Cow numbers continue to drop across the U.S.

The number of cows going to slaughter is far above the five-year average. Attendees of the annual Cow Calf Days tour in Minnesota heard the latest on cattle trends.

Cattle dispersal sales at Napoleon Livestock Auction of Napoleon, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

STAPLES, Minn. — Increased cow slaughter was a significant talking point at the 2022 Cow Calf Days tour across Minnesota. That same topic was at the forefront of minds at the start of the same tour in 2023, as cow slaughtering has accelerated to levels not seen before, according to reports shared by the speakers Tuesday, Jan. 24, in Staples, Minnesota.

The United States inventory of cows and calves was expected to be reduced by 2% in 2022, or about 600,000. Dr. Eric Mousel, of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef Team, said the U.S. cow herd dropped by about 4% in 2022. The worsening drought brought the cuts for many beef producing areas of the country. Drought conditions lead to difficulties in feeding cattle on pasture and can contribute to an increase in feed costs.

“The number of cows going to slaughter right now is astronomical,” Mousel said. “Well over the five year average.”

Normally, a drop in cow numbers could be a positive for the cattle industry in that cattle prices would jump as supply lowers. But that jump has not yet happened.

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Cattle prices by month as of December 2022.
Courtesy USDA

Mousel sees signs that producers are reacting to this cow loss as there was a reduction in the number of heifers reported in the Friday, Jan. 20, Cattle on Feed report. It’s a sign that producers are seeing the need for heifers to build back up supplies of cows. That same report notes that cattle and calves on feed for slaughter was down 3% from a year ago.


“I think we’re just really on the front of that,” Mousel said.

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Dr. Eric Mousel, of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef Team
Michael Johnson / Agweek

Not only is there possibly a 4% reduction in cow numbers, but there is an estimated 2% calf loss to consider.

“I would not be surprised at all by next week to see this jump up to maybe feeder cattle supplies being down 6-7%,” Mousel said. “Again that’s astronomical.”

You might expect the market to jump with a 5-7% loss — but it hasn’t, Mousel said.

Combating lower cattle numbers is a matter of extra weight. Mousel shared concerns that dressed weights were about 20 pounds higher than normal during a stretch of 2022. Cattle packing plants are sending a message to sale barns that one way to maintain supplies is to move the market towards larger cattle, Mousel said. An extra 20-pounds per carcass doesn’t seem like much, but with a little “cowboy math” Mousel quickly figured that across the U.S. that can add up to 13 million pounds of beef per week. Over an observed 26 weeks, that reduced demand by 400,000 head of cattle. In comparison, a 2% drop in the cattle supply is about 600,000 head, Mousel calculated.

“That won’t go on forever, but that’s what’s happening right now,” he said.

The recent jump in egg prices is a frightening signal that perhaps other commodities could be just as volatile.

“The ability to plan and project some of the output of these commodities is getting really difficult,” Mousel said. “And what does that do? That increases the risk assessment so they have to start jacking the prices. And there is no end to that in sight … I don’t see any end to that right now.”


Mousel said with a rise in interest rates, extra money is not going to be sit around for long. That can hurt the demand on beef, which comes at a higher cost than other meats. Yet demand remains.

Pierz cattle producer Dar Giess said what producers must do in considering all the changes is band together for the good of all.

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Dar Giess is a cattle producer in Pierz, Minnesota.
Michael Johnson / Agweek

“We have to have a united voice,” Giess said. He’ll be attending the National Cattleman’s Beef Association convention in New Orleans in February to further hear about the state of cattle in the country. “We have to unite ourselves as much as possible and protect ourselves.”

Giess said that producers continue to provide a great product from land that, in many cases, isn’t used for much other purpose.

“The product is there, the demand has been there and plus our exports have been pretty strong, so that has kept this market propped up, to kind of get us through these times when cash is short for American families,” Giess said.

Drought remains

Map depicting drought in the United States.
The Jan. 17, 2023 U.S. Drought Monitor map shows the central part of the country remains in exceptional levels of drought. The Midwest has a mix of abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions.
Courtesy U.S. Drought Monitor

Severe drought continues to hit major beef production areas of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

“There’s some spots, even in (Minnesota), which are still a little dry,” Mousel said.

The impact of this year’s snowfall remains to be seen. Mousel said it’s not catastrophic for the Minnesota beef herd right now, but he acknowledged that certain parts of the state remain dry.


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Attendees at the 50th annual Cow Calf Days seminar on Tuesday, Jan. 24, in Staples, Minnesota, filled much of the meeting room.
Michael Johnson / Agweek

More Cow Calf Days to come

The University of Minnesota Beef Team hosts the annual Cow-Calf Days Seminar Tour and Trade Show at 10 locations across the state each winter.

This event has been held for 50 years and provides an outlet for cow-calf producers in the state of Minnesota.

The program features information on production management, nutrition, efficiency and marketing. The program is directed at cow-calf producers and allied beef industry representatives and is open to the public.

Staples was the first stop with additional stops in Bagley, Green Bush and Iron Junction in January.

Here are remaining dates, times and locations in the south half Minnesota:

  • 5:30 p.m., Monday, Feb. 6, in Mora.
  • 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7, in Starbuck.
  • 9:30 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 8, in Pipestone.
  • 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 9, in Oronoco.
  • 9:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 10, in Le Sueur.
Michael Johnson is the news editor for Agweek. He lives in rural Deer Creek, Minn., where he is starting to homestead with his two children and wife.
You can reach Michael at or 218-640-2312.
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