Editor's Notebook: Will We Rebuild the Cowherd?

January 10, 2013 10:00 AM

There’s interesting speculation about when and how the nation’s cowherd will start rebuilding. The drought has put a snag in normal cattle movement, but with a bit of moisture this spring, we could see cow–calf producers finally decide to build up herds or at least start retaining more heifers.

Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University livestock economist, did a series of articles last month asking: Can we rebuild the cowherd? In addressing that question, he looked at areas other than weather that will impact the cowherd’s future.

Land availability. In his outlook, Peel says that increases in crop prices are encouraging farmers to plant land rather than use it for livestock grazing or forage production.

"In the absence of land-use data, changes in cattle inventories across states already indicate some of the anticipated regional impacts of high crop values. From Jan. 1, 2007, to Jan. 1. 2012, the U.S. beef cowherd decreased by 2.76 million head, or 8.5%," Peel says. "In the Midwest, including the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky and
Tennessee, the five-year decrease in beef cow inventory ranged from 11.4% to more than 22%, with an average of a 14.2% decrease.

"By contrast, 12 states in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions experienced beef cowherd changes that ranged from an increase of more than 5% to a decrease of 7.5%, with an average 2.6% decreaseacross the region. Texas and Oklahoma experienced sharp decreases from 2011 to 2012 due to drought but had a similar 3.1% decrease in the 2007 to 2011 period.

"This indicates that the beef cowherd is decreasing more rapidly in regions where competition with crops is greater," Peel says. "As a result, an increasing share of the total beef cowherd will be located in drier regions of the country in the future."

At the helm. He also addresses the "who" behind herd rebuilding, citing the aging farmer population. He says USDA data from 2011 indicates that among the 654,000 cattle farms in the country, 64% are owned by farmers who are 55 or older. Add to that the difficulty young producers have getting the financing to go into or remain in the cattle business, and it raises the question of who will be able to take the baton and run with it to rebuild the cattle herd.

With the challenges ahead, there will also be opportunities to grow cattle herds and help younger producers get involved. You can read Peel’s series of articles at www.beeftoday.com.

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