Counting cattle: North Dakota numbers up; U.S. hits 40-year low
DICKINSON -- While the U.S. continues to lose cattle, North Dakota is moving up to the head of the herd.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released in July revealed a nationwide cattle inventory of 95 million as of July 1. Those numbers were down 3 percent from the 2012 count of 97.8 million. This count was the lowest for July since the series began in 1973.
"Beef cow slaughter is down," said Tim Petry, a livestock marketing economist for North Dakota State University Extension Services. "We are placing less heifers on feed."
There were no 2013 numbers to compare since the government shutdown affected the USDA.
The cattle inventory for July has been on a downward trend since 1994, when the U.S. had almost 114 million. Producers saw an upward trend from 2004-06, but then the numbers fell.
The January numbers were also down 1.8 percent from last year at 87.7 million, the lowest since 1951.
Six out of the top 10 beef cow states lost cattle this year. The January numbers show Texas, the county's top producer of cattle, lost 105,000 cattle. That is a slight decrease compared to losing 550,000 and 460,000 in the last two years, bring Texas' total three-year loss to more than 1 million cattle.
Drought played a large part in decision-making for ranchers in the south, said Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association.
"There was major, major liquidation that happened a couple of years ago in Texas and Oklahoma particularly," Ellingson said. "That diminished our numbers."
No. 4 Nebraska, a state also impacted by drought, lost 8,000. No. 6 Montana lost 30,000, No. 8 Kentucky dropped 16,000 and No. 10 Iowa gave way to North Dakota by losing 40,000.
But possibly the most devastating loss was South Dakota. The No. 5 producer was hit by a record blizzard in October, killing 60,000 cattle. While ranchers got relief through donations, the state still ended the year with 54,000 less head.
There was some good news for North Dakota. Producers expanded the state's inventory to 943,000, the highest since 2005. This helped North Dakota jump in rank from the 13th producer of cattle to ninth.
"(The numbers) have gone up the last two years, mainly a result of saving replacement heifers," Petry said. "The last two years we have increase beef cow numbers opposite of the U.S."
The uptick in numbers for North Dakota can be attributed partly to additional precipitation.
"Looking across the United States, for the most part -- and, obviously, there are exceptions to the rule -- we have been the moisture mecha in comparison to places like Texas and California," she said.
While states in the south were in drought, North Dakota had some of the best precipitation in years, helping cattle to switch hands from the south to North Dakota, Ellingson said.
North Dakota was also heading into a liquidation mode after a year of drought in 2012, but that turned around mid-2013, when "it started raining and it hasn't quit yet in a lot of places.
"South and western North Dakota has turned into a very lush (area) in the last year," Petry said. "Actually, you are getting more rain than eastern North Dakota, which is kind of unheard of."
Range conditions are also better, especially in western North Dakota, Petry said. Record beef prices also may be persuading ranchers to keep cattle back, Petry said. With heifer calves at a high price, ranchers want to keep their cattle for production. People looking to buy have to either pay a high price or forego expanding their herds.
"Unfortunately, whether it is in cattle or grain, in agriculture someone's loss is another person's gain," he said. "In North Dakota, we have already expanded and we can sell more cattle this fall at record-high prices. It seems like when times are good, they are all good."
The industry is cyclical, Ellingson added. The industry switches between the liquidation and expansion phases, and experts predict the selling phase could come to an end in the upcoming years, she added.
"Reports from Cattle Facts ... were that we are starting to see the changeover from liquidation mode to an expansion mode," she said. "It will be slow, depending what the weather is, but experts think we might see a slight change in the tide with numbers overall across the country."
Petry agreed the numbers could see a slight increase, if not stay steady. The problem with the cattle industry is that a turnaround takes time. Cattle have a nine-month pregnancy period and often only produce one calf.
Petry said for every 100 cows, a producer gets approximately 90 calves and half are heifers.
"If we keep heifer calves back this year, as you are aware, we breed them next year and have a calve the next year," Petry said. "In order for us to show much increase in the beef cow herd, it's gonna take at least a year or more."
The 2014 calf crop is expect to be about 33.6 million, down one percent from 2013 and 2 percent from 2012.
Conditions are improving in the southern states, but Mother Nature will have the last say if the beef industry turns around.
"We need to get significant rains in the Texas-Oklahoma areas into the west to California," Petry said. "Then we will see expansion.
"There are signals there that it is starting, and some could happen, but it is going to be a slow process," Petry said.