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New report shows fewest cattle in US since 1973

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The U.S. cattle herd on July 1 was the smallest it’s been since the federal government began issuing data in 1973, according to a new report released July 25.

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There were 95 million cattle and cows nationwide, 3 percent less than two years earlier, says the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The July cattle numbers report wasn’t issued last year because of federal government budget problems.

There had been speculation that record-high beef and cattle prices would have boosted cattle numbers in the new report. But Tim Petry, livestock marketing specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, wasn’t surprised by the decline.

The 2012 mid-summer herd size number came just as drought was beginning to force many U.S. cattle producers to sell animals. Had the 2013 mid-summer report been issued, it would have shown fewer cattle than a year earlier, he says.

It’s uncertain if the U.S. has more cattle now than a year ago, he says.

“We might have marginally more,” Petry says.

The strong beef and cattle prices have caused many cattle producers to consider expanding their herd. Expansion takes time, however. Producers must hold back calves from slaughter, and several years are needed for those cows to be bred and give birth and for their calves to grow big enough for market.

“It’s a long process,” Petry says.

Cattle prices, though strong for several years, have soared particularly high in the past eight or nine months. As a result, some producers probably decided only recently to expand their herds, and too little time has passed to put that decision into practice, he says.

Another factor: Cattle prices are so strong that some producers, especially ones nearing retirement, are selling animals instead of holding them, in hopes of making even more money later on, Petry says.

He cautions against reading too much into the comparison of cattle numbers in 1973 and 2014. The beef industry has become more efficient in the past four decades, which allows more meat to be produced from one animal, he says.

Other findings of the July 25 report:

  • The U.S. calf crop this year is pegged at 33.6 million, down 1 percent from last year and down 2 percent from two years ago.

  • An estimated 24.3 million calves were born in the first half of 2014. That’s down 2 percent from the same period in 2013 and down 3 percent from the same period in 2012.

The report released July 25 didn’t contain state cattle numbers. But the NASS report issued in late January of this year found beef cattle numbers had increased in North Dakota, but declined nationally and in Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota. That reflected good hay supplies in North Dakota and generally poor supplies elsewhere.

Petry says he sees signs of herd rebuilding nationally.

“I think we’re slowly rebuilding the herd, and that will begin to show up” in the January 2015 NASS cattle numbers report, he says.

He also thinks cattle prices will remain strong for at least several more years.

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