel explains. “Increased heifer imports from Mexico may be a reflection of stronger domestic Mexican demand for steers to support growing feedlot production in Mexico, leaving heifers to make up a bigger share of cattle exports. It may also signal slowing heifer retention and herd growth in Mexico as heifer exports compete with domestic breeding demand for heifers.” 

Total feeder cattle imports from Canada and Mexico were up 9.7% for January through August period, according to Peel.