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2012 Census Suggests Permanent Cow Herd Reduction in the East

2012 Census Suggests Permanent Cow Herd Reduction in the East
Crop prices drive pasture acres down and cut cow numbers significantly in the eastern half of the country

Comparing the new 2012 Census of Agriculture with the previous version in 2007 suggests some fundamental shifts which may affect the beef industry.

First, the new census shows the amount of land in farms dropped almost 1% over the past five years, despite the boom in agricultural commodity prices, says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University extension livestock marketing specialist.

The USDA found 914.5 million acres of land in farms in 2012. It is divided this way:
• 389.7 million acres of cropland
• 77.0 million acres of woodland
• 415.3 million acres of permanent pasture/range
• 32.5 million acres of farmsteads, roads, ponds, etc.

Crop prices drive pasture acres down and cut cow numbers significantly in the eastern half of the country.

Together, cropland and permanent pasture/range make up 88% of the total land in farms. Total cropland includes harvested cropland of 315 million acres, or 80.8% of total cropland. The remainder was cropland pastured or land that was idled, including a roughly 4-million-acre increase in land with crop failure or which was abandoned - likely due to the 2012 drought.

Although total cropland was down 4.1% from the 2007 census, harvested cropland was up 1.7% over the five-year period. The harvested cropland total includes acres of hay harvested, which decreased 6.6 million acres (11.3%) from 2007 to 2012. The woodland total includes about 28 million acres, or 36.4% of woodland acres that is pastured.

Related: USDA Releases Full Results of 2012 Ag Census

The importance of these numbers, Peel says, is that the classification of total farmland into cropland (42.6%) and permanent pasture/range (45.4%) roughly mirrors the magnitudes of crop and livestock production in the nation.

Permanent pasture and range represents areas where cropping is not possible and is only usable for grazing.

Cropland, however, includes some acres directly related to cattle production including harvested hay acres and cropland used for pasture.

Therefore, total pastureland in the US consists of permanent pasture/range, woodland pastured and cropland used as pasture. This last category represents the buffer or interface between crop and forage production in the US because it can be switched from pasture to crop production, depending on relative crop and forage values and landowner preference, Peel says.


Converting pastured cropland to crop production is relatively easy and not terribly expensive. However, because it is quite costly to return cropland into pasture, it usually reflects a long-term (more than one year decision) about land use, Peel says.

This is the land use category that changed the most from the 2007 census to the 2012 census. Cropland used for pasture dropped from 35.8 million acres in 2007 to 12.8 million acres in 2012 -- a 64% decrease. This demonstrates the strong incentives that high crop prices place pasture availability, or as Peel calls it, upon "reallocating more agricultural land resources into crop production."

Total pastureland in the U.S. decreased by 17.1 million acres (3.6%) from 2007 to 2012. This was due to the 23 million acre decrease in acres of cropland pastured and happened despite a 6.5-million-acre increase in permanent pasture/range.

The amount of woodland pastured decreased very slightly from 2007 to 2012 and so had little effect on available grazing lands.

In 2012, the amount of cropland pastured represented 2.8% of total pasture acres, compared with 7.6% in 2007. The significance of this loss of pasture acres is substantially larger than suggested by these percentages, Peel says.

Related: Ag Census: Farms are Fewer, But More Diverse

Cropland pasture is usually significantly more productive than permanent pasture/range on a per-acre basis, so the loss of these acres represents a significantly higher impact on forage production and national beef carrying capacity. This loss in pasture production, combined with an 11.3% decrease in hay acres, implies a significant decrease in total forage production potential in the nation.

"These changes in land use suggest the dramatic jump in crop values that began in late 2006 are resulting in structural change in agriculture that has profound implications for the cattle industry," Peel says. "These changes impact how, how much and where cattle production will take place."

Although ongoing drought in the southwestern states has significantly cut cow numbers, the changes in pastureland and cropland in more eastern states appear to be much more structural and long-lasting, Peel suggests.

The U.S. beef cow herd decreased by 11% from 2007 to 2014, dropping from 32.6 to 29.0 million head. Officially, drought has been responsible for a 25% decrease in Texas cow numbers, a 12% decrease in Oklahoma cow numbers, and a 16% decrease in New Mexico cow numbers. Most of the decrease in these states has happened  since 2011 and significant rebuilding of the beef cow herd in these states is expected when conditions permit.


However, decreases in the beef cow herd in much of the eastern half of the country are significant for their amount and their long-lived nature. For example, from 2007 to 2014, the beef cow herd decreased 12% in Iowa, 16% in Illinois, 18% in Indiana, 14% in Missouri, 16% in Kentucky, 23% in Tennessee, 14% in Minnesota and 18% in Georgia.

If we recall the national 3.6% decline in pasture and the 64% decline in cropland used as pasture, the data shows much of this was in the eastern states.

In the eastern half of the country, including the Midwest, Great Lakes, Appalachian, Gulf and South regions, pastured cropland, which accounted for 21% of total pasture land in 2007, dropped to less than 7% in 2012. By contrast, in the Rocky Mountain and Plains regions, cropland pastured represented less than 6% of total pasture in 2007 and dropped to 2% in 2012. The result is an average decrease in total pasture of 12% in the eastern half of the country compared with a 2% decrease in the Rocky Mountain and Plains regions, Peel says.

Further, the real impacts of this eastern regional loss of cropland-used-as-pasture is considerably more than the acreage alone would indicate. The average carrying capacity in the eastern half of the country is less than five acres per cow. Across the Plains and Rocky Mountain regions the average is more than 22 acres per cow. Although this is a broad measure of stocking rates, it is indicative of the forage productivity in the two regions, Peel says.

Although there is only 17% the amount of pasture acres in the East compared with the West, the number of cows in the eastern half of the country was 75% of the number of cows in the Plains and Rocky Mountain regions in the 2012 census. This percentage is similar in the 2007 census, but the 2012 census includes the impacts of the drought.

Drought recovery at some point is likely to result in herd rebuilding in the west, particularly in the Southern Plains. In the east, however, Peel believes the loss of pasture acreage likely means cow inventories there will be permanently reduced.

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