What Does Lower Cattle Inventory Mean For You?

The latest cattle report from USDA shows that the cattle and calves inventory continues the decline in the current cycle. Inventory peaked in 2019, and today, we’re at historic lows.

U.S. cattle inventory is down 2 percent, according to the report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. There were 87.2 million head of cattle and calves on U.S. farms as of Jan. 1.

The last time inventory was this low was 1951 at 82.1 million head, says NASS Livestock Branch Chief Travis Averill.

While folks expected these lower inventories, Ever.Ag Broker-Analyst Matt Tranel says the surprise came in on dairy heifer replacements.

“We pay very close attention to the ‘expected to calve’ as we’re looking for the next crop to get infused into the milking herd,” Tranel explains. “In the 2024 revision… they were off about 150,000 (head). That explains the rhetoric from dairymen saying that they can’t find two-year-old heifers ready to come into the milking herd. Or, if they can find them, they’re having to pay up for them pretty extremely.”

While the cow herd is the smallest it’s been since 1951, the calf herd the smallest it’s been since 1941. Equity Cooperative Livestock Sales Association President and CEO Curt Larson doesn’t know when the numbers will turn around.

“This is going to be a long-term fix. We’re looking at several years,” he says. “Prices are still pretty good on the slaughter side, so you’re still going to see a lot of these heifers going into the feed lots just because they’ve got enough value there.”

If you’re wondering what low beef supply is going to look like at the grocery store, Larson says low supply won’t necessarily break the bank.

“It depends on what the demand is. If there’s product to be moved, the retailers get creative on how to do that,” he says. “It depends on what cut you’re looking for. Some of the lesser demanded cuts — they’re still going to see some sales on those.”

Other key findings in the report were:

  • Of the 87.2 million head inventory, all cows and heifers that have calved totaled 37.6 million.
  • There are 28.2 million beef cows in the United States as of Jan. 1, 2024, down 2% from last year.
  • The number of milk cows in the United States decreased slightly to 9.36 million.
  • NASS estimates the U.S. calf crop at 33.6 million head, down 2% from 2022.
  • All cattle on feed were at 14.4 million head, up 2% from 2023.