With the U.S. cattle inventory at levels not seen in 50 years and prices for all classes of cattle at or near record levels, the often-asked question is when will expansion of the U.S. cowherd begin?

According to an exclusive survey of BEEF readers, more than half of respondents aim to expand their operations in the coming year. In fact, 33.7% of cow-calf respondents to an electronic survey conducted in January indicated they intend to expand their cowherd size by 1-10% in 2011, while 19.1% plan to expand by 11% or more.

Of those cow-calf respondents planning to expand their operation in the coming year, 62% say it’s because they see opportunity in the future, while 38% say they need to expand to remain competitive.

A total of 41% of cow-calf respondents indicated they intend to remain the same size, with 6.2% of them remaining the same size but adding or growing other enterprises.

Another 3.1% of respondents indicated they planned to contract by 1-10% in the coming year, while 2.3% expected to contract by 11% or more. A total of .8% planned to exit the industry in 2011, with .6% retiring and .2% not retiring but getting out of the beef/cattle industry completely.

The electronic survey was emailed in early January to 20,000 BEEF readers, from which 1,312 usable surveys were returned, for an effective response rate of 6.6%. Readers were surveyed on a number of issues. These included their operational plans for 2011 and the coming three-year period, their opinions on the results of the November 2010 mid-term elections, and their attitudes toward major issues facing the country and the U.S. beef industry. Cross-tabulations were performed by age and geographic location of the respondents.

“The level of optimism expressed by respondents is encouraging and a little surprising, given the negative factors of high input costs, government meddling and others, but high prices can apparently cure a lot of heartburn,” says BEEF Senior Editor Burt Rutherford of the results.

See all the results in the February issue of BEEF. For a copy of the survey results, click here.