KANSAS CITY (B)--U.S. Department of Agriculture's reported price for light choice beef carcasses this afternoon is up $1 per cwt to $120.98, the highest since the agency changed to its current weight ranges March 5, 1999. After the report was released, market analysts said it revealed continued strong demand among consumers for beef and beef products.

Dressed weights for fed cattle are falling seasonally, but USDA figures show them staying above 1999 levels and well above the five-year average. Federally inspected dressed steer weights have declined to be in line with a year ago, but also are considerably higher than in 1999.

Dan Vaught, livestock market analyst for A.G. Edwards & Sons, said the boxed beef price gains also were supported by a seasonal decline in slaughter rates that is taking place currently, right on schedule. Recent rate of 664,000 head was below previous week's 682,000.

Slaughter was a little above 1999's 650,000 head, but there are more cattle in the feedlots, too.

Vaught said the seasonal slide in slaughter rates was caused by a lull, of sorts, between the heavy yearling placements of the fall and the calves that were placed on feed last fall.

If everything goes according to seasonal trends, slaughter rates should begin to increase in a week or two and continue an uneven rise until around the end of May, Vaught said.

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