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Heifer retention driving herd growth

Last month, he projected a turnaround -- albeit a slow one -- in the downturn in U.S. beef herd numbers because of last year's drought. Now, Purdue University Extension ag economist Chris Hurt outlines how he sees that herd bounceback happening.

It's likely to come in the breeding side; look for a slow rise in the number of retained heifers, especially in areas where pasture conditions have improved most since last year's drought that led farmers and ranchers to liquidate herd numbers because of the drought's effects on hay and forage supplies.

"Beef cow operations in some parts of the country where pastures have been restored are probably getting ready to retain heifers," Hurt says in a university report. "Beef cow numbers have declined in the Southeast by about 700,000 head, or 12%, since 2007. Midwest numbers have dropped by 680,000 head, or 14%, since 2007. Both of these areas should have the pasture and the feed to begin heifer retention."

And, it won't just be in the Midwest. The northern Plains region has also seen steps toward recovery from the drought, and Hurt says that could send heifer numbers higher there, too.

"Initial retention of heifers likely will occur this fall in areas primarily east of the Mississippi River, plus the Delta, the western Corn Belt and the northern Great Plains," Hurt says. "This is a large area that currently has 57% of the nation's beef cows."

But, that's just part of the story; the remainder of cattle country is still aching from the drought, and that's why there's likely going to be something of a lid on heifer retention and herd expansion overall, as there's still simply not enough grazing supply to allow similar growth in places like the southern Plains, western slope and mid-South, areas that account for the remaining 43% of the nation's herd, Hurt adds.

"The industry might see the start of heifer retention this fall, but the magnitude of expansion is expected to be low and slow to get underway," he says. "Beef cow producers know that herd expansion is a long-term investment, and they generally want a more extended period of favorable returns before making major financial commitments."

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