LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ cattle numbers are recovering nearly two years after the start of a drought that caused $128 million damage to the state’s beef industry, while national numbers plummet to their lowest levels in more than 60 years.
The number of cattle nationwide declined to 87.7 million head in January, the smallest since 1951, but Arkansas is continuing to buck the trend, with the January count up 4 percent from the year-earlier count to 1.66 million head, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“Due to the 2012 drought the 2013 Arkansas cattle inventory declined 4 percent and the national cattle inventory declined 2 percent,” said Tom Troxel, professor and associate head-Animal Science for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “However, with rains returning in 2013, the Arkansas cattle inventory recovered to about the cattle inventory level of Jan. 1, 2012.”
As of Feb. 11, Arkansas was 99.66 percent drought-free. A year ago, nearly half the state suffered from drought. In 2012, the state was drought-free according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report issued April 24. By May 29, all of the state had some drought classification.
Arkansas beef cow numbers increased from 851,000 head in 2013 to 882,000 in 2014. Other states with a 4 percent or greater increase in beef cow number included Kansas, Mississippi, New York and Pennsylvania.
With drought deepening in California and still affecting other western states, “the U.S. cattle inventory will continue to face difficulty recovering,” he said.
Troxel said that nationwide, beef producers are starting to show some signs of expansion. The number of beef replacement heifers was up 2 percent or 5.5 million head.
“Arkansas beef cattle producers are also optimistic about the future — they increased the umber of replacement beef heifers by 6.2 percent,” Troxel said.
It takes time to rebuild the cow numbers “but it starts with retaining heifers and it appears the cattle producers are beginning the process with the 2013 heifer crop,” he said. “Beef cow replacements numbers have declined for many years. With an increase in beef replacement in 2013, there is an outside chance we could see an increase in beef cow numbers in 2015 or 2016, but much will depend on what happens with corn and feed prices.”
Arkansas beef cattle producers may be a step ahead of the nation.
“With the smaller national herd, decrease in supply with an increase in demand for beef both domestically and foreign, beef prices are expected to be higher in 2014 than in 2013,” Troxel said. “Cost of feed is expected to be lower than in recent years. If Arkansas cattle producers can manage their cost, profits can potentially be higher than in recent history.”
In Arkansas, the calf crop for the full year of 2013 was 760,000, unchanged from 2012. The 2013 calf crop for the U.S. was 33.9 million head — the smallest since 1949. All cows and heifers that have calved, at 890,000 head, were up 3 percent January 2014 and beef cows were at 882,000 head, up 4 percent. All heifers weighing 500 pounds and more, were up 6.2 percent to 137,000 head. Steers were up 4 percent at 135,000 head and calves weighing less than 500 pounds were down 2.7 percent to 360,000 head.
During 2013, Arkansas experienced normal rainfall, producing adequate amounts of forage.
This, along with strong selling prices in 2013, may have caused Arkansas beef producers to sell light-weight calves — those less than 500 pounds — rather than graze excess forage to improve weights and hopefully profits, especially calves weaned in the fall.
The 2014 cattle and calf inventory is nowhere near the record numbers set in 1975. In 1975 there were 2.68 million all cattle and calves, 1.35 million cows and heifers that calve and 1.26 million beef cows.