Total US cattle herd drops to lowest level since 1951 – USDA

CHICAGO, Jan 31 (Reuters) – The total number of U.S. cattle fell to its lowest level since 1951 as of Jan. 1, in the herd’s fifth consecutive year of decline, U.S. Department of Agriculture data showed on Wednesday.

Ranchers have slashed their herds as dry weather in the western U.S. reduced the land available for grazing and raised feeding costs, tightening cattle supplies and pushing up beef prices.

All cattle and calves totaled 87.2 million head at the start of 2024, down 2% from a year earlier, the USDA said.

The number of beef cows was also down 2%, at 28.2 million head, which was the lowest since 1961. A year ago, the beef cow herd hit its lowest level since 1962. Since then, the number of dairy cows eased 0.4% to 9.4 million head. 

Easing dryness could encourage ranchers to start rebuilding their beef herds later this year, analysts said. As of Jan. 23, 49% of the nation’s cattle areas were considered abnormally dry, down from 72% a year earlier, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Analysts said producers in the fourth quarter may start to keep heifers, or young female cows, on farms to reproduce, instead of sending them to slaughter. 

“We’re definitely looking at tighter supplies,” said Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist for brokerage StoneX. “The question is: will demand be there?”

The U.S. has increased beef imports and reduced exports to compensate for the diminished herd. The USDA estimates beef imports reached 3.71 billion pounds in 2023, up 9.3% from the previous year, and predicts they will rise to 3.77 billion pounds in 2024.