The number of beef cows in the US at the start of this year was the lowest since 1962 at 28.918 million, according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

The figures reflected the smallest herd for that date since the government began keeping the records 52 years ago, and reflected a fifth year of declining beef cow numbers.

US analysts have said that meat processors like Tyson Foods and Cargill will pay elevated prices for cattle until producers start rebuilding the herd.

They explained that longer-term plans for new slaughter plants to open in coming years indicate processors will also increasingly need to compete with each other to buy limited numbers of cattle.

Chief strategist for brokerage Allendale, Rich Nelson said: “The next two to three years are going to be a bloodbath for packer margins.”

The USDA, in a separate report, said producers placed 1.68 million cattle in feedlots in June, up 3% from 2022.

Analysts had expected placements on average to decline 1.6% from last year.

They signalled that the increase meant there is still not enough pasture for cattle to graze on due to dry weather.

Economist for Steiner Consulting, Altin Kalo said: “The dynamic is not there yet where you’re going to see a real shortfall in the number of cattle going on feed.”

US herd statistics

In total, there were 95.9 million head of cattle and calves on US farms as of July 1, 2023, according to the USDA NASS report.

Other key findings in the report were:

  • Of the 95.9 million head inventory, all cows and heifers that have calved totaled 38.8 million;
  • The number of milk cows in the US remained unchanged at 9.40 million;
  • US calf crop was estimated at 33.8 million head, down 2% from 2022;
  • All cattle on feed were at 13.1 million head, down 2% from 2022.

To obtain an accurate measurement of the current state of the US cattle industry, NASS surveyed roughly 15,600 operators across the nation during the first half of July.

Surveyed producers were asked to report their cattle inventories as of July 1, 2023, and calf crop for the entire year of 2023 by internet, mail, telephone, or personal interview.