Cattle on feed reach record numbers

LAKEWOOD, Colo. – Cattle and calves on feed for the slaughter market in the United States for feedlots with capacity of 1,000 or more head totaled 11.4 million head on Oct. 1, according to a USDA Ag Statistics Service report dated Oct. 19. The inventory was 5 percent greater than last year and marked the largest Oct. 1 inventory since the reporting series began in 1996, the report said.

The inventory included 7.09 million steers and steer calves, up 2 percent from the previous year, accounting for 62 percent of total inventory. Heifers and heifer calves accounted for 4.31 million head, an 11 percent increase from 2017. 

“The fact (the numbers) are higher surprises me a little,” said Steve Paisley, Extension Beef Specialist and interim director at the James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Lingle, Wyo.

“I think this is probably the inertia from 2012, 2013, where everybody saw huge profitability in the cow-calf sector,” Paisley said. “Those numbers, in my mind, may actually get higher.”

Aaron Berger, beef and forage educator with the University of Nebraska Extension in Kimball, Neb., agreed. Dry conditions in the Southern Plains may have pushed some cattle into feedlots earlier than usual, he said. And ongoing marketing efforts also may have contributed to increased numbers.

“We’ve seen cow herd numbers building in the last three years, due to record cattle prices in 2014,” Berger said. “There would be more cattle coming into feed yards now.

“We also tend to see some seasonality in cattle-on-feed,” he said. “It’s the time of year when. Lot of cattle come on feed.”

Placements in feedlots in the top 12 cattle producing states during September totaled 2.05 million head, 5 percent fewer than in 2017. Net placements were 1.99 million head. During September, placements of cattle and calves weighing less than 600 pounds were 425,000 head, 600-699 pounds were 330,000 head, 700-799 pounds were 430,000 head, 800-899 pounds were 466,000 head, 900-999 pounds were 280,000 head, and 1,000 pounds and greater were 120,000 head. Marketings of fed cattle during September totaled 1.72 million head, 4 percent fewer than in 2017. Other disappearance totaled 57,000 head during September, 2 percent less than the previous year.

Nebraska feedlots, with capacities of 1,000 or more head, contained 2.43 million cattle on feed as of Oct. 1. This inventory was up 6 percent from last year.

Placements during September totaled 520,000 head, a 9 percent decrease from 2017. Fed cattle marketings for the month of September totaled 410,000 head, 2 percent less than 2017.

The number of cattle and calves on feed for the slaughter market in Colorado feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 head or larger was estimated at 980,000 head as of Oct. 1, following the national trend at 9 percent more than last month and 4 percent greater than last year. 

An estimated 235,000 cattle and calves were placed on feed during September, 15 percent above the previous month’s placements, but 6 percent below September 2017 placements. Of the number placed in September, 13 percent weighed less than 600 pounds, 11 percent weighed from 600 to 699 pounds, 19 percent weighed from 700 to 799 pounds, 30 percent weighed from 800-899 pounds, and 28 percent weighed 900 pounds and greater. 

With fewer large feedlots, Wyoming ranks just outside that top 12, at 15th, Paisley said. More of the Wyoming cattle production is in the cow-calf arena, with many of those cattle going to feedlots outside the state, including Nebraska and Colorado.

Though difficult to predict, Berger and Paisley think this could mark the beginning of stronger markets going forward. Increased trade agreements on beef, particularly in Asian markets, as well as upticks in domestic demand, could fuel the cattle markets into the future.

“A lot of people, in my mind, are waiting for some of that turnaround, those trade relationships,” Paisley said. “I felt like a lot of those didn’t get established with the Trump administration until late summer. As some of those deals get established, there may be some increased momentum.”

Berger agreed: “We’ve been able to move quite a bit of beef through channels at higher prices than what economists expected a year or so ago. A lot of factors shape what the market does. It’s pretty hard to predict, but I do think we’ll probably see beef cow numbers equal or greater (to the current report) on Jan. 1.”

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