Cattle Economics: What is Going to Eat All the Grass in 2024?

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Andrew Griffith

Dr. Andrew Griffith
Assistant Professor
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
P: 865-974-7480

If a person read the title with hopes this article has to do with pasture or hay then that person will be sorely disappointed, because this article has to do with declining cattle inventory. By the time this article reaches many readers, they will likely have read several articles concerning cattle inventory, but maybe there will be some additional light shed on the subject in the next 700 words. So, it is time to get started.

All cattle and calves as of January 1, 2024 totaled 87.2 million head, which is a 1.9 percent (1.7 million head) decline from the previous year. Beef cow inventory made up a large portion of that decline at 716,300 head (-2.5 percent) compared to the previous year. This resulted in the beef cow inventory totaling 28.2 million head to begin the year. The dairy cow herd only accounted for 40,700 head (0.4 percent) of the total cattle and calves inventory decline. Given the decline in beef and dairy cow inventory, one could easily surmise the calf crop would have declined from the previous year. The 2023 calf crop was estimated at 33.6 million head, which is an 846,500 head (2.5 percent) decline compared to 2022. Last but not least, heifers for beef replacement totaled 4.86 million head, which is 71,300 head (1.4 percent) less than the previous year.

It is also appropriate took at some of these values from a regional and state perspective. Most readers know drought in 2023 was one of the primary drivers of continued herd liquidation. However, not all regions experienced drought conditions, which allowed producers to respond to higher calf prices in 2023. The term region is used loosely, but it is important to consider the following vales given the national declines.

Beginning with all cattle and calves, there was a national decline of 1.7 million head. Texas all cattle and calves declined 500,000 head compared to the previous year while Nebraska witnessed a 250,000 head decline. Missouri and Wisconsin both saw all cattle and calves decline 150,000 head. This is not surprising from the perspective that each of these states are leaders in the total cattle inventory. However, it is important to note the decline in the Southeastern United States (AL, AR, FL GA, LA, MS, SC, TN), which lost 365,000 head of cattle. On the opposite side of the coin, all cattle and calves increased 100,000 head in Oklahoma, 90,000 head in the Northwest (ID, OR, WA), and 80,000 on the East Coast (NC, PA, VA). The increase in Oklahoma is somewhat of an anomaly in that the increase was primarily in the quantity of steers weighing 500 pounds and more.

The same trends are evident in the quantity of beef cows. The national beef cow herd declined 716,300 head as was previously mentioned. Texas accounted for 185,000 head of that decline while Missouri beef cow inventory declined 116,000 head. The five states stretching from Oklahoma through North Dakota saw beef cow inventory decline 234,000 head while the Southeastern states previously grouped lost 158,000 beef cows over the past year.

The last key set of numbers to consider as it relates to the beef cattle herd is heifers held for beef cow replacement. The story is a little different for beef heifers as Texas actually retained 10,000 more head than the previous year. However, the 650,000 heifers they retained is historically low. Similarly, Oklahoma retained 340,000 beef heifers for replacement, which is even with the previous year. Again, this is a historically low quantity of heifers. The Southeastern states retained 684,000 head of beef heifers for replacement, which is 43,000 head less than the previous year.

Knowing these values is not as important as what they mean. There are certain regions of the country that have the capacity to grow the beef cattle herd in 2024 and beyond, and most of them suffered from drought in 2023. The decline in cattle numbers means the 2024 calf crop will be smaller than a year ago, and it could be 2.5 percent smaller than the 2023 calf crop. This should support the price of all classes of cattle. The price of calves will be where the focus is for most, but bred female and slaughter cow prices will also be strong.