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Cattle on Feed and drought

Contributed by Derrell S. Peel Published on 28 April 2022

The latest Cattle on Feed report showed a record April feedlot inventory of 12.1 million head, up 1.7% year over year. The quarterly inventory of steers on feed was up 1.8% year over year, while the inventory of heifers on feed was up 1.7% over one year ago.

The total inventory included 62.3% steers and 37.7% heifers. The current level of heifers on feed does not suggest heifer retention for herd expansion. For example, from 2014-16 in the last herd expansion, the average level of heifers on feed was 33.6%.

March placements were fractionally lower than last year, down 0.4%. This total was well above pre-report expectations of an 8% decrease in placements. Once again, feedlots have found cattle to place when feeder supplies are tightening. The largest increase in placements was in Nebraska, which was up 6.8% year over year. Placements in Kansas and Colorado were equal to last year, while Texas was down 6.5%, and Iowa was down 10.7% year over year. 

March feedlot marketings were down 2% from last year, as expected. Nebraska also had large marketings in March, up 7.7% year over year. Kansas marketings were also up 2.1% over last year. Iowa marketings were down 0.9% year over year in March, while Texas was down 8.8% in marketings, and Colorado feedlots marketed 9.3% fewer cattle compared to last year.

As May approaches and widespread drought conditions persist, cattle industry impacts are expected to accelerate in the coming weeks. However, there are indications that drought is already impacting cattle markets significantly. Auction totals and other data seemed to indicate that March placements would be sharply lower. The unexpectedly large March feedlot placement total may indicate unusual movement of feeder cattle out of the country. It is possible that some heifers originally designated as replacements on Jan. 1 are already being diverted to feedlots.

Beef cow slaughter for the year to date is up 17.5% year over year. This combined with the large number of heifers in feedlots and the fact that heifer slaughter is up 2% year over year thus far in 2022 suggests that female numbers are being pulled down even before the worst drought impacts are felt. Perhaps the ongoing drought, carried over from 2021 for many producers, combined with strong feeder cattle and cull cow prices is prompting early adjustments in herds. At the current pace of cow slaughter, the beef cow herd could decrease up to 4% year over year in 2022. This would be the largest yearly decrease in the beef cow inventory since the 1980s. The pace of cow slaughter may slow in the second half of the year but is expected to remain strong in the second quarter, and significant herd liquidation seems inevitable this year.  end mark

This article originally appeared in the April 25, 2022, OSU Cow/Calf Corner newsletter.

Derrell S. Peel
  • Derrell S. Peel

  • Livestock Marketing Specialist
  • Oklahoma State University Extension

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