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U.S. cattle production shifting westward

Reduced cropland pasture in the eastern half of the country in the 2012 Census of Agriculture correlates with the decreased number of beef cows in that region, indicating a westward shift in cattle production.
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on May 19, 2014 11:31AM

USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture confirms the fundamental shift in cattle production that one ag economist tracking annual cow numbers expected.

That is a significant decrease in cropland pasture in most of the eastern half of the country, from the Dakotas south through Texas and most states east, said Derrell Peel, livestock marketing specialist with Oklahoma State University.

A lot of cropland pasture acres are being put back into higher value crops, particularly in the major crop areas. That’s in response to significantly higher crop values across the board, which started rising about the time of the last census in 2007, he said.

Producers shifted forage production resources to the western half of the country, and that has long-term implications for the cattle industry, particularly the regional location of cow-calf production, he said.

Cropland used for pasture decreased 64 percent from 2007 to 2012, from 35.8 million acres to 12.8 million acres, 10 percent to more than 20 percent in individual states in the eastern half of the country, he said.

Cropland pasture decreased in every state, but the impact is greater in the Midwest and East because it makes up a bigger percent of pasture acreage, which includes permanent pasture/range and woodlands.

Total pastureland in the U.S. in 2012 decreased by 17.1 million acres, a 3.6 percent drop from 2007. That included a 23 million-acre decline in cropland pasture, despite a 6.5 million-acre increase in permanent pasture/range. Pastured cropland represented 2.8 percent of total pasture acres compared with 7.6 percent in 2012, he said.

But the significance of the loss is substantially larger than the percentages suggest because cropland pasture is usually significantly more productive than permanent pasture/range on a per-acre basis. So that loss represents a significantly higher impact on forage production.

Total U.S. cropland in 2012, at 389.7 million acres, was down 4.1 percent from 2007, but harvested cropland was up 1.7 percent, he said.

Conversion of cropland from pasture to crops is relatively easy, but a return to pasture is quite costly. Taking cropland out of pasture usually reflects a long-term decision, and that likely means cow inventories in the East will be permanently reduced, he said.

In simple terms, cattle production is moving to drier parts of the country where there’s less competition for crop values, he said.

The loss of cropland pasture in areas where crops grow best is also reflected in cattle numbers.

While the national beef cow herd has been liquidating for several reasons, including drought, significant decreases are seen in states not involved in the drought but with changes in forage production, he said.

From Jan.1 2007 to Jan. 1 2014, the beef cow herd decreased 11 percent nationwide, including drought-related decreases of 25 percent in Texas, 12 percent in Oklahoma and 16 percent in New Mexico.

But it also decreased 12 percent in Iowa, 16 percent in Illinois, 18 percent in Indiana, 14 percent in Missouri, 16 percent in Kentucky, 23 percent in Tennessee, 14 percent in Minnesota, and 18 percent in Georgia, he said.

Those losses are consistent with the loss of pasture, signaling a shift of cow-calf production out of the region, he said.


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