By MATTHEW D. ERNST
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s cattle and calf inventory was 1.83 million head on Jan. 1, the lowest number reported by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) since 1959, and a 7 percent decline from one year previous.
“During the year Tennessee farmers liquidated some of their herds due to drought,” said Debra Kenerson, Tennessee state director of NASS. The number of cattle counted in Tennessee declined by 140,000, from 2012 to 2013. More than half the decline (75,000 head) came in the category of steers and heifers over 500 pounds, reported on Tennessee farms.
“For us to lose a little over 7 percent of all cattle and calves just in a year is unusual,” said Andrew Griffith, a University of Tennessee extension economist. “I expect that, with anywhere near a normal weather year this year, we’re going to see the reported cattle number move up this year.”
Lack of feed and forage, because of the drought, is the main reason for a decline. “The late spring and early summer drought last year really put us in a bind,” said Kevin Rose, extension agent for Giles County, in Pulaski. “Some folks just finally gave up their cow herds because of the weather and lack of feed.”
While U.S. hay stocks are the lowest since 1984, according to USDA, many Tennessee hayfields and pastures received adequate moisture during the late summer and early fall. That allowed producers to stockpile forage and stretch existing hay supplies through the winter, said Griffith.
In Giles County, Rose said he is already seeing some signs of expansion in his county’s 60,000-cow beef herd, in the past month.
“A lot of people are out looking for replacement heifers right now,” he said. “We’ve even seen some heifers sold at auction that we think are heading back to farms here instead of to the feedlots,” he said.
He also said the temporary reduction of the beef herd will have some long-term benefits. “I would say the quality of our cattle has actually improved as folks have had to cull much heavier than normal,” he said.
Both Rose and Griffith said conversion of pasture and forage ground to row crops may impact the long-run ability of Tennessee cattle farmers to build back up animal numbers.
“I’ve had more calls about rental rates for crop ground in the past 12 or 14 months than I can remember,” said Rose, of Pulaski. “Some pastures and hayfields have been converted to row crops, and that makes it harder for cattlemen to find forage, especially when we’re dry.”
As cattle farmers age, renting out pastures and hayfields for row crops becomes a more attractive option. “Older producers are seeing the possibility to rent out their land because of high corn and bean prices, and that’s bringing some to switch from using the land for cattle,” said Griffith.
NASS reported 40,000 fewer heifers, including 5,000 fewer replacement heifers, and 35,000 fewer steers across Tennessee this year. The number of beef cows was down 38,000, with Tennessee’s calf inventory declining by 20,000 from 2012 to 2013. It was the third consecutive year of declining cattle numbers in Tennessee.
Decline reflects national trend
The decline in Tennessee reflected national trends. NASS reported beef cattle numbers were down 2 percent across the country. Lower cow numbers also resulted in a lower calf crop in Tennessee for 2012 than in 2011. NASS reported a calf crop of 880,000 in 2012, down 4 percent from 2011.
“The 2012 drought was just the latest event to result in a movement towards the liquidation of cows, that’s really accelerated since 2007,” said Chris Hurt, Purdue University ag economist.
“Nationally, the beef cow herd has dropped by 3.6 million head (11 percent) with reductions in all regions except the Northern Plains. It has been difficult for the beef industry to compete for high-priced feed and limited land that is being converted to corn and soybean production.
More rain, crop production and pasture and forage production will be needed to increase beef cattle numbers, said Hurt. More forage production should translate into lower forage costs, which can help bolster calf prices. He said beef producers would also like to have some assurance feed prices will moderate in future years, not just in one year.
The USDA’s national report gave some indications cow-calf producers were readying for expansion, reporting replacement heifers were up 2 percent. The long-term outlook for the beef industry upon recovery from drought, said Hurt, is multiple years of improved returns and expansion.
“If – and it’s a big if – crop production returns to normal, then the cattle industry is poised for multiple years of favorable returns and for expansion,” he said.
While normal moisture and crop production bodes well for Tennessee’s beef industry, higher crop yields could create more competition for beef in the grocery store.
“Unfortunately for the beef industry, both poultry and pork producers are waiting at the start line, as well. Those industries can expand production much more quickly and will extract market share from beef during the period from late 2013 to 2016,” said Hurt.