Wallaces Farmer

Less land, fewer cows?

Livestock Outlook: Stiff competition for land may curtail future growth of the Iowa beef cow herd. Some contraction may lie ahead.

Lee Schulz

June 16, 2022

6 Min Read
Cattle in barn
CATTLE INVENTORY: Iowa’s cattle inventory increased, while several other states had a decrease in numbers.Jennifer Carrico

USDA’s Cattle Inventory report showed Iowa’s cattle herd grew more than 4% in 2021. Iowa bucked the national trend. The U.S. all cattle and calves inventory shrank 2%.

Iowa’s inventory of beef cows, milk cows, bulls, replacement heifers, and other steers and heifers on Jan. 1 totaled 3.85 million head. That was up 150,000 head from Jan. 1, 2021.

A 65,000-head surge in Iowa beef cows drove the total Iowa inventory higher. Iowa boasts 3.1% of the nation’s beef cows. This is up from 2.8% a year earlier.

Expansion drivers

Producers have many ways to boost beef cow numbers. Some are retaining additional heifers from within the herd, culling fewer cows than they usually do, and buying breeding stock. Producers can grow herds faster by buying bred females. With this, some relocation of beef cows can occur.

Deciding whether to expand cow herds is more challenging and more complicated. A few considerations include availability of pasture and price of feedstuffs, land values and rental rates, expected cattle prices, herd productivity and personal reasons. Some of these take more precedent than others in some places and in some years. The old adage of “Ya gotta feed ’em to breed ’em” rings true.

Predicting aggregate cattle inventory numbers and potential price changes is complex. Many micro-decisions by many individual producers result in aggregate impacts.

Iowa ducks drought impact

States south and west of Iowa saw large reductions in beef cow inventories from Jan. 1, 2021, to Jan. 1, 2022. South Dakota lost 189,000 beef cows. Missouri had 94,000 head fewer. Nebraska dipped 48,000 beef cows. North Dakota lost 20,000 beef cows. At the same time, Iowa and Minnesota added 65,000 and 25,000 beef cows, respectively.

Certainly, drought contributed to falling beef cow numbers in some states. As of Dec. 1, hay stocks in North and South Dakota were down 43% from a year earlier. On the other hand, Iowa’s Dec. 1 hay stock was up 28% year over year. And, even with much higher cattle inventories in Iowa in 2022, Iowa’s May 1 hay stock was 67% above May 1, 2021, and the highest since 2009.

Multiple sources of growth

All told, the data and circumstances suggest that Iowa is growing the beef cow herd from within as well as because of what other states have had to do. The target population for the January Cattle inventory survey conducted by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service is all agricultural establishments with one or more head of cattle on the land operated. So, they are asking producers, how many beef cows do you have at your location, regardless of ownership?

Stories abound of ranches elsewhere forced to sell off parts of their herds because of drought. Some cows went to an exceptionally strong cull cow market. Others went to where pastures hadn’t dried up. Some producers paid to place cows on other farms that had forage.

Pasture availability drives regional differences within Iowa. Iowa’s South Central District has 16% of the state’s beef cow herd. Iowa’s North Central District has just 2.7% of Iowa’s beef cows.

Competition for grazing could rise

Lack of snow cover in Iowa last December allowed livestock to continue grazing on cornstalks. Little supplemental hay was needed. This helped boost beef cow stocking capacity in Iowa and helped hold down costs.

The 2017 Census of Agriculture recorded 2.36 million acres of pastureland in Iowa. That works out to about 2.6 acres per cow-calf pair.

If producers keep growing Iowa beef cow numbers, pasture acres per cow would drop. Iowa cow-calf producers would become more vulnerable to weather challenges, such as drought. Even if weather cooperates, some producers may trim use of high-priced fertilizer, which could lower stocking rates and cows per acre.

High crop prices always have potential to rob land from cattle. Changing from cattle to crop production can occur in one season. The reverse is harder and takes more time.

Ultimately, cattle need land. Land is a precious and pricey commodity.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service recently released its Jan. 1 county-level estimates of all cattle and calves, beef cows that have calved, and milk cows that have calved.

Iowa ranks 10th in beef cow inventory. Seven Iowa counties make the top-100 list of America’s leading beef cow counties. Ranking No. 64 is Ringgold County, with 26,500 beef cows. Ringgold County is tied with eight counties spanning from California to two counties in Nebraska, two counties in Oklahoma, and one county apiece in Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas. The list has many ties. Jackson County is tied for 70th with 23,500 beef cows. Union (T-85th), Allamakee (T-86th), Clayton (T-89th), Crawford (T-91st), and Lucas (T-98th) round out the top 100 list.

Iowa’s 3.85 million cattle and calves make it the seventh-largest state by total cattle inventory. While Iowa is home to just 4.2% of the nation’s cattle, Iowa boasts four of the top 50 total cattle inventory counties. The size of the cattle feeding industry is a driver of all cattle and calves inventory. This is especially the case in Iowa, where 30% of the total cattle inventory on Jan. 1 was cattle on feed. Only Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska have higher percentages. Nationally, cattle in feedlots run only 16% of the total cattle inventory.

Coming in tied for 48th in total cattle inventory across all 3,007 U.S. counties is Plymouth County, Iowa, home to 110,000 cattle. Dubuque County is tied for 43rd with 130,000 cattle, and Lyon County is tied for 32nd with 185,000 cattle.

Huge economic impact

One county in Iowa cracks the nation’s top 10 counties in total cattle numbers. Coming in at No. 9 is Sioux County, Iowa, home to 405,000 cattle. Only 15,200 head are beef cows and 36,500 head are milk cows, which is the largest county dairy cow inventory in the state. The 2020 census tallied 35,872 people in Sioux County. Cattle outnumber people by more than 11 to 1. Sioux County has more cattle than 13 U.S. states, including West Virginia, South Carolina, Vermont, Maryland, Hawaii, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Alaska, Delaware and Rhode Island.

A study on the Economic Importance of Iowa’s Beef Industry found that Sioux County accounts for 12% of the total economic contribution (jobs, labor income, value added and output) of cattle production in Iowa. The next highest is Lyon County at 5% and then Dubuque County at 3%.

USDA protects confidentiality

Some county-level data does not meet publication standards but is published in the “Other counties” estimate or represents zero. The All Cattle and Calves inventory is printed for every county in Iowa, but there are 28 counties where a beef cow inventory and 51 counties where a milk cow inventory is not provided.

Some county-level estimates are withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual operations. For example, the Jan. 1 All Cattle and Calves inventory for Story County, Iowa, was 16,200 head. A Jan. 1 beef cow inventory was not reported for Story County. Similarly, a milk cow inventory was withheld for Story County. Story County’s beef cow and milk cow numbers are included in the “Other counties” estimate of 239,100 head and 34,300 head, respectively. The last Census of Agriculture in 2017 said Story County had 126 beef cow operations and 2 milk cow operations. Similar to now, the beef cow and milk cow inventories were withheld at that time to avoid disclosing data for individual operations.

Cattle inventory estimates for Iowa counties in 2021-22 are available from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Iowa Field Office County Estimates webpage. Historical and current estimates are also available from USDA’s Quick Stats database and can be viewed or downloaded in a spreadsheet.

About the Author(s)

Lee Schulz

Lee Schulz is the Iowa State University Extension livestock economist.

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