USDA’s annual inventory of cattle shows the number of all beef and dairy cattle and calves in the U.S. was up 1 percent year over year on Jan. 1 to 94.4 million, an increase of nearly 700,000 head.
The number of beef cows and calved heifers increased 2 percent to top 31.7 million, up almost 510,000.
However, the agency reported decreases in replacement beef heifers and replacement beef heifers expected to calve, which were down 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
At 6.1 million head, replacement heifers are 237,000 fewer than a year ago. Those expected to calve this year at nearly 3.8 million are down about 208,000.
While the replacement heifer counts are lower year over year, analysts say those numbers are still strong and could lead to more herd growth.
“It’s certainly possible, it’s kind of wait-and-see,” said Derrell Peel, livestock marketing specialist with Oklahoma State University.
“It would certainly support a limited amount of growth if conditions are right,” he said.
Markets were stronger than expected in 2017, despite an increase in beef production, with a decent level of profit in most sectors. If that continues in 2018, there could be additional herd expansion. But that’s not guaranteed, he said.
“There’s enough heifers out there to grow. We could see another half percent, plus or minus, growth this year,” he said.
The number of heifers and heifers expected to calve are both down from last year, but that’s coming down from extraordinarily high levels, he said.
Those animals as a percentage of the herd are still at a higher level than the industry ever got to in the 1990s, the last full herd expansion, he said.
The average share of heifer replacements in the overall herd in 1993 to 1995 was 18.3 percent. The latest inventory report shows them at 19.3 percent of the herd, he said.
“There’s enough to support a moderate level of growth,” he said.
John Nalivka, owner of Sterling Marketing, said he’s expecting about the same level of growth this coming year as what was seen in 2017.
There’s still room for growth, given the increase in beef cow numbers, he said,
“And I think there are more heifers out there that will calve” than the report suggests, he said.
The survey numbers are only estimates. The lower number of heifers expected to calve this year remains to be seen, he said.
Those heifers would have been retained in 2016 and bred in 2017. While profits to cow-calf producers in 2016 were down significantly from the record highs in 2014 and 2015, producers still made nearly $175 per cow, he said.
“We haven’t had a drought, and 2016 had good forage conditions and low grain prices,” he said.
In addition, cow-calf profits were good in 2017 as well, $155 to $160 per cow, he said.
All those factors lead him to believe producers were holding back more heifers in 2016 and breeding them in 2017 than the report suggests.
“Time will tell. I think we’ll still have continued growth in the cattle inventory and be up about 1 percent” this year, he said.