U.S. feedlots bought 0.5% fewer cattle in December compared with a year earlier, the government says, surprising analysts who were expecting an increase.

Feedlots bought 1.664 million head of cattle last month, down from 1.673 million in December 2011, the USDA says in a report. The average estimate of 12 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News was a 2.9% increase. The feedlot herd totaled 11.193 million as of Jan. 1, 5.6% less from a year earlier. Analysts expected the inventory to be down 4.6%.

Most analysts predicted an increase in feedlot purchases, as the country’s worst drought since the 1930s dried out pastures in the Great Plains, prompting some ranchers to sell off young animals earlier than usual. About 27% of the High Plains region was in “exceptional” drought as of Jan. 22, the U.S. Drought Monitor shows, up from 0.1% a year earlier.

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