It appears red meat production not only recovered from a COVID-19 related slowdown the first half of 2020, but it likely set another record.

U.S. farmers produced a whopping 5.09 billion pounds of red meat last October alone, the highest monthly output since the data was first tracked in 1944.

“We wound up with beef production and other proteins (including pork and chicken) all at record levels in 2020,” Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State Extension livestock marketing specialist, said during the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) virtual convention.

The boost in output (with pork up 3%) and possible record-setting year followed a 34% decline in cattle and hog processing late last April and early May due to COVID-19 outbreaks among workers and subsequent restrictions and mitigation efforts in processing plants.

“Even though we had less animals through the system because they were at heavier weights, production is higher than last year,” said Michael Nepveux, AFBF economist. “We were looking at a 34% decline at the worst of it, and now we’re actually trending above year-ago levels.”

And the trend could continue this year.

Peel forecasts U.S. meat production could increase nearly 1% this year. Despite a possible 1% decrease in beef output, Peel looks for a 2.2% increase in pork production and 1.2% more chicken for 2021.

“The total protein level would be a record,” he said. “We’ve done this (set new records) the last five years or so.”

But even if meat output sets another record this year, Peel believes livestock prices could improve from a year ago as the country recovers from the pandemic. Exchange rates also support U.S. trade.

“Protein demand stayed strong in 2020,” Peel said. “We could see modest strength in prices moving forward. Consumer incomes will be key.”

Peel forecasts beef prices could increase 5% to 8% on an annual basis this year compared to last year. Meanwhile, hog prices started the year at the highest levels (low-$70s per hundredweight) since mid-October, with the summer months contracts reaching highs of $84.

“The first half of the year will be a continuation of what we’re dealing with from the standpoint of the pandemic, with limitations in the food sector,” Peel said. “Half or more of our market is still restricted (in the form of restaurant closures or limitations). But the second half of the year could pick up significantly.”

Enhanced safety measures for workers at processing plants and the addition of more facilities should keep meat flowing through the production system, even as COVID-19 numbers remain relatively high in some areas.

“We learned a lot and hopefully we won’t see as much of a disruption (to meat output) if we have another (COVID-19) outbreak,” Nepveux said.

The federal government recently included aid and grant money for smaller capacity meat processing plants in its latest COVID stimulus package. It also extended mandatory livestock reporting of sale numbers and prices through this year, noted Scott Bennett, AFBF director of congressional relations.

As for livestock margins, increased meat demand and the possibility of higher prices should offset the pressure of higher feed costs in the months ahead.

“The way feed costs affect the beef cattle market is at the feedlot level, through higher cost of gain and lower margins,” Peel said. “I don’t think we’ll see an immediate impact of higher feed prices changing the trajectory of herd dynamics.”

The same could be true for the hog market as many farmers are shielded from feed price swings through production contracts.