Dakota Premium Foods said Wednesday that it will temporarily cease production at its South St. Paul beef processing plant due to "extremely short cattle supply."

The shutdown is effective immediately and will idle 300 workers. Dakota Premium said it does not know how long the plant will remain closed.

The U.S. beef processing industry has wrestled for the past two years with a shortage of cattle, due primarily to drought conditions in the Southwest. As drought burned out pasture lands, ranchers greatly cut back on their herds.

"We regret that the current limited cattle supplies, the smallest numbers since the early 1950s, [have] forced us to make this very difficult decision," Dan Mehesan, president of Dakota parent ­American Foods Group's fresh meat division, said in a statement.

"Our hope is that cattle supplies will increase in the coming months, " he added.

The company declined to comment beyond its statement.

Dakota Premium is the last major meatpacking company in South St. Paul, once one of the nation's largest livestock processing and trading centers. About 275 of Dakota Premium's workers in South St. Paul are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189.

Don Seaquist, the local's president, said he's "not confident" the plant will reopen.

"There aren't enough cattle to kill, and beef plants across the country are working under capacity, " he said.

Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc., one of the nation's largest beef packers, closed a giant beef plant in Plainview, Texas, in January 2013, laying off about 2,000 workers.

Dakota Premium operates another beef plant in the central Minnesota city of Long Prairie that employs about 400 union workers. Seaquist said the Long Prairie plant is running at full capacity, and that up to 75 workers from the South St. Paul plant may end up filling openings there.

The Long Prairie plant is able to process larger bulls, which the South St. Paul facility — due to its configuration — can't handle, Seaquist said. That puts the South St. Paul plant at a disadvantage with the current tight cattle supply.

Dakota Premium said its staff will "help employees transition through this layoff period." □