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Few Surprises in USDA Cattle Reports

Published: Friday, July 31, 2020

The U.S. cattle herd is known to cycle through periods of expansion and contraction roughly every 10 years. High feed prices from 2007 through 2013 contributed to one of those contraction phases with beef cow numbers reaching a low in 2014, according to Jason Franken, agricultural economist at Western Illinois University.

"Of course, low supplies translate into higher prices, motivating producers to expand," Franken said. "Currently, there are over 7 percent more beef cows in the U.S. than during the low point in 2014. Last January showed signs that the expansion of the beef herd was leveling off, and recent reports suggest that appears to remain the case."

The USDA's Cattle Inventory report pegs the total number of cattle and calves on July 1 at 103 million head, just slightly above last July's inventory of 102.9 million head, and in line with pre-report expectations, Franken notes. All cows and heifers that have calved total 41.4 million head, just .5 percent below last July. That trend is driven by 1 percent fewer beef cows at 32.1 million head, as milk cows at 9.35 million head are about .5 percent higher than last July.

Beef replacement heifers, at 4.40 million head, and milk replacement heifers, at 4.10 million head, remain essentially unchanged from last year, while the category of other heifers weighing over 500 pounds is up 1 percent compared to expectations of 3.2 percent.

"This suggests producers are not really expanding their herds but also may not be cutting back as much as anticipated," Franken said.

For the same weight category, steers are 2 percent higher and bulls are even with last July. The number of calves under 500 pounds, at 28 million head, is down slightly.

"With somewhat fewer cows and heifers calved, the USDA has revised downward its January estimate of the 2020 calf crop to 35.8 million head, so it is now 1 percent below the 2019 level, which is consistent with pre-report expectations. This may help hold down the number of animals on feed and beef production for the remainder of 2020 and into 2021," Franken stated.

The USDA's July Cattle on Feed report indicates 11.4 million head on feed or just .4 percent less than July 2019, consistent with expectations that it would be on par. In June, feedlots placed 2 percent more cattle than a year ago and marketed 1 percent more animals. Each of those numbers was within the expected ranges but somewhat lower than the ranges' midpoints.

The slightly lower number of cattle on feed reflects 1.5 percent fewer heifers and .3 percent more steers than a year ago, Franken explained.

"Even so, heifers still comprise over 38 percent of the cattle currently in feedlots, as compared to only 31 percent to 33 percent during much of the last expansion. This is additional evidence that the breeding herd is leveling off or at least not expanding," he said.

Given the inventory and cattle-on-feed numbers, beef production is anticipated to be no more than 1 percent higher in 2020 than last year and then drop 2 percent next year, Franken noted. In terms of domestic demand, per capita beef consumption is expected to remain at about 58 pounds per person in 2020 and drop to 56 pounds per person in 2021.

"Meanwhile, given limitations due to packer closures, exports have taken a hit this year at 2.5 percent lower, but are expected to rebound 6 percent in 2021. U.S. trade agreements with China, Mexico and Canada over the last year should help to bolster exports, provided containment of the coronavirus limits packer closures and adverse effects on economic growth," Franken explained.

"All things considered, prices for the next four quarters are likely to follow similar seasonal patterns as in prior years, albeit at lower levels," he added.

Slaughter steer prices are forecast to average, respectively, about $99 per hundredweight and $110 per hundredweight for the last two quarters of 2020, and $114 per hundredweight and $101 per hundredweight for the first two quarters of 2021. For 600-to-700-pound feeder steers, prices are forecast to average about $146 per hundredweight and $148 per hundredweight for the last two quarters of this year and $141 per hundredweight and $137 per hundredweight in the first two quarters of next year.

"Again, the major factors that could result in notably lower prices are uncertainties surrounding trade and the coronavirus. If the virus continues to have negative effects on economic growth, it could depress both domestic and export beef demand, putting further downward pressure on prices," Franken concluded.

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