USDA released the annual Cattle inventory report on January 31st. Here are some thoughts and reactions to the report from our SAT livestock economists.
Kenny Burdine – University of Kentucky
The decrease in beef cow numbers during 2023 was very much in line with expectations – cattle supplies will remain tight. The percent decrease in heifer retention was smaller than what was estimated from 2022 to 2023, but the numbers retained was still lower. Unless there is a major drop in cow culling during 2024, it is hard to imagine the cowherd being larger in 2025. Put simply, the supply picture remains very bullish and futures markets responded positively on the day after the report.
Consistent with monthly estimates, January 1 on-feed inventory above (+1.6%) year-ago levels due to timing of placements, live cattle imports, heifers on feed, and increases in the number of days on feed in the latter part of 2023. This will likely change over the course of 2024.
I was surprised by the small increase in beef cow numbers in Kentucky. Based on cows moving through auction yards and impressions from my Extension travel, I fully expected another decrease in beef cow inventory. In fact, Kentucky was the only top 10 beef cow state that saw a year-over-year increase. Over the last few years, I have sensed a bit of a transition away from cow-calf interest and more towards backgrounding and stocker cattle. We have also lost a good deal of pasture ground to row-crops (and some to development) over the last several years, which is also relevant to the discussion.
Will Secor – University of Georgia
Georgia’s all cattle and calves inventory followed the national trend, dropping by 2% year-over-year. The number of beef replacement heifers stood out as they are down by about 5.5%, much more than the aggregate number. This is also a bigger drop than the number of beef cows that have calved (down 4%). These not only point to a lack of a turnaround, but that herd expansion may be slower as we start from an even smaller base when the rebuild does start.
Max Runge and Ken Kelley – Auburn University
Alabama’s Cattle and Calves January 1, 2024, inventory was 6.4 percent lower than January 2023. This is the fewest number of cattle in the state since 1943 and the largest percentage decrease in 20 years. Dry weather, lower hay availability, and poor winter grazing growing conditions (record low temperatures at the end of 2022 and a dry fall in 2023) have contributed to fewer cattle on farms. Beef cow replacement heifers were 10 percent fewer than the year before. Alabama dairy cattle inventory remained the same as the previous year.
Hannah Baker – University of Florida
Florida numbers for beef cattle declined by 3% from 888,000 to 862,000, but we are still ranked number 9 in beef cow production as decline in the top 8 states ranged from 2%-6%, with the exception of KY. The number of replacement heifers also declined by 4% in Florida, indicating that most producers are not rebuilding yet. The start of expansion in Florida will depend on the current and future management of forage and the timing of La Niña’s appearance. With the majority of Florida producers being in cow-calf sector, the focal point will be on feeder calf prices, and they certainly have not peaked and are not expected to peak at least over the next couple of years. Additionally, the value of female cattle will continue to rise once expansion becomes reality. The open-ended question: is the national cattle herd still declining or will we start seeing stabilization in 2024? Will producers continue taking advantage of high prices instead of rebuilding?
David Anderson – Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
Texas’ beef cow herd declined by 4.3 percent, to 4.115 million head. While the national cow herd eclipsed the lows following the drought of 2010-2012 there are more cows in Texas than following that drought (4.1 million in 2024 compared to 3.9 million in 2014). More beef heifers were held back for herd expansion than the prior year.