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It's True: Beef Industry Shrank Again

Drought shifts cattle numbers by region but heifer numbers grow nationally.

By Derrell S. Peel

The annual cattle inventory report issued Friday by USDA confirmed suspicions the beef industry shrank, yet showed more heifer retention than expected.

The inventory of all cattle and calves on Jan. 1, 2012 was 90.77 million head, the smallest inventory since 1952. The inventory of beef cows was 29.88 million head, the smallest since 1962 and the 2011 calf crop was 35.31 million head, the smallest since 1950.  The estimated feeder supply on January 1 was 25.85 million head, down 1.06 million head or 3.9% from a year earlier.

The report also confirms the unprecedented impact of the 2011 drought in the Southern Plains which lead to the overall decrease in cattle inventories. Oklahoma experienced a decrease of 288,000 beef cows, down 14.3% in one year. This was by far the biggest decrease in Oklahoma as the result of a drought. The only bigger decrease occurred in 1976 as beef cow numbers fell from the all-time record levels after a brief spike.

Texas experienced a similar 13.1% decrease in beef cow numbers. In absolute terms this loss of 660,000 cows in Texas is the largest one year decline on record. Texas cattle inventories were down 10.5% while in Oklahoma the inventory of all cattle and calves was down 11.8%. New Mexico also experienced drought with all cattle and calves down 9.7% and beef cows down 10.9%.  Decreased cattle and cow numbers were also noted for Louisiana, Arkansas and Kansas.

The regional variation in this report was perhaps the most interesting component of the numbers. While the report confirms the impact of the drought in the Southern Plains, it also confirms the expansion in other states. Large increases in major cattle states were noted with beef cows in Iowa up 6.5%; Nebraska up 6.3% and Idaho up 5.2%. Some of this increase was due to relocation of cows from drought impacted regions and some was due to internal herd expansion.

The beef replacement heifer numbers indicated similar differences in regional impacts and intentions.

Sharp decreases in replacement heifers in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Missouri were offset by sharp increases in Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado. Overall, the national 1% increase in beef replacement heifers was the biggest surprise in the report relative to analysts' expectations.

Overall, the report confirms the dramatic regional differences in outcomes regarding cattle numbers in 2011.

Peel is extension livestock marketing specialist for Oklahoma State University.

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