April Cattle on Feed – What to Make of March Placements

USDA released the April Cattle on Feed report on Friday, April 21st. This monthly publication estimates the number of cattle on feed at feedlots with a capacity of over 1,000 head and serves as a measure of likely beef production over the next several months. While the cow herd has been decreasing in size for several years, an increase in the number of heifers in the beef system kept on-feed numbers running relatively high for much of 2022. Finally in the fall, the long-expected shift occurred, and on-feed numbers have been running below year-ago levels since then.

In Friday’s report, April 1, 2023, on-feed inventory was estimated to be down about 4.5% from April 1, 2022. While this might not immediately raise any eyebrows from casual observers, this on feed number was higher than expected and really came down to March placements being greater than most pre-report estimates. The net effect was that total on-feed inventory was virtually unchanged from March 1 to April 1, which was counter to what many expected. 

Heifers continue to make up a historically large proportion of cattle on feed.  Fewer heifers were reported on feed than on April 1, 2022.  While steers on feed declined by 6 percent, heifers on feed were only down about 1.7 percent from last year.  That indicates that there has not been a large movement in holding back heifers yet. 

There are some possible explanations for the larger-than-expected March placements number. First, March is a month when cattle are often moved off wheat pasture and continued dry weather combined with high wheat prices, likely impacted movement of feeders. Secondly, live cattle imports from Mexico were higher in March. So far this year, feeder cattle imports from Mexico are up about 95,000 head from last year.  But it’s worth remembering that feeder cattle imports in 2022 were the fewest since 2008.  Finally, there is still a lot of carry on the feeder cattle board, meaning that feedlots have been aggressively buying feeders ahead, in anticipation of the rising price levels suggested by deferred live cattle futures. Put simply, I absolutely think that feedlot placements bears watching in the coming months, but I suspect the larger placement number last month has more to do with timing than a major shift in market fundamentals.