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U.S. cattle inventory at lowest level since 1951

U.S. cattle inventory at lowest level since 1951

DALEVILLE—In its fifth consecutive year of decline, the U.S. cattle inventory reached its lowest level since 1951.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that as of Jan. 1, U.S. cattle and calves totaled 87.2 million head, down 2% from last year. The decline is largely due to cattle producers having to sell their herds as they contend with severe dry weather and increased feed and input costs. Fewer female cattle available for breeding means it will take time to restock herd populations.

“The cow herd doesn’t come back overnight,” explained Robert Mills, a Pittsylvania County cattle producer and member of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Livestock Advisory Committee. “It’ll take about three years (to rebuild herds) once you start seeing heifers being retained.”

The low cattle supply combined with high demand for beef could lead to higher prices in the grocery store, as processors will have to compete for cattle. However, “increases in imported cattle and beef will likely limit the impact that will be felt at the grocery store,” explained Brandon Reeves, executive director of the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association.

“We have already seen a huge increase in the number of feeder cattle imported from Mexico thanks to the free trade agreement we have with them,” Reeves said.

He noted that Virginia’s cattle producers could benefit from the lower national numbers, as the commonwealth is primarily a cow-calf state. Cow-calf operations are those on which farmers keep a permanent herd of beef cattle that will produce calves for later sale. Lower national inventories “should help our producers by driving up the demand and price for Virginia feeder cattle. Producers will have difficult decisions to make on whether they sell or retain replacement heifers,” Reeves said.

Mills echoed that sentiment.

“Over the last two years, we’ve seen an increase in price, and there’s profitability in the cow-calf side of things right now,” Mills said. “As a cattle producer, I’m encouraged by lower national numbers because that tells me the prices will remain relatively strong until we see that herd rebuild.”

While national numbers have shown a decline, Virginia’s cattle inventory ticked up slightly. According to a USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service report released Jan. 31, Virginia’s total cattle inventory as of Jan. 1 was 1.32 million head—up 30,000 from last year.

Mills noted that increase is a drop in the bucket compared to Virginia’s overall cattle sector, but it could be a sign that Virginia farmers are responding to the higher prices and are keeping more heifers for breeding to rebuild herds.

“That’s kinda the way the cycle works,” he said. “With these higher prices, you’ll see some people begin to retain some heifers, and you should see the cattle herd starting to turn in the other direction.”

Media: Contact Reeves at 540-992-1009 or Mills at 434-441-0272.