LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — The lingering effects of drought across the Great Plains last year continued to shrink the size of the U.S. cattle herd, according to experts and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Friday.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that the U.S. inventory of cattle and calves totaled 87.7 million animals as of Jan. 1. That was down by about 1.6 million cattle, or 2 percent, compared with this time last year.
The agency said this is the lowest January cattle inventory since 1951 and said it was the second straight year the herd shrank by 2 percent.
The shrinking supply could cost consumers into 2015, said Jim Robb, director of the Livestock Marketing Information Center in Denver, which is funded by the beef industry, universities and the government.
A bright spot was a 2 percent increase in young, female cattle retained for breeding. One expert said that factor could allow the herd's seven-year contraction to stabilize.
"It will take rain this year," said Robb, who attributed the decrease to drought. "The rate of heifer holdback is just a step toward stabilization, but it's a critical step."
Totals in Texas, the nation's leading cattle producer that had its driest year ever in 2011, decreased 4 percent to 10.9 million animals. Herds in Kansas and California decreased 1 percent, and Nebraska's dropped 2 percent.
Ranchers across drought-stricken states in recent years couldn't afford to feed their animals, so they sold them to out-of-state buyers or sent them to slaughter.
The January report had been anxiously awaited because the agency didn't issue a report in July due to sequestration.
This year will be a historically tight cattle and beef situation, said Glynn Tonsor, Kansas State University extension specialist. "Nothing that comes in this report will change that kind of fundamental point, and consumers are very likely to see historically high beef prices through 2014," he said.
The number of young females held back totaled 5.5 million and most were born last year, Robb said.
"We have more states holding back heifers than a year ago because of improved forage conditions and lower feed costs," he said.
In southwest Kansas near Ashland, rancher Byron Pike has been slowly rebuilding the herd after selling off roughly 80 percent of his livestock. At one time, the family was running as many as a thousand head of cattle on grass. Those numbers dwindled to 100 during the depth of the drought, but are now up to 220 cows with the addition of some heifers he bought last fall to restock. And calving time will start soon.
The rains that helped break the drought in Kansas finally came in August, along with some cool temperatures that allowed the Pike family to grow some grass and raise some feed crops for their cattle. Their winter wheat also got off to a good start, so they are planning to buy more cattle to graze out their wheat pastures.
"We are just hanging on," Pike said. "I mean, we finally got some rain there last year, so we are surviving."
Pasture conditions at the end of October, when the last national estimate was released, were good to excellent across 48 percent of the nation's beef cattle producing areas. The previous year in the wake of the widespread drought only 21 percent of pastures in that same area were rated good to excellent.
"One way to describe this is that twice as many cows were in excellent situations in October 2013 than in October 2012," Tonsor said.
Hegeman reported from Wichita, Kan.