WASHINGTON – Persistent drought conditions have resulted in the smallest US cattle herd in more than 60 years and record beef prices at grocery stores. But recently released government data hinted at some efforts to rebuild the herd.

Cattle and calves totaled 87.7 million as of Jan. 1, 2014, down 2 percent from 89.3 million recorded a year ago, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service. This is the lowest Jan. 1 inventory of all cattle and calves since the 82.1 million head recorded in 1951, NASS noted.

The inventory of cows and heifers that have calved eased 1 percent to 38.3 million head from 38.5 million reported on Jan. 1, 2013. NASS said this is the lowest Jan. 1 inventory of all cows and heifers that have calved since the 36.8 million head reported in 1941. Beef cows were down 1 percent to 29.0 million head, while milk cows, at 9.2 million, were unchanged from the comparable year-ago period, NASS reported.

However, cattle producers retained more replacement heifers, according to NASS data, a sign that producers are rebuilding their herds while feed prices remain low and drought conditions ease in some areas. Beef replacement heifers were up 2 percent to 5.5 million.

Cattle and calves on feed for slaughter in all feedlots totaled 12.7 million head, down 5 percent, NASS reported. The combined total of calves under 500 lbs. and other heifers and steers weighing more than 500 lbs. outside of feedlots declined 3 percent to 24.7 million head.

NASS noted that the calf crop declined 1 percent to an estimated at 33.9 million head in 2013. The agency said this is the smallest calf crop since the 33.7 million calves born during 1949. Additionally, calves born during the first half of 2013 are estimated at 24.7 million head, down 1 percent from 2012.