The culling of beef cows was a major reason why the size of the beef herd decreased during 2021 as beef cow slaughter was up by almost 9% from 2020 levels. A frustrating calf market and drought in much of the US led to herd reductions as a lot of cows were sent to market. Year-over-year, the increase amounted to almost 300 thousand cows, which was roughly 1% of the US beef cow herd.
While calf prices have been higher in the first three months of 2022, a large portion of the US remains in significant drought. Most significantly for the cattle sector, drought moved into the Southern Plains during the fall of 2021 and has seemed to intensify over the last several months. The chart below shows beef cow slaughter for 2022 (blue line), which has been running well ahead of 2021 (dotted line). Year-to-date, beef cow slaughter has been over 16% higher, but it is worth noting the very low slaughter week last year as a result of the February 2021 ice storm. But, even taking that week out of the comparison, harvest levels are still more than 13% higher so far this year.
Beef heifer retention was lower coming into 2022, which suggests continued contraction in beef cow numbers. It is still early in the year, but beef cow slaughter through the first few weeks of March points to another year of heavy culling. The combination of dry weather and strong cull cow prices is likely to keep cows moving and encourage producers to pull the trigger a little sooner on those cows as they approach the end of their productive lives. This is definitely something to watch as we move through the current year.