Seasonal female price increases are expected from mid- to late-winter, and last month nearly every class of females posted price increases. That seasonal trend is often spurred by rising consumer beef demand and the general optimism that comes from longer days and the nearing of spring green-up.

This year some doubt about a mid-winter female price rally was justified due to the dramatic increase in feed costs. But tightening supplies of both slaughter cows and replacement females helped produce higher prices, at least during February.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual cattle inventory report indicated that U.S. beef cow numbers declined 1 percent (339,000 head) to 32.6 million head as of Jan. 1. That’s the largest decline in number since 1999.

Beef cow inventories declined in four of the top five beef cow states; Texas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota all saw declines, while Oklahoma’s inventory increased 3 percent.

Drought conditions in the Southeast, home to 25 percent of the nation’s cow herd, created a significant decline in cow numbers. The region saw an 18 percent increase in cow slaughter in 2007 compared with 2006. The Southeast’s decline accounted for nearly two-thirds of the nationwide decline in cow numbers.

Analysts do not expect beef cow numbers to grow during 2008, as profitability is likely to decline while input costs increase.

Like beef cow inventories, the number of beef cow operations also declined last year. USDA counted 757,900 total beef cow operations in the United States, down nearly 5,000 operations from 2006. Last year marked the 12th consecutive year in which the number of operations declined. The last year of any growth in the number of operations was 1995, and there are now 140,000 fewer operations than there were a dozen years ago.

February prices

In Drovers’ auction market summary, young and middle-aged, bred-female prices increased $87 per head, ending February at $870 per head. Aged, bred-cow prices increased $31 per head to $648. Bred-heifer prices declined $106 during February to $901 per head.

Young and middle-aged open females posted gains of $5.15 per hundredweight during February, ending at $61.50. Prices for aged cows increased $10.38 per hundredweight to $53.13. Heiferettes ended the month at $62.35, an increase of $1 per hundredweight.

Prices for cows with large calves saw an increase of $27 per pair to end February at $1,005. Prices for cows with small calves increased $38 per pair to average $851 per pair. Small or aged cows with calves declined $12 per pair to average $662.

Prices for canner and cutter cows increased $4.68 per hundredweight during February, ending at $43.75. Utility and commercial cow prices gained $5.61 per hundredweight, closing the month at $52.63 per hundredweight.