It is a hot topic of discussion in the U.S. cattle industry: How can operations increase or even maintain beef production if the cow herd continues to shrink?

“I suspect that carcass weights will show little or no upward trend in the next decade compared to the last 20 years,” said Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist. “Thus much of the compensation for a declining inventory that was offset by increasing carcass weights in the past will not be available going forward.”

However, a number of factors will affect the ability or inability of the U.S. beef industry to continue current levels of production without rebuilding the herd, which may be getting lost in some of the conversations, even among expert analysts.

“It has been appropriately and correctly noted that some of the superlatives used by myself and others, such as the fact that the current beef cow herd is the smallest since 1963, are relevant only in a broad historical context,” Peel said.

More efficient

Peel points out that many things have changed, including the fact that the industry is much more efficient and cattle are bigger now, resulting in significantly more pounds of beef produced per cow. In short, it is difficult to assign a particular beef inventory level compared to history.

“A more relevant time period is the last 20 years,” he said. “The beef cow herd in 2010 was about 1 million head smaller at 31.4 million head than it was in 1990, when it was 32.5 million head.”

In the intervening years, the cow herd increased to a cyclical peak of 35.2 million head in 1996 to an apparent cyclical low of 32.9 million head in 2004, before the market shocks since 2007 pushed the herd down to current levels.

Beef production in 2010 is projected at 26.03 billion pounds, 15 percent higher than 1990’s larger beef cow herd, about equal to the level in 1996 at the recent cyclical peak in cattle numbers and within 3 percent of the all-time annual beef production record of 26.8 billion pounds in 2000.
“Beef and cattle trade plays a role as well,” Peel said. “However, the relative importance of beef and cattle trade, in terms of overall production levels, has not changed much in the past 20 years.”