For the first time in a long time, I won’t have to spend a Saturday defrosting an upright freezer in anticipation of the local meat processer calling to say our half steer is ready for pick up. Ideally this would have happened last fall, but I was really trading one hand-me-down freezer for another. And I’m a firm believer in beggars not being choosers. 

The old freezer should have been scrapped a long time ago. Instead, it lives on in my brother’s garage. When I say old, I really mean ancient. It originally resided in my childhood basement and then my parents’ garage before I somehow agreed to take possession of it about a decade ago. It’s kept everything cold all that time, usually by encapsulating anything on the top two shelves in varying layers of ice.

Through some sort of magic, it’s replacement hasn’t developed the slightest hint of frost anywhere. Maybe it’s because the seal is fully intact. Or the auto defrost function is more than a marketing gimmick. Either way, when the locker calls, I won’t have to spend a day chipping out bundles of beef from a shelf.

Hopefully the call comes sooner than later, too. We’re out of steaks and running low on hamburger and roast. I might actually have to cook the beef liver I haven’t exchanged for catfish yet. Soon the freezer will be fully stocked with all of that plus a couple of briskets, some flank steak for fajitas and short ribs for braising on a chilly Sunday afternoon.

I’m looking forward to filling the freezer, but I’m not especially excited to get the bill this year. The processing fee shouldn’t be too bad, but the rancher’s cut for half a steer will be substantially more this year. This is one transaction that’s non-negotiable for me. The rancher knows the value of the steer, even in times where the number is not much higher than breakeven.

Beef eaters have had a couple of years with decent prices. Now we’re going to see the other side of the market because drought has culled the cattle herd to its lowest level in about a decade. Provided demand doesn’t fall off too much, fewer cattle means less beef at higher prices.

The contraction didn’t start overnight, and it won’t end quickly. Higher prices will provide plenty of incentive to rebuild the nation’s cattle herd, but that won’t start until ranchers begin retaining heifers, which will eventually have calves of their own. Unlike a new freezer, there’s no magical solution to grow cattle faster.

It’s not fun, but the market will eventually sort everything out. It will rain again. Ponds will refill and pastures will recover. Ranchers will restock.

I might grumble some when I get the final tally in a couple of weeks, but I can’t imagine any alternative. It’s a privilege to only fill a freezer once a year, and the convenience is still well worth the price.