The bulk of summer is past and forage conditions are improved for cattle production in many parts of the country. The latest pasture and range conditions indicate that overall range and pasture conditions in the U.S. are 20 percent poor and very poor compared to 31 percent last year and an average of 33.6 percent for this date from 2008 to 2012. Despite the difficulty of relieving drought in the summer, pasture and range conditions improved somewhat through the heat of summer; aided in part by a cooler than average summer. In the latest Drought Monitor, the percent of the U.S. that has no drought is 52 percent, the same as it was the week of May 20, 2014. However, the percent of the U.S. with D2-D4 (severe to exceptional) drought conditions was 21.6 percent compared to 28.3 in May. Marginal drought conditions remain in many regions but generally less severe compared to May. The exception to this general assessment is the far west including California, Nevada and parts of Oregon and Idaho where drought conditions continue very extreme. In fact, significant reduction in D3 and D4 drought conditions in much of the central and southern Plains was offset by increases in those categories in California and Nevada, thereby masking the improvement in the middle of the country in the Drought Monitor percentages.
Range and pasture conditions are improved with lower percentages of poor and very poor conditions in most all regions compared to this time last year. Despite the deteriorating conditions in the far west, the percent of pasture and range in poor and very poor condition in the 8 western states is 35.9 percent currently compared to 56.5 percent last year. The Great Plains region (including Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming) has 15.1 percent poor and very poor compared to 28.6 percent one year ago. The Southern Plains (Oklahoma and Texas) currently have 25.5 percent of pastures and ranges in poor or very poor condition compared to 33.5 percent last year. The eight states in the Corn Belt region have 13.4 percent poor and very poor condition, down from 26.3 percent from one year ago. Only the southeast region has worse conditions compared to last year with 13.1 percent of pastures rated poor or very poor compared to 3.3 percent last year.
The August USDA Crop Production report included estimates for 2014 hay production. Alfalfa hay production is forecast to be up 10.5 percent from one year ago, with increases in both harvested acreage and estimated yield contributing to the increase. Other hay is forecast to be down 1.5 percent, with a 2.6 percent decrease in harvested acres and yield virtually unchanged from last year. Other hay production was likely decreased by early dry conditions in some regions that delayed hay harvest.
In the Southern Plains there are decent prospects for winter wheat grazing this fall and winter. Current soil moisture conditions are adequate but tenuous. Recent summer heat has resulted in dry topsoil conditions in some areas. My recent travels in western Oklahoma indicate that much of the wheat ground is ready for planting, with some just waiting for a rain. Wheat planted in early to mid September, will need timely follow-up moisture to continue growing.
Overall, it appears to me that some recovery of pasture, range and hay production has taken place in many regions. The process will need to continue for many months in some areas. There will likely be some fall stocker cattle demand in addition to strong feedlot demand for feeder cattle. Heifer retention is likely to accelerate this fall and herd rebuilding is likely beginning this year. The fact that heifer slaughter is down 8.6 percent for the year to date and beef cow slaughter is down 17.4 percent so far this year, are both indications of herd expansion. Generally better forage conditions will let the cattle industry begin to respond to market signals by doing what producers want to do rather than what Mother Nature is forcing them to do.