By Megan Brown  


The size of the American cattle herd is always fluctuating. However, the trend over the past few decades has shown our cattle numbers have been steadily declining. Compounded with other factors such as loss of range ground, severe drought in the west, and alternative land use, our recent cattle numbers are even lower. Many producers are asking themselves if this is an appropriate time to expand.

According to the USDA, 2014 saw the lowest cow/calf inventories in our history*. For cow/calf producers, this appeared to be an opportune time to expand our herds by retaining heifers for replacement and herd growth. Unfortunately, the glut of available heifers drove the price and demand down in 2015.

Although our live cattle herd is the smallest in our history, the same cannot be said for our beef inventory*. The technology that the beef industry is using today has enabled us to maintain beef supplies that rival those of our high cattle numbers in our 1970’s heyday. Genetic, nutritional and pharmaceutical advancements have made it possible for cattle-people to be more efficient; producing larger carcasses with fewer resources.

The fact remains our nation’s cattle numbers are down. Historically, the cattle cycle dictates this means higher prices. Since cattle do require the most time to mature to market, this could be a time to start planning for growth and expansion by producers. But before producers follow herd mentality and expand, repeating 2015, it is important to ask, as an individual producer, if this is truly a good time and a smart choice?

In order to be a successful producer, it is important to watch cattle trends and plan herd expansion or reduction accordingly. Obviously, using market futures and trends can be helpful when thinking about herd expansion. As mentioned above, the cattle cycle, which typically lasts from 9 to eleven years, can tell us historically how the market has behaved. If producers are able to use this information to their advantage they can mitigate some of the risk associated with expansion.

Another important question to ask yourself before committing to increasing your numbers is will you have ample grazing and water? Even though, according to the Beef Checkoff, 85% of US grazing lands in use are not suitable for crop production, good quality, affordable range ground is becoming scarce. Water fees, environmental red tape and drought have made accessing new and sometimes current water sources hardly possible. By pre-planning and ensuring your grazing and water supply will be sufficient, you can save some headache and heartache down the road.

If the decision is made to retain heifers, there are a few opinions to always consider. It is always sound advice to select cattle that are similar to your current cow herd. Most buyers want to see a uniform set of calves at the market, and by selecting cattle that meld into your genetic program you can ensure a better price when the offspring reach the market. However, if expanding your herd means you will have to acquire more ground and perhaps move your cattle more often; consider keeping the smaller end of your heifers. Having smaller cows will enable lower trucking bills.

And finally, are you raising cattle that the consumer will demand? There has been a massive trend toward value added beef. For example, beef that is free of added hormones, promotants that is humanely handled, grass-finished, or organic. Expanding into proven niche markets might be the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

With record cattle prices still a recent memory and declining cattle herd, the temptation to grow and expand our cattle numbers is tremendous. But despite lower cattle numbers, it is always smart to question if it is a good time and a smart choice for your operation to grow. By taking into consideration some simple questions from above, perhaps the choice will be easier.




Megan Brown is a 6th generation commercial, cattle rancher from Northern California. Aside from raising beef and heritage hogs, she can be found gardening, cooking, canning, hunting or writing in the company of her manx cat, Jack, border collie, Hoot, Kelpie, Boo and teacup pig, Priscilla, aka Silly. Megan received her B.S. in agricultural business from California State University who is very passionate about agriculture and shares her life experiences on her blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  

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