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Two sides of the heifer coin

The replacement heifer herd is decreasing, but all eyes are out on when the push to grow the overall herd will happen.

Derrell Peel, Livestock marketing specialist

May 14, 2024

3 Min Read
When will the cattle herd begin to recover?
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There are numerous unique factors that make the beef cattle industry complex.  Chief among those are the heifer dynamics that are central to cattle cycles. Two biological facts are critical: cows have one calf at a time in a rather slow biological process; and two, heifers can be used for current beef production or breeding for future production in a one for one trade-off. This means that when cattle numbers, specifically the cow herd, are low, retention of heifers to increase beef production makes the already short supply of beef even smaller before the cow inventory can expand and lead to increased beef production with 2–3-year lag. 

Replacement heifers

Table 1 summarizes the last four cyclical beef cow herd expansions since 1975.  With the exception of the truncated 2005-2006 expansion, the other three cycles have several similar characteristics.  In most cases, the total increase in the cow herd from trough to peak is 2.2 to 2.9 million head, an increase of 5.8 to 9.4 percent. 

The corresponding increase in replacement heifers ranged from 1.1 to just over 1.2 million head in three of the four cycles. The most recent cycle, from 2014-2019, was different in that the increase in beef replacement heifers started prior to herd expansion and ended prior to the peak in herd inventory. This is likely an indication that there was pent up desire to expand that was delayed due to drought in 2011-2013.

Table 1.  Cattle Cycle Herd Expansions Since 1975


Beef Cow

Inventory Increase

% Change

Beef Replacement Heifer Inventory Increase

1,000 Head

1,000 Head

















*1991-1995; **2012-2017

The inverse relationship between heifers used for beef production and heifers retained for breeding is shown in Figure 1. The blue line (left side scale) shows heifers as a percent of total fed slaughter from 1975-2023, while the red columns (right side scale) indicate the percent change in beef replacement heifer inventory from the previous year. The green ovals highlight cyclical herd expansions in Table 1.  In each case, as the beef replacement heifer inventory increases, the percentage of heifers in the fed slaughter total necessarily declines. The decline in this percentage in the most recent cycle was especially sharp, dropping below 34 percent for three years, the lowest levels in the 49 years from 1975-2023. 


Figure 1 provides some insights into the future. The far-right side of the graph shows that heifer slaughter as a percent of fed slaughter is as high as it has ever been at 40 percent in 2023. This matches the previous high of 40 percent in 2000 and 2001. 

At the same time, the replacement heifer inventory has been decreasing and the beef cow herd continues to get smaller. In the first quarter of 2024, the heifer slaughter percentage was 40.5 percent, down fractionally year over year for the same period.  

What about the next herd expansion?

It is not clear if the next herd expansion will require the heifer slaughter percentage to drop as much as the 2015-2017 period, but it must drop below the long-run average of just over 37 percent and likely to the 35-36 percent range. There is no indication that is happening yet.

About the Author(s)

Derrell Peel

Livestock marketing specialist, Oklahoma State University

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