KANSAS CITY, Mo. — New data from the US Department of Agriculture shows continued evidence that the 2012 drought led to historic reductions in cattle and calf herds and the number of cows and heifers that have calved. The result has been the smallest herds and smallest rates of calving in many decades.

“These rates of dispersals are at the highest rate seen in our lifetimes,” said Jim Bret Campbell, director of communications and member relations at the Texas Cattle Feeders Association in Amarillo. “We need some serious rainfall” in the next three months to lessen the drought and the specter of further culling.”
Campbell called 2013 a crucial year because top cattle producer Texas has been in severe drought for several years and other Midwestern states need relief from the substantial drought that did major damage to the pasture land required for cattle feeding.

He emphasized the need for early spring rains or snowmelt to allow pasture and forage land to build back and feed costs to moderate. So far, there has been little sign of significant precipitation in the Midwest and High Plains. He said another year of insufficient rainfall — which is as likely to occur as not — may easily lead to even smaller herds in the future.

“If it would just rain,” he said, most of the problems facing livestock producers in the Midwest and Southwest would fade. He said cattle producers are closely watching the US Drought Monitor and any weather-related information from the USDA but, ultimately, “they are looking to see whether there is a cloud over their own land.”

As the drought intensified last year, corn prices rose above $8 a bushel late last summer. Hay prices have risen by more than 150 percent in the last five years, reflecting insufficient soil moisture, Campbell said.

“It makes it difficult for cattle and cow producers to maintain their herds when they don’t have pasture and forage and the cost of feed is exorbitant,” he said. Cattlemen and ranchers across the Midwest have been “feeding everything — things like corn stalks — so they can hold on to their herds,” he added. “This is certainly a difficult environment if you have to sell off a major part of your livelihood.”

He said most cattle operations are family-owned and they only may absorb the losses incurred by high-priced feed for a limited amount of time before they have to make the decision to reduce herd size. One of the most potent signs of the stress livestock producers have been facing is the fact a large number of heifers have been slaughtered instead of being held back to reproduce, said Campbell.

The USDA, in its February cattle inventory report, said that all cattle and calves in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2013, totaled 89.3 million head, a 2 percent reduction below the 90.9 million on Jan. 1, 2012.
“This is the lowest Jan. 1 inventory of all cattle and calves since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952,” the USDA said.

Even more severe was the reduction in the number of all cows and heifers that have calved in the last year. The USDA said the reduction to 38.5 million, down 2 percent from the 39.4 million on Jan. 1, 2012, represented “the lowest Jan. 1 inventory of all cows and heifers that have calved since the 36.8 million head in 1941.”

The number of all heifers 500 lbs. and over was down 1 percent from last January to 19.1 million, the USDA said. Beef replacement heifers were up 2 percent at 5.4 million while milk replacement heifers were down 2 percent to 4.6 million. Other heifers were down 3 percent to 9.2 million.