The October USDA monthly Cattle on Feed report showed no surprises. September placements were close to expectations at 96 percent of last year, as were marketings at 98 percent of one year ago, leading to an October 1 on-feed total of 10.2 million head or 102.3 percent of last year. The relatively strong marketings number was confirmed by a 5.8 percent year over year increase in fed steer slaughter in September. This is an indication that progress was made to clean up a bulge of heavy fed cattle in the last half of September.
There are indications that more progress was made in the first half of October though carcass weights have continued to increase, with steer carcasses averaging 928 pounds for the week ending October 10. This value is 29 pounds heavier than the 899 pound average for the same period last year. Interestingly, bull carcasses currently average 899 pounds, the same as steers one year ago and 29 pounds less than current steer carcass weights. Steer carcass weights exceeded bull carcass weights for the first time in October, 2011 and have done so a few months seasonally since then. However, steer carcass weights have exceeded bull carcass weights by a record amount the past two weeks.
The quarterly breakdown of steers and heifers in feedlots in the latest report confirms, as expected, that heifers are being retained for herd expansion. The number of heifers on feed on October 1 was down 7 percent from one year earlier, the thirteenth consecutive year over year decrease in quarterly heifers on feed since July, 2012. At the same time, the inventory of steers in feedlots was up 7.4 percent, continuing a strong trend of year over year increases in steers on-feed in 2015. Fewer heifers and more steers in feedlots have pushed the ratio of steers to heifers up sharply in recent months reflects the changing demographics of fed cattle production during herd expansion. The ratio of steers to heifers in feedlots since April of this year has reached levels not seen since the cyclical expansion in the early 1990s. The quarterly data on the breakdown of feedlot inventory only goes back to 1994. Similar indications are shown by the ratio of steer to heifer slaughter, for which the data goes back much farther. A 12 month moving average of the ratio of steer to heifer monthly slaughter for September is at the highest level since June, 1975. The current ratio of steer to heifer slaughter exceeds levels that occurred in the cyclical expansion of the early 1990s as well as the truncated expansion in 2004-2005.
This confirms, not only that the industry is in the midst of herd expansion, but that it is a very aggressive herd expansion. It is not clear how long this aggressive herd expansion will persist nor whether the recent market shakeup may have tempered expansion plans. How much herd expansion will occur and how fast it will happen are both moving targets that will be determined by both demand and supply factors in the coming months/years.