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Published March 17, 2014, 09:34 AM

Beef cows declining in US

North Dakota beef cow numbers increased for the second straight year, but U.S. numbers continued an eight-year decline. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released the much-anticipated cattle report on Jan. 31. The report documented numbers for all classes of cattle on U.S. farms and ranches as of Jan. 1, 2013.

By: Tim Petry, Agweek

North Dakota beef cow numbers increased for the second straight year, but U.S. numbers continued an eight-year decline.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released the much-anticipated cattle report on Jan. 31. The report documented numbers for all classes of cattle on U.S. farms and ranches as of Jan. 1, 2013. It was anxiously awaited because the July 2013 cattle report was not issued by NASS because of budget reductions. The good news is that NASS has indicated it will reinstate the July 2014 cattle report.

The report confirmed what many in the beef industry expected: another decline in the U.S. cattle herd. The inventory of all cattle and calves was 87.7 million head, down 1.8 percent from one year ago and the smallest total U.S. cattle herd since 1951. But, it should be noted that beef production totaled 25.7 billion pounds in 2013, compared with just 8.6 billion in 1951. The nearly 26 billion pounds in 2013 is just less than the record 27 billion pounds produced in 2002, so the beef industry produces much more beef with the same number of cattle that existed in the 1950s.

The makeup of the U.S. cow herd is much different today than it was 1951. In 1951, there were 18.5 million beef cows and 23.6 million milk cows for a total of just more than 42 million cows. In 2014, there are more than 29 million beef cows and 9.2 million milk cows for a total 38.25 million head. The dairy industry also has gotten much more efficient. In 1951, milk production was at 115 billion pounds, compared with 201 billion pounds in 2013.

The U.S. beef cow herd had declined to 255,000 head on Jan. 1, which is just 0.9 percent below last year. Contrast that to the 3 percent decline reported on Jan. 1, 2013, and a more than 2 percent decline in 2012, when a severe drought in the southern Plains expanded into much of the U.S. cattle-producing area.

Beef cow slaughter declined significantly in the last half of 2013 because drought conditions in many areas improved and feed costs moderated, so herd restocking began in areas where grazing conditions allowed for it.

While U.S. beef cow numbers declined, beef cows in North Dakota increased to 943,000, which is up by 21,000 head as of Jan. 1, 2014. This was the second year of increasing beef cow numbers in the state. Beef cow numbers went up 60,000 head as of Jan. 1, 2013, compared with the previous year. U.S. beef cow numbers fell 862,000 during that same time because of the severe drought conditions in the southern Plains. The 943,000 head in North Dakota in 2014 is the highest since 2005, when there were 947,000 beef cows.

Also interesting is that, on Jan. 1, 2013, beef cow numbers in all of North Dakota’s neighboring states also increased. But, by 2014, all neighboring states lost beef cows, so North Dakota’s increase also bucked a regional trend.

North Dakota ranked ninth in U.S. beef cow numbers as of Jan. 1, 2014. This is up from 13th place in 2010.

In the top 10 beef cow states, cow numbers increased in four and declined in six. The largest decrease in cow numbers occurred in Texas, which is the top beef cow state, because it suffered several years of drought. Texas lost 105,000 beef cows. That, coupled with losses of 550,000 and 460,000 cows in the previous two years, means beef cow numbers in Texas fell by more than 1 million head. Beef cow numbers went from 5.03 million in 2011 down to 3.91 million in 2014. No. 4 Nebraska lost 8,000 cows, fifth-place South Dakota (impacted by a severe October blizzard) declined by 53,000 head, No. 6 Montana lost 30,000 cows, eighth-place Kentucky lost 16,000, and No. 10 Iowa declined by 40,000 head.

The largest increase in beef cows occurred in seventh-place Kansas, with an additional 86,000 head. Increases also were recorded in No. 2 Missouri with 63,000 head, third-place Oklahoma at 51,000, and No. 9 North Dakota with 21,000 head.

The number of heifers kept for U.S. beef cow replacement, at just under 5.5 million head, was up 90,200 head, or 1.7 percent. This was the third straight year of increasing beef cow replacements and the highest number since 2009.

The 2013 U.S. calf crop was estimated at 33.9 million head, which is down 1 percent from 2012. The smaller calf crop, along with increased heifer retention and fewer feeder cattle imports, resulted in a 2.7 percent decrease in feeder cattle outside of feedlots on Jan. 1.

Lower inventories are supporting record high cattle prices that could encourage herd rebuilding. But Mother Nature is in charge of the moisture conditions necessary for that to happen. It is very dry in much of the southwest U.S. California is experiencing a record- breaking drought despite recent rainfall.

Much of the rest of the cattle-producing regions, including southwest North Dakota, is less than a year removed from drought conditions, so ample spring and summer rainfall will be necessary for the U.S. beef herd to increase by January 2015.

Editor’s note: Petry is a livestock marketing economist for the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

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