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The year of the heifer

Gene Johnston 01/28/2014 @ 11:49am On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

It’s going to happen in 2014, say the market specialists at CattleFax.

Over the last 8-10 years, while there have been plenty of cattle price signals to expand the beef herd, two things have conspired against it: long-term drought, and high feed costs. Both are finally starting to work in favor of cattlemen. 

"Costs of gain in feedlots have gone from over $1 a pound to under 80¢ in some cases," says Lance Zimmerman of CattleFax. That's because corn prices have dropped from $7 a bushel a year ago to about $4 now. That alone reduces the cost to finish a steer by about $200, Zimmerman says.

It means feedlots can bid higher for feeder cattle, a signal that gets passed back to cow-calf producers to save heifers and expand the herd.

The long-term drought in the Plains region is also showing signs of abating, meaning lusher grasslands for the expanding herds. "We hope for a day when we can talk about the cattle markets without first talking about the drought monitor index," says Zimmerman.

Actually, there's been some heifer retention in non-drought areas since about 2010, CattleFax analysis indicates. It's been modest enough, and cow culling rates high enough, that it hasn't nudged total cattle inventory, still at the lowest level in 60 years. "We think we could see heifer retention up about 140,000 head in 2014," Zimmerman says. "And we project it to grow another 250,000 head in 2015. That will put us firmly in beef expansion mode.

 "In the past few years, Mother Nature never gave us a shot to expand."

$2,000 investment

Now, says Zimmerman, we're at about 29 million beef cows in the U.S. Three years ago, that number was 30 million. "We project it will take us five years to get back to 30 million. The reason is because of the cash outlay. It takes a $2,000 investment to add a female to a herd. That's expensive. Ranchers are looking for sure signs that we're turning weather conditions before they justify it," he says.

In the meantime, cattle slaughter levels will be lower as heifers are retained. That could go on until 2017 or even beyond, says Zimmerman, perpetuating the current high cattle prices. "We have a disadvantage to the other meats when it comes to expansion," he adds. "It takes us three years to expand beef production, from the time you retain a heifer until her calf is harvest weight. Compared to beef, the pork and poultry people can practically flip a switch." The chicken industry can go from hatch to harvest in about six weeks, he adds.

In 2014, CattleFax projects poultry production will grow by 2.6 pounds per person in the U.S. Pork will hold steady (growth in 2015), while beef consumption will drop by 2.4 pounds to about 55 pounds per capita. "Beef demand could be down in response to still-sluggish consumer income growth, and cheaper competing meats," says Zimmerman Still, he says, total consumer spending on beef is in record territory at $275-$280 per person per year, up from $210 in 2010.

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