Dr. Kenny Burdine, Livestock Marketing Specialist, University of Kentucky


USDA’s January Cattle Inventory Report suggested that growth in the size of the US cow herd was slowing. July’s numbers generally pointed in a similar direction. Both beef cow numbers and total cattle and calves were up about 1% from July 2017, which suggests a more moderate growth rate. This was coupled a 2% reduction in heifers held for beef cow replacement. Beef heifer retention as a percent of beef cow inventory was 14.2%, which generally does not suggest expansion. While this is significant, I tend to put more stock in the January numbers than the July numbers and January heifer retention was still pointing to some herd growth.

Several factors drive beef cow numbers, with calf prices likely at the top of the list. Our current calf market is very similar to where it was last year. Given the much higher meat supplies and uncertainty on the international trade front, I actually think this cattle market has been incredibly resilient. While many producers aren’t pleased with calf prices, I don’t think calf prices are low enough yet to be encouraging liquidation at the national level. On the other hand, weather is becoming a growing concern for many.

While there are always exceptions, this has been an excellent year for forage growth in Kentucky. A quick glance at the drought monitor would suggest it has been pretty good year for much of the southeast. However, dry conditions are becoming a larger issue for a good portion of cattle country. Significant drought (and abnormally dry conditions) appears to extend from Missouri south to Louisiana and west from there, taking in much of the southern plains. While we don’t get state-level estimates in July, it is very possible that this may partially explain the decreased heifer retention. As we move towards fall, it will be interesting to see if we see much movement of cows, or increased cow slaughter, in the region. This has the potential to greatly impact beef cow numbers between now and winter.

Lastly, I would briefly comment on cattle-on-feed numbers. July 1 cattle-on-feed numbers were estimated to be 4% above year-ago levels. I would remind everyone that cattle-on-feed numbers were up 9% in March. From a big picture perspective, feedlot inventory was going to be larger in 2018 because the 2017 calf crop was larger. But, feedlot inventories were also artificially higher this spring due to poor wheat grazing conditions last winter forcing a lot of calves on feed sooner than usual. It continues to appear that we have worked through a lot of that inventory. A summary of the mid-year inventory report can be seen in the following table.

(1,000 hd)
(1,000 hd)
2018 as % of 2017
Total Cattle and Calves 102,200 103,200 101
Cows and Heifers That Have Calved 41,600 41,900 101
     Beef Cows 32,200 32,500 101
     Milk Cows 9,400 9,400 100
Heifers 500 Pounds and Over 16,200 16,300 101
     For Beef Cow Replacement 4,700 4,600 98
     For Milk Cow Replacement 4,200 4,200 100
     Other Heifers 7,300 7,500 103
Steers 500 Pounds and Over 14,500 14,500 100
Bulls 500 Pounds and Over 2,000 2,100 105
Calves Under 500 Pounds 27,900 28,400 102
Calf Crop 35,808 36,500 102
Cattle on Feed 12,800 13,300 104

Source: Ohio Beef Cattle Letter