Beef herd expansion threatened in the coming weeks

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It’s April and pastures are, or should be, greening up in the southern half of the country. However, cold weather this spring has delayed pasture development in many areas.  Winter conditions still exist in several regions in the northern half of the country where spring green-up is still a month away.  From a cattle perspective, conditions fall into three categories at the current time.  Moisture conditions are adequate to abundant in most of the eastern half of the country.  Marginal drought conditions are the norm in the middle of the country with persistent severe drought conditions in much of the West. 

Forage and crop conditions should improve rapidly in the Delta and Southeast in the next few weeks.  Cool temperatures (and soil temperatures) is delaying forage growth and crop planting in the Midwest, Northern Plains and northern Rocky Mountain region.  Warm and dry conditions are forecast for the Southwest and western mountain regions and the west coast.  Producers in wet regions will move forward with production plans with warmer temperatures.  Producers in drought areas will remain retrenched waiting for improving conditions. Texas and Oklahoma, along with California, Nevada and New Mexico have the largest areas of severe drought (D3 and D4).  

It is producers in the marginal drought areas that must be prepared to move quickly to either act aggressively if conditions improve or to act defensively if drought conditions redevelop.  According to the latest Drought Monitor, five states among the top ten beef cattle states have the largest areas (percent of state area) of marginal drought conditions (D1 and D2 on the D0 to D4 scale), including Iowa (57 percent); Kansas (85 percent); Nebraska (61 percent); Oklahoma (54 percent); and Texas (39 percent).  With the exception of Iowa, all of these states showed strong indications of herd expansion with significant increases in beef replacement heifers on January 1, 2014.  In fact, the increase in replacement heifers in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas was 132,000 head, which is more than the net increase of 90,200 head of beef replacement heifers in the entire country.  In addition, both Kansas and Oklahoma had 2013 increases in the beef cow herd.  These four states accounted for 31 percent of the U.S. beef cow herd on January 1 and the ability of these states to maintain herd expansion plans will likely determine the overall impact on the U.S. beef cow inventory in 2014. 

Current weather predictions suggest improving moisture conditions in eastern Texas and Oklahoma, and much of Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa.  Drought conditions are predicted to persist into summer from southwest Kansas to areas south and west, including western Oklahoma and Texas, as well as New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California and Oregon. These last six states accounted for nearly 8 percent of beef cows on January 1, 2014.  An El Niño is forecast to develop this summer or fall which will likely bring some relief to much of this region but perhaps not soon enough to avoid additional liquidation in the first half of 2014. If current forecasts are realized, improved conditions in the central Great Plains and eastern Southern Plains may be enough to support limited beef cow herd expansion in 2014.  However, conditions in this region will likely either improve or deteriorate with typical warm and windy spring weather in the next few weeks.  Forage and water supplies will tighten rapidly and soon without moisture. Failure to sustain herd expansion plans in the central and southern plains will result in no growth or more herd liquidation for the entire country in 2014. The next few weeks will be critical in these states and has implications for the entire beef cattle industry.

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Joe Sagebiel    
SW Central Texas  |  April, 09, 2014 at 09:42 PM

No measureable precipitation since Dec. 21, 2013. Never thought I would hate to see weeds die. Nothing left to slow down soil loss when it does rain. Herd down to 50% and about out of hay. Selling more cows this week. Only saving grace is that slaughter cow prices have been good. Kept a bunch of heifers but will soon be out of feed. What is next?

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