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Don't expect any bargains on beef

This has been a rough year for anyone who enjoys steak, hamburgers or the company of restaurant owners who have beef on their menus.

Years of drought in several key cattle-producing states have forced up the price of feed, which has prompted many ranchers to dramatically reduce the size of their herds. Those smaller herds pushed beef prices to all-times highs earlier this year. Prices also remained high throughout the summer grilling season and show no signs of diminishing.

And those higher beef prices are taking a bite out of the bottom line at some retailers and restaurants.

In Los Angeles, chef Edras Ochoa says his Mexicali Taco and Company restaurant is now paying $1,000 more a month on its beef supplies, compared to just two months ago.

"And that's a huge hit on us because we focus on meat," Ochoa told CBS News. "Everything we serve here is pretty much beef, and so we are trying to figure things out."

Ochoa says he has already increased his menu prices by up to 5 percent. And other restaurants are following suit. Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) has raised prices on its beef entrees by 8 percent, while the Texas Roadhouse (TXRH) chain has increased the cost of all its menu items by about 1.5 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that, as of this past May, the U.S. Drought Monitor still showed "moderate" to "exceptional" drought conditions in regions that are home to over a third of the domestic beef cow inventory. Those drought-stricken areas include most of California, the Southwestern states and the Central and Southern Plains.

Adding to the upward pressure on prices are exports. The U.S. Meat Export Federation says beef exports have been on a record-setting pace so far this year, with June exports up 5 percent compared to a year earlier, establishing a new monthly value record of $631.7 million.

And that declining beef cattle inventory has also had an impact on Cargill, one of North America's largest beef processors. On Aug. 1, the agriculture giant closed its beef harvest facility in Milwaukee, Wis., which employed about 600 people, and blamed the idling on tight cattle supplies.

"It is unfortunate that we must close any beef plant because of the impact to good people, their families and the community," Cargill Beef President John Keating said in a statement in July. "The harsh reality is that the U.S. beef cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1951, with any significant herd expansion being years away."

Note: The author previously worked in the communications department of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, but is no longer involved in the beef industry.

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