U.S. feedlots increased purchases of young cattle by 22% in July, compared to last year, as a lingering drought in the southern U.S. forced ranchers to move animals off pastures.

Feedlots bought 2.153 million head of cattle last month, up from 1.758 million in July 2010, according to USDA's Cattle On Feed (COF) report released last Friday. The purchases were the most for July since at least 1996, USDA says. Thirteen analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News projected a 17% increase, on average. The feedlot herd was 10.626 million as of Aug. 1, up 7.6% from a year earlier. Analysts expected a 7.1% gain.

The drought in Texas, the biggest cattle-producing state, has spurred a record $5.2 billion in farm losses, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. More than 49% of the land area in a six-state region in the South is experiencing “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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See Steve Kay's Friday Market Update here for a roundup of the latest COF report.