Cow Slaughter Numbers Show Drought Still Forcing Herd Liquidation

Western drought leaves pasture and hay situation highly divergent from east to west.

Published on: Jul 11, 2013

It appears the US beef herd will get smaller again this year because of drought-induced, large beef cow slaughter in the first half of the year.

"The 3.4% year-to-date increase in beef cow slaughter masks a more dramatic increase in beef cow culling since mid-March," says Derrell Peel, extension livestock marketing specialist for Oklahoma State University. After decreasing nearly 9% in the first ten weeks of the year, beef cow slaughter has averaged over 12% above year-earlier levels for the last 15 weeks."

Peel says the rate of beef cow slaughter has slowed the most recent three weeks and has averaged only 2.3% above the same period last year. Only one week did cow slaughter average slightly lower than last year's tally.

Western drought leaves pasture and hay situation highly divergent from east to west.
Western drought leaves pasture and hay situation highly divergent from east to west.

Although Peel expects beef cow slaughter to drop below year-earlier levels in the second half of 2013, he says it would take a huge decrease for the remainder of the year to avoid net beef cow-herd liquidation for 2013.

Considering forage conditions in much of cow country, that seems unlikely.

Although forage conditions are better this year in many locations, the residual effects of the last two years of drought, combined with the long winter, which forced more herd culling so far this year, Peel says.

Right now 51% of US pasture and range is in good or excellent condition, compared with only 25% at the same time last year.

By contrast, this year 25% of pastures and ranges were in poor or very poor condition, compared with 43% last year.

The US Drought Monitor indicates that about 28% of the U.S. is in D2-D4 drought, slightly less than the 29% level one year ago. However, 49% of the U.S. currently has no drought at all, compared to 29% with no drought this time last year.

Drought is primarily in the western half of the country and conditions are worsening in many regions, Peel notes, while most of the eastern US has no drought at all.

Regional pasture and range reports illustrate how dramatically different are the fortunes of beef producers east and west.

--The western US is currently worse than last year at 54% poor/very poor compared with 45% last year.

--California, Colorado and New Mexico all have more than 70% of pastures and ranges in poor to very poor condition.

--The middle of the country straddles the drought boundary and shows some improvement in pasture and range conditions with the Great Plains at 30% poor to very poor compared with 45% last year, and the Southern Plains at 31% compared with 33% last year.

--Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming all have 35-45% of pastures and ranges in poor to very poor condition.

--Farther east, the Corn Belt has only 4% poor to very poor pastures compared with 46% one year ago.

--The Southeast has only 3% poor to very poor pastures compared with 34% one year ago.

Total forage production, both pasture and hay, is expected to increase significantly this year, however. Yet hay stocks were record low in December and May, Peel says, and reflected both reduced production and increased use the past two years.

Further, the cold spring delayed pasture and hay production, resulting in continuing short forage supplies.

USDA projects hay prices will average lower this year compared with last year but those prices currently are above last year's level. USDA-NASS reported preliminary June prices that up nearly 10% for alfalfa hay and up 11% for other hay. The US average alfalfa hay price was $220 per ton and the price of "other hay" was $147 per ton. Hay prices are up the most in the central and northern Plains and the Midwest compared to the southern Plains. In many states, prices for other hay are up relatively more than alfalfa hay prices.

Peel says forage conditions and supplies are expected to improve significantly in the second half of 2013 in many regions but that will be somewhat offset by persistent drought in the Western half of the country.

"However, the lack of forage has already provoked enough additional beef cow slaughter and likely diversion of potential replacement heifers into feeder markets to result in additional herd liquidation in 2013," Peel says.

He adds this thought: If we see a sharp decrease in beef cow slaughter and increased heifer retention in the second half of 2013, it may set the stage for potential beef cow herd recovery to begin in 2014.