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U.S. cattle inventory hits nine-year high

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While the beef cow herd shows the industry is continuing herd expansion, replacement heifer numbers suggest that heifer retention is slowing and expansion is winding down.

While the beef cow herd shows the industry is continuing herd expansion, replacement heifer numbers suggest that heifer retention is slowing and expansion is winding down.

Beef and dairy cattle and calves in the U.S. on July 1 totaled 103 million, 4 percent higher than July 1, 2015. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service suspended the mid-year inventory report in 2016 and 2013, but the most recent July 1 inventory count is the highest since 2008.

The higher count was expected, considering herd expansion efforts since 2014. Without a 2016 mid-year report, there were no comparisons but looking at the last two years, the numbers clearly show significant growth in the total herd and in the beef cow herd in particular, said Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University extension livestock marketing specialist.

At 32.5 million, the number of beef cows, including heifers that have calved, is 7 percent above the 2015 mid-year count. And the ratio of the July beef cow inventory to the January level (104 percent) is the highest since 1993, during the last full-blown herd expansion, he said.

Compared with historical data, “that’s a big enough ratio to confirm we are still expanding the cow herd this year,” he said.

The data on replacement heifers are a little harder to interpret, but the numbers are quite a bit smaller in this report, suggesting heifer retention is slowing, he said.

Beef replacement heifers on July 1 were down 2 percent from July 2015, and the ratio of those heifers to January’s count is the lowest in the data series, he said.

It’s harder to see a cyclical effect in replacement heifer ratios than in beef cow ratios, but the July to January ratio is 73 percent, compared with a long-term average of 89 percent, he said.

In addition, heifer slaughter is up 11 percent thus far in 2017, and the number of heifers on feed was up 11 percent in the 2nd quarter of this year.

“All those things together would seem to suggest we’re not saving heifers as aggressively as we have,” he said.

The 2017 calf crop is expected to be 36.3 million head, up 3 percent from 2016 and up 6 percent from 2015, USDA reported.

“It’s just part of the story of ongoing herd expansion. We expected it would be bigger,” Peel said.

That means more feeder cattle supplies and increased beef production for another couple of years, he said.

The estimated feeder cattle supply outside of feedlots is 37 million head, 5 percent above the 35.4 million head on July 1, 2015, USDA said.

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