Cow count decreases, but where did the calves go?

Let’s do some sleuthing. What happened to the beef calves?

Cow count decreases, but where did the calves go?

Let’s do some sleuthing. What happened to the beef calves?

You’ve seen the numbers on the annual cattle inventory released by USDA in late January.

When I saw the brief news report on a further drop in the Missouri herd, I went for details from economists at University of Missouri Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

Missouri slid down 1.2% — losing 24,000 head from Jan. 1 a year ago. My concern was if we’d dropped below third place nationally.

You recall that last year, Oklahoma bumped Missouri out of our long-held No. 2 spot. With 1.968 million cows, as of Jan. 1, we stay No. 3.

Oklahoma did increase, standing now at 2.073 million head, firmly in that No. 2 spot. No state will likely pass Texas, with 5.14 million cows.

Interestingly, of the top eight, Oklahoma was the only state to gain cow inventory.

Nebraska ranks next below Missouri, and isn’t likely to pass us.

Those cow numbers can add to the coffee-shop talk on where we’re going.

Scott Brown, MU-FAPRI livestock economist, sees those numbers this way. It will be difficult to increase beef supplies for the foreseeable future. That’s good news for beef prices.

Still, that upturn in the beef price cycle now depends on getting the general economy perked up so our customers buy steaks.

With limited numbers, and cow biology, that upturn in beef prices could last several years.

Now, here’s the mystery.

Daniel Madison, who spends his time digging deeper into numbers for FAPRI, noticed this: The calving rate is dropping.

USDA doesn’t report calving rates, but Madison did the simple math of comparing calf crop to number of available mama cows.

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The calculated U.S. calf crop was running between 88.9% and 91.8% from 1985 to 2005.

But, in the last four years that rate has slipped, running 88.5% in 2006, 88% in 2007, 86.7% in 2008 and 87.3% in 2009.

Similar slippage occurred in Missouri.

From 1985 to 2005, our calving rate was 93% (a credit to Missouri producers). For 2006-2009, we had an 88.9% calf crop as calculated.

That’s a 4% drop in calves. We weren’t alone, Madison says.

Ten of the top 11 calf states dropped, for an average of 3%. Montana was the exception.

“That’s a big deal for cattle markets,” Brown says.

Based on 40 million beef and dairy cows on hand Jan. 1, even a 3% drop means 1 million fewer calves, compared to those earlier historical averages.

Let’s hear from you

Now, here’s where we’d like to hear from you.

Have you seen this drop in your herd or in your area of Missouri? If so, what’s causing this decline?

Are there production-related reasons for such a drop? Will this decline be likely to continue?

Or, there’s another scenario that I hear often enough: The cow count could be wrong. That has been asked in Washington, D.C., of the National Agricultural Statistics Service at USDA. However, they have yet to revise the cattle data.

We welcome your thoughts. Put “Calf Numbers” in the subject line and write to [email protected].

Your ideas, and numbers, are needed.

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.

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