Beef cow numbers decline; heifers increase

Farm Forum

USDA recently released its annual Cattle Inventory Report, providing the most comprehensive count of the nation’s cattle herd by class of cattle on a state-level basis. The total number of cattle and calves on January 1, 2013 was 89.23 million head, 1.7% lower than on January 1, 2012 (Table 1). South Dakota’s inventory of 3.850 million head was 5.5% higher than a year ago, making it one of sixteen states to see a year-over-year increase in total cattle inventory. Most of these states with higher cattle numbers were northern-tier states, stretching from Washington through the Great Lakes. Generally, these states suffered the least from the 2012 drought or did not have two consecutive years of drought, which lowered cattle numbers across the Southern Plains and Southwest.

While the nation’s total inventory was close to expectations, beef cow numbers were somewhat lower than expected and beef heifer replacements were higher than expected prior to the report’s release. USDA’s report indicated that there were 29.3 million beef cows in the country on January 1, 2013, which is 2.9%, or 863,000 head less than a year ago (Table 1). Although the percentage decrease was almost twice as large as expected, USDA revised the January 1, 2012 beef cow inventory estimate up by 275,000 head; thus, this year’s decline relative to last year’s unrevised total (2% or 588,00 head) was closer to pre-release expectations. South Dakota saw beef cow numbers increase by 5% to 1.688 million head. Other states with large cow inventories that saw an increase included North Dakota (7%), Minnesota (3%), Montana (3%), Iowa (3%), Illinois (9%), and Idaho (9%). Again, many of these states had relatively better crop production in 2012. Beef cow numbers declined in Texas (-12%), Oklahoma (-1%), Kansas (-8%), Nebraska (-4%), and Missouri (-5.0%), due to compounding years of drought decreasing feed availability and increasing costs.

Like beef cow numbers, USDA revised the January 1, 2012 number of beef heifers being held for replacements upwards by 50,000 head to 5.262. Thus, the 5.361 million head reported for January 1, 2013 was 1.9% higher than a year ago (and 2.9% higher than last year’s unrevised figure), which was a bit of surprise given the average expectation for a slight decrease in beef replacement heifers. However, as shown in Table 1, those expectations varied widely. Actually, changes in beef heifer retention varied widely across the county as well, with some larger cattle states seeing sizeable reductions (Colorado, -16%; Kansas, -8%; Nebraska, -9%; Oklahoma, -12%; and Utah, -6%) and others retaining more beef heifers (Idaho, +33%; Illinois, +7%; Indiana, +32%; Iowa, +7%; Minnesota, +11%; Montana, +5%; North Dakota, +13%; Texas +9%; and Wyoming, +4%). South Dakotans expect to retain 315,000 beef heifers, 2% less than a year ago.

It is important to note that while the 2% increase in heifers retained for breeding sug

-gests the possibility of herd regrowth in the future, it is far from a guarantee. Recall at last year, on January 1, producers were holding back almost 2% more heifers for breeding relative to the previous year. However, this didn’t materialize as the drought expanded in 2012. Further, of the 5.361 million head of beef replacement heifers, only about 61% (or 3.28 million head) are expected to calve in 2013. The remainder is either expected to calve in 2014 (or beyond) or will ultimately be culled and fed for slaughter.

USDA also reported that the number of feeder cattle grazing wheat pasture in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas was 1.34 million head, almost 16% lower than a year ago. This reduction was due to the poor condition of the winter wheat crop. Even though a lot of these calves may have been placed in a feedyard, it appears that many are being backgrounded outside of feedyards based on recent cattle-on-feed placement patterns. Further, it likely contributed to a 1% increase in the number of feeder cattle that have not yet been placed on feed. Thus, available feeder cattle supplies are slightly higher than a year ago; however, they remain incredibly tight by historic standards. The 2012 calf crop, at 34.3 million head, is 3% smaller than in 2011 and the smallest since 1949. So, the supply of feeder cattle isn’t going to increase in the next couple of years.

The January Cattle Inventory Report also provides a count of the total number of cattle-on-feed in the U.S. in feedyards of all sizes (not just the 1,000+ head capacity feedyards in the monthly Cattle on Feed Reports). USDA reported that there were 13.352 million head-on-feed in the country on January 1, 2013, which is 5.5% less than a year ago. Recall from last week’s Cattle & Corn Comments that the monthly Cattle on Feed Report indicated that feed numbers were 5.6% lower at the beginning of the year (in the large feedyards). Thus, the on-feed total in the small feedyards (less than 1,000 head capacity) was down only 4.5%. This is the first time since 2010 that the number of cattle on feed in small feedyards has declined less than in the large feedyards and is a significant change since last year. These smaller feedyards are likely diversified grain and livestock operations and are feeding more cattle this winter because of the increase in silage availability resulting from last year’s drought-stressed corn crop.