For the fourth straight month, the number of cattle in U.S. feedlots with capacity for 1,000 or more head increased slightly from a year ago. According the USDA’s February Cattle on Feed report, feedyard inventories as of February 1 totaled 10.7 million head, up less than one percent from a year earlier.

Placements of cattle into feedlots during January totaled 1.79 million head, an 11 percent decline from those during January 2014. January placements were significantly lower than a year ago in every weight category except those placed at more than 800 pounds. January placements in that heaviest weight class were up by about 3 percent.

Feedlots placed more cattle than they marketed in January though. January marketings of fed cattle totaled 1.63 million, 9 percent below 2014. That total was the lowest for the month since the series began in 1996.

Feedlots with capacity for 1,000 head or more account for most of the finished cattle in the United States, and their share continues to grow, according to the report. As of January 1, cattle and calves on feed in feedlots with capacity of 1,000 or more head represented 81.6 percent of all cattle and calves on feed in the United States, up from 81.3 on January 1, 2014. During 2014, feedlots with capacity for 1,000 head or more accounted for 87.2 percent of the finished cattle marketed in the United States, up from 86.9 percent during 2013.

As of January 1, the number of steers on feed in U.S. feedyards was 2 percent higher than a year earlier, while the number of heifers on feed was down by 1 percent, an indication that ranchers kept more heifers for breeding during 2014 than they did the previous year.

Lower sale prices and high breakeven levels have pressured feedyard returns in recent weeks. According to our Sterling Profit Tracker, cattle feeders lost, on average, $77.03 per head during the week ending February 14. Feedlot margins fell nearly $45 from the previous week and are almost $284 lower than last year at this time when feedlots were earning more than $209 per head. Fed-cattle prices did gain a little ground during that week, with the USDA’s 5-Area direct price for live cattle climbing to $161.74 from $160.62 the previous week.

For this week (ending February 21) fed steers and heifers averaged about $160 per hundredweight.

View the full February Cattle on Feed report online from USDA.