Can we rebuild the beef cow herd? Part 1

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That was the question posed to me by a producer in response to my recent article suggesting that two years of drought liquidation, on top of previous liquidation, has pushed the beef cattle inventory so low that we are effectively “out of cattle” in terms of our ability to maintain beef production and rebuild the cow herd.  This producer specifically noted two issues that will affect the ability of the beef industry to rebuild: the loss of forage land to non-agricultural (development and recreational) uses; and the conversion of pasture to crop production.  While these and other issues pose significant challenges to rebuilding the beef cow herd, I do believe there is ample capacity to rebuild the cow herd according to the demands of the market.  That said, the question of how and where it will done is likely to be different in the future than in the past.

In the short run, the drought is, of course, the major factor affecting herd liquidation.  Until forage conditions improve, the question of herd rebuilding is a moot one. And while there is no current indication of improving drought conditions, nor any guarantee that conditions will improve, it is likely that some regions, at least, will see improving conditions in the coming months.  The more regionally specific drought in 2011 caused a 1.07 million head decrease in beef cows in a single year in Texas, Oklahoma and the surrounding states.  Much of this region is still in severe drought, with some areas, such as Arkansas, in considerably worse shape in 2012 than in 2011.  There has been some improvement in drought conditions in parts of east Texas but little if any herd rebuilding has taken place yet.  Most all of this loss in beef cows can be recovered post-drought, though some parts of the region will take several years to fully recover.

The impact of the 2012 drought has yet to be documented until the next USDA cattle inventory report is available.  I expect to see another 400 to500 thousand head decrease in the beef cow herd, spread across several states.  I suspect this reduction represents extra heavy culling of the cow herd and fewer heifers entering herds rather than the deep herd culling or herd dispersals that occurred in 2011.  Nevertheless, this is additional herd capacity that can return rather quickly with improved forage conditions.

Land use issues affecting the beef industry reflect long term trends and on-going structural changes in U.S. agriculture.  Concerns about development and recreational use of forage lands are common and understandable among many cattle producers.  Certainly in some areas, the loss of pasture to small acreage development or for other non-agricultural uses is significant and noticeable.  However, about 30 percent (571 million acres) of the total U.S. land area of 1.93 billion acres is rangeland, pasture or non-cultivated cropland (mostly hay). No doubt this includes some land used for recreation despite being designated as agricultural.  Another 810 million acres (42 percent) is forest land or federal land, a significant portion of which is grazed or partially grazed by livestock. Thus, a majority of some 1.381 billion acres (72 percent) of the total land in the country is used exclusively or partially for livestock, mostly cattle, production.  This compares to 305 million acres (16 percent) used for crop production; 33 million acres (1.7 percent in the Conservation Reserve Program); 111 million acres (5.7 percent) developed; and another 5.2 percent in water surface and other rural uses.  Land used for development increased nearly 17 million acres from 1997-2007.

Land diversion away from agriculture is not a trivial matter but does not represent a significant barrier to potential rebuilding of the cow herd, at least not on a national basis.  The implications of this issue certainly vary in some regions and are part of a broader set of regional changes in agriculture that will affect the beef industry in the future.  The next installment of this article will discuss how and where beef cow herd rebuilding will take place.

Source: Derrell S. Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension Livestock Marketing Specialist

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Missouri  |  November, 27, 2012 at 10:51 AM

I seriously doubt if the cow herd can be rebuilt. It will remain at current levels or increase only slightly as the drought subsides. Look at who did the dispersing. Many were older farmers retiring. We are not getting the younger generations involved that are needed to rebuild. Everywhere I go, I hear small business owners speak about how difficult it is to hire or replace younger employees. Many agree that the younger people don't want to work or work that hard. Also, it is a big investment for a young person to get into cattle should they be inclined to get into agriculture. They cannot afford it. Our culture has changed too much and not for the better.

Cattle guy    
Midwest  |  November, 27, 2012 at 01:58 PM

If there is adequate demand for the end product (beef) and a corresponding economic incentive to expand the herd to satisfy that demand, it will happen.

Ohio  |  November, 27, 2012 at 02:03 PM

I have no doubt that we can rebuild the herd given time and faverable weather. But the real question is: Why should we?

Gary Smith    
oregon  |  November, 27, 2012 at 02:56 PM

RIGHT ON (You are soo correct) Economics is what has made this nation great and also will drive the beef market. SUPPLY AND DEMAND.

Katy, TX  |  November, 27, 2012 at 04:19 PM

I wonder if the author has taken into account the catastrophic loss of ag land that will be sold to development when the inheritance/death tax becomes 55% on Jan 1.

western South Dakota  |  November, 27, 2012 at 04:32 PM

As a 4th generation rancher on the same ranch, I believe that we can rebuild the cow #'s but wonder if the industry won't be better served through improved genetics and management practices. My grandfather always told me that it took 55 acres to run a cow for 12 months( including hay ground). My father decreased this to 35 acres and I'm now down to 21 acres through rotational grazing and other practices. The industry cow herd numbers are down but tons of meat isn't. We're producing more meat per cow and I believe that with tools like genome mapping and other genetic tools, we will see much more efficiency improvements in the future. Maybe numbers don't tell the whole story.

tx  |  November, 27, 2012 at 07:39 PM

We will not get back to the numbers we saw 10 to 15 years anytime in the near future. With the production per cow that we have today we dont need that amount of cows. however if we can expand our exports enough then we can go back to those numbers.

c. andrews    
chicago-kansas  |  November, 28, 2012 at 08:18 AM

It's all about net. Last week's tally using USDA figures shows the difference between branded v. choice at $80.93 and CH-SL $215.66. Growth will come at accelerated rates if the global economy doesn't fail. Meat is about portion control and packaging for consumers in a ready to eat form. The cow herds will grow where rain fall averages over 25" with emphasis on genetics and in 10-20 head units consuming feed that would otherwise be wasted..

WY  |  November, 28, 2012 at 11:56 AM

There has been a lot of press about this question. It seems to me like everyone is focused on cow numbers. Shouldn't it be on "beef production"? Cow numbers are lowest since 1958 but production is still nearly at all time highs. Shouldn't the question be; what level of increase in beef production is necessary for a healthy industry and not the size of the cow herd?

Ne  |  November, 28, 2012 at 02:50 PM

I agree with you. With improved genetics and technology we have become more efficient at producing more pounds of beef per cow exposed and per resource used. In a sence we are kicking ourselves out of business by increasing our efficiency. Unfortunately only the efficient producers will remain in business so it is a double edged sward. Cow numbers will only increase enough to meet the demand for the end product which is not a calf at weaning time it is hamburger, steaks, and roasts at slaughter time. We will continue to become more efficient in the future and that may lead to more cow liquidation while still maintaining or increasing the pounds of beef sold to consumers.

KY  |  November, 29, 2012 at 07:53 AM

Mark, you are right. Numbers never tell the whole story. You and the beef industry are also very fortunate to that some folks like you have been born into a job that has educated and prepared you for work that you enjoy. Not many younger people are in your situation and most can't even dream of ranching. Don't be fooled by technology into abandoning good stewardship practices or bringing in higher-cost tools that don't take into consideration the environment where your cattle must survive. The soil under your cattle's hooves, and the long knowledge your experience provides, and your history on the land are your greatest assets. Continue to take care of your land, choose cattle that work well on it, and your land will inform you (better than any genome map) what kind of cattle you should be raising. How many people know how many acres it took to run a cow two generations ago? Keep up your good work. Observe, respond and adapt--and then inform others.

Kansas  |  December, 01, 2012 at 01:01 PM

One thing nobody talks about is the tonnage of beef that comes out of the dairy's today. The average dairy only keeps a cow 3 to 5 years and she weighs 1500 to 1800 lbs. + on the way to the packing house. Then there is the dairy steers that use to be veal that now go as fat steers because of the animal rights people. Add it all up and the beef cow herd doesn't need to be as big. It's just the packer and feedyards that have to much capacity and say we need more cattle. I don't know anyone with pasture for a hundred cows that is only running fifty you can't afford to. Mother nature determines stocking rates.

W.F. Hendrix    
Washington  |  December, 03, 2012 at 08:26 AM

Good article. I am glad to actually see the numbers.

SD  |  December, 03, 2012 at 07:15 PM

Good article. Interesting comments. I'm wondering what part the fact that some of our 'planners' who don't want the 'dirty' parts of agriculture messing up our landscape will play in this. As in when Al Gore made the comment a few years ago that raising food animals would have to be overseas in the future. Re. knowing how many acres it takes to run a cow, we are the third generation on this ranch, four and five actively participating and six waiting to learn the ropes. Even our first generation knew how many acres it took! And knew as well, that conservation of grass was paramount in this arid rangeland.

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