For the past few years, beef cattle producers have been receiving strong economic signals to increase the size of the nation's cow herd. While recent market prices have been historically high, expansion has been limited across much of the country due to large areas of significant drought. However, the situation has changed to the point where drought conditions currently exist only in the far west and in the southern tip of Florida.
Based on last week's release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service semi-annual Cattle report, expectations have become reality. As of July 1, 2015, all cattle and calves in the United States totaled 98.4 million head which represents a 2 percent increase above July 1, 2014. This represents the first increase in the total inventory since the July 1, 2006 inventory.
All cows and heifers that will calve in 2015 reached 39.8 million head, up 2 percent from 2014. This total represents 30.5 million beef cows, up 3 percent, and 9.3 million milk cows, up 1 percent, from the previous year. The 2015 calf crop is expected to be 34.3 million head, up 1 percent from 2014. It has been projected that 72.3 percent of the 2015 calf crop will be born between January 1 - June 30 and 27.7 percent of the crop will calve in the July 1 - December 31 time frame.
Cattle and calves on feed for the slaughter market for all U.S. feedlots totaled 12.1 million head on July 1, 2015, up 2 percent from 12 months earlier. Feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 or more head accounted for 85 percent of the total cattle on feed on July 1, 2015.
CattleFax, a firm focused on beef industry research and analysis, provides more indicators of aggressive expansion of the beef cow herd. Beef cow slaughter is on pace to be the smallest in at least 45 years. The percentage of heifers being placed in feedlots compared to steers continues to run very small. This reduction in feedlot heifer placements has resulted in an increase in over 300,000 head of beef replacement females added to herds in the previous year.
Much like grain producers, beef producers are showing the ability to increase overall production levels with the proper motivation. Simply put, market prices created the desire for expansion amongst cattlemen. Mother Nature's cooperation of providing adequate rainfall and improved pasture conditions across much of the country has resulted in the capability to expand the nation's beef inventory.