Texas cattle inventory up, U.S. numbers down

By Jennifer Whitlock

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cattle inventory report shows the Texas cattle herd increased, although numbers are down nationwide.

“The January report is the one that I think all of us market analysts and livestock economists really look to for long-term trends confirming what we’re seeing from some other data like cattle slaughter, cattle on feed,” Dr. David Anderson, professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service livestock economist, said in an interview with the Texas Farm Bureau Radio Network.

In Texas, the state’s cattle herd grew almost 2 percent to 13.1 million head.

“If we start looking at the change in cows, we really escalated [in Texas]. It was the rest of the country on balance that blocked that total beef cow number down,” Anderson said. “In some of the Western states that have been hit hard by drought, in general those states saw fewer beef cows this year than last year. So, I think we’re really seeing some impact of drought there in those numbers.”

The size of the dairy cattle herd in the Lone Star State increased, too. The number of Texas dairy cattle is up 6 percent from last year to 615,000, an indicator of strong growth in the state’s dairy industry, particularly in the Panhandle.

But rising feed costs and falling milk prices may make this a tougher year for dairy farmers.

“Sharply rising feed costs—corn and soybean meal—the building blocks of feed rations have increased dramatically. Milk prices struggled in 2020 with all the turmoil from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic,” Anderson said. “Now, what’s our path? How do we get out of that? We’re starting the year expecting some very large milk production across the country, and that’s likely to pressure milk prices as we go through the year.”

Increasing grain prices are good for farmers but are not ideal for cattle feeders and dairies. The price tug-of-war is an ongoing balancing act in agriculture with global implications.

“Another big factor this year in terms of calf prices is what happens on that feed cost side. Some of our competitors in South America have short crops, and that’s really pushing our feed prices dramatically higher. I think it’s worth remembering, too, that high prices are the market signal to plant more acres. I expect to see a lot more acres planted, particularly corn and soybeans in the U.S.,” he said. “We will see how the weather holds out and what kind of crop we get. I think the potential exists for a very large crop this year that really pulls down those feed costs in the fall, which really helps our calf prices. But near term, those high prices probably do pressure our calf prices and feeder cattle prices lower.”

The U.S. calf crop is down 1 percent from the previous year’s calf crop, which may help calf prices slightly. But as Anderson noted, until grain prices decrease, calf prices likely will be somewhat depressed.

The U.S. beef cattle herd is down about 180,000 head from last year to 93.6 million head, or approximately a 0.05 percent loss. Despite the small decline, Anderson noted the number of beef heifers held back for replacements increased.

Even though beef cattle numbers were down marginally, dairy cattle numbers were up almost 100,000 head. So the net of all cows in the U.S. was down only about 83,000 head overall.

“So, it’s really almost a maintenance kind of thing,” Anderson said. “We slid downward a little bit, but there’s not a big change in numbers.”

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