TWIN FALLS — Beef and dairy cattle producers alike are culling cows but herd size seems poised to increase again this year.
John Nalivka, a beef analyst from Vale, Ore., expects cow slaughter in the U.S. to be up 6 percent over 2016 to total 5.9 million head of both beef and dairy cows. Beef cow slaughter is up 12 percent through mid-November, while dairy culls are up 4 percent.
But while the percentages look strong, when Nalivka looks at the numbers relative to the overall size of the herd, the impact isn’t as large. In fact, he expects the overall U.S. cow herd inventory to be up 3 percent over last year, which was up 2.7 percent from 2015. He is projecting a Jan. 1, cow inventory of approximately 96 million head compared to around 94 million head on Jan. 1, 2017.
Beef cow slaughter was up sharply during April, May and June as ranchers culled more open cows than usual following the harsh winter. When cull cow prices remained strong, ranchers continued to cull older cows going into the fall.
Seasonally, cull cow slaughter peaks in the fall quarter as ranchers identify open cows. Nalivka expects that seasonal peak won’t be as large this fall because of how rigorously ranchers have been culling all year. Based on his numbers, he expects 9 percent of the total beef cow herd to be slaughtered this year, up slightly from 8.6 percent in 2016.
Ranchers culled herds hard between 2010 and 2012, shedding around 11 percent of the herd annually until the herd dropped to 29 million head in 2014, a 60-year low. If his numbers are right, the U.S. beef herd will be 32 million head on Jan. 1, just below the high of 32.1 million.
“When you look at cow slaughter, you have to look at the other side of the equation — heifers,” Nalivka said. He spoke by phone from his office. At the beginning of 2017, ranchers expected 4 million heifers to calve. That’s the highest number of heifers expected to calve since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began reporting the number in 2000.
USDA also reports the number of heifers ranchers intend to use as herd replacements. Most ranchers keep more heifers back to breed than they ultimately breed. Often a heifer doesn’t turn out that the way a rancher had hoped in the fall when she was initially kept back and will be put in the feedlot in the spring.
Bred heifers represent 62 percent of the intended herd replacement number, that’s higher than last year.
“Even though we slaughtered quite a few heifers, we brought quite a few into the herd,” Nalivka said. “Overall, beef heifer replacement is just under 14 percent, right where we were last year.”
Trends are similar on the dairy side with cull cow slaughter up 4 percent over last year but overall dairies turned over 32 percent of their cows compared to 31.5 percent the previous year. “The numbers are relatively stable,” Nalivka said. He is pegging dairy cow inventory to be down just 0.5 percent compared to last year, despite falling milk prices.
Nalivka believes the herd liquidation that both beef and dairy producers went through in 2009 has left the nation’s cow herd more efficient and productive. Cow slaughter numbers, while appearing to be high, do not impact overall beef and dairy production as much as slaughter did 15 or 20 years ago.
And that’s a good thing, Nalivka said. Keeping more cows running through the new packing plant in Kuna is good for southern Idaho producers. Cull cows and bulls represent 10 to 15 percent of revenue for beef and dairy operations.
Rex Hoagland buys cattle for CS Beef Packers. The new state-of-the-art plant opened in May.
He told Idaho Cattle Association members at their annual convention in Sun Valley that the industry has done a good job of moving cattle to support prices.
But even with cull cow slaughter strong, beef imports are also strong.
“All of us want to cuss imports,” Hoagland said. “But the U.S. is lean-deficient. We cannot produce enough hamburger to meet demand. A steak is a steak but a pound of burger has so many uses.”
Cutter cows yield 46 to 47 percent (meat) and 90 percent lean. Fed cattle yield closer to 58 percent. But Hoagland has noticed over the years that Limousine cattle can yield close to 60 percent with 90 percent lean. He encouraged ranchers to consider how cutter cows yield when making their breeding decisions.
The plant will take drop-offs, Hoagland said, but it’s better to call ahead so slaughter can be scheduled and the cattle don’t shrink while they wait.
“We want to pay you for what is going out the back door.”