The much anticipated USDA cattle report confirmed that the beef industry is beginning 2011 with a small cowherd, limited replacement heifers and even tighter feeder supplies. The beef cowherd decreased 1.6% in 2010 to a Jan. 1, 2011 total of 30.9 million head. The inventory of beef replacement heifers dropped 293,000 head to 5.16 million head available as of the beginning of 2011. Despite smaller replacement heifer inventories, estimated feeder supplies decreased by 3.3% compared to a year ago, as a result of aggressive feedlot placements late in 2010. The extent of the expansion in 2011will affect beef production in both the short run and the long run.

Possible beef cowherd expansion in 2011 depends on several factors including how aggressively producers are trying to expand and what Mother Nature will allow the industry to do. Both of these are uncertain as producer intentions are not clear and the potential for significant drought continues to grow this winter. More fundamentally, the inventory numbers themselves suggest limits on what is possible and the implications of various expansion scenarios. Herd expansion will depend on the net change in cow numbers that result from cow culling and heifer placement in the herd. Cow culling has been at very high levels the last three years and the percent (3%) of the beef cowherd culled in 2010 was the highest level of any time in the last 20 years.

Although the number of heifers available as replacements is known from the inventory report, changes in the herd inventory over the year will depend on the percentage of heifers that actually enter the herd. In the last 20 years, an average of about 53% of reported replacement heifers on Jan. 1 actually enter the herd during the year. The remaining heifers end up in the feeder supply for one reason or another. Over the last 20 years, this value has varied from a low of 45% to a high of about 60%, with one spike up to 69% in 1993.

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For insight into BEEF readers' attitudes and their expansion plans for the coming year, see the results of the exclusive February issue survey here.