February 5, 2024


US beef cattle herd hits lowest levels since 1951 due to prolonged drought


The US beef cattle herd, grappling with a relentless two-year drought, has dwindled to levels unseen since 1951, according to the latest annual survey from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Beef Central reported.


The USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service released its annual cattle report, revealing that as of January 1, there were 87.2 million head of cattle and calves on US farms. This marks the lowest level in 73 years and signifies a substantial impact on the American beef industry, influencing both domestic production and international competition.


The implications extend to Australia's export beef industry, raising questions about the potential for increased exports to the US and heightened competition in key markets such as Japan, Korea, and China, where the US and Australian beef sectors go head-to-head.


Key findings from the report include the total inventory of 87.2 million head, with 37.6 million being cows and heifers that have calved. Beef cow numbers at 28.2 million, reflecting a 2% decline of 700,000 head from the previous year.


The report also showed the US calf crop estimated at 33.6 million, down 2.5% from the already reduced figures of 2022. All cattle on feed reaching 14.4 million head, marking a 2% increase from 2023.


Analysts highlight the surprising resilience of beef production levels in the US despite the prolonged drought's impact on herd numbers. The decline in replacements for beef cow heifers is a notable trend, influencing sentiments among cow-calf producers.


According to Len Steiner from Steiner Consulting, the smaller calf crop implies a reduction in US slaughter next year. He said that the phenomenon of higher slaughter numbers amid declining calf crops cannot continue indefinitely and anticipates a substantial dip in US slaughter levels within the next couple of years.


The report's revisions to last year's figures highlight the challenges faced by cow-calf producers and suggest a need for the cow herd to refresh. The smaller calf crop this year implies further declines in slaughter, and industry experts foresee a significant impact on US production in the coming years, reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2015 drought cycle.


-        Beef Central

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