Early May provided the first look at forage conditions facing the beef cattle industry in 2013, and the news was not good.

Moisture conditions have improved marginally, with 33 percent of the United States in categories D2 to D4 drought conditions, down from 40 percent three months ago but worse than last year, when 20 percent of the country was in D2 or worse drought in early May.

“The drought is now confined mostly to the western half of the nation, across much of the Great Plains and Intermountain regions; unfortunately, this is an area that contains a large percentage of the country’s beef cows,” said Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist.

Peel said the United States’ long, cold winter has extended negative carryover drought effects with additional demands for hay and more pressure on stressed pastures and ranges.

The May Crop Progress report contains the estimated hay stocks on farms as of May 1. The inventory of 14.2 million tons is the smallest since 2007 and smaller than any May 1 total in data back to 1973. Total hay stocks on May 1, 2013, for the United States are down 36 percent from the previous 10-year average.

“Reduced hay production due to drought the past two years and the extended winter demands this spring have pulled hay stocks to extremely low levels,” Peel said. “Given current drought conditions and cold weather delays this spring, hay production is likely to be below normal again in 2013, thereby limiting the recovery of hay stocks this year.”

The region from Ohio to South Dakota and south to Kansas and Missouri has the lowest May 1 hay stocks compared to the 10-year average from 2003 to 2012. Hay stocks for May 1, 2013 declined sharply from the average in these states, including: Illinois, down 52 percent; Indiana, down 44 percent; Iowa, down 62 percent; Kansas, down 58 percent; Missouri, down 53 percent; Nebraska, down 45 percent; and South Dakota, down 54 percent.

Poor pasture conditions

The May Crop Progress report also contained the first spring estimates of range and pasture conditions.

“Many areas are beginning the growing season with significantly worse pasture and range conditions than last year,” Peel said. “For the entire country, 36 percent of all pasture and ranges are in poor to very poor condition, or twice as much compared to the same time last year.”

Regionally, the Great Plains region rates as worst, with 57 percent in poor to very poor condition, followed by the Southern Plains at 47 percent and the Western region at 37 percent.

“Pasture and range conditions in several individual states are actually worse than suggested by the regional averages,” Peel said. “Lingering cold weather and snow cover in many areas are the reason.”

In New Mexico, 91 percent of the ranges are in poor to very poor condition, followed by Colorado at 76 percent, Nebraska at 70 percent, Kansas at 67 percent, South Dakota at 58 percent, Wyoming at 55 percent, Montana at 54 percent and Texas at 53 percent.

“Too much winter was just too much for some producers, given their forage limitations, and has contributed to unexpected beef cow liquidation this spring and larger than expected marketings of feeder cattle in some regions,” Peel said. “In the short run, this is likely augmenting feedlot placements now at the expense of feeder supplies later in the year.”

Peel cautions the long-run effects on cattle markets may be troublesome.

“Some heifers designated as potential replacements on Jan. 1 have likely already been diverted into feeder markets,” he said. “Beef cow slaughter has been well above year-ago levels the past seven weeks and year-to-date beef cow slaughter has barely decreased at all compared to this time last year.”

In other words, another year of beef cow herd liquidation may already be inevitable, Peel suggests. The next few weeks will determine whether or not there is a chance to stabilize the beef cow herd in 2013, provided forage conditions improve and beef cow slaughter declines.

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