Five-year decline in U.S. cattle herd may be ending

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Garrett Dwyer, a former U.S. marine and veteran of tours of duty in Iraq and Japan, is on a mission that could test his mettle as much as the warfare he has seen — to rebuild his family’s ranch in Nebraska.

The 25-year-old has found it a “culture shock” to be back in the ranks of civilian life but enjoys being his own boss at the 5,200-acre spread near Valentine.

“I really want to return our ranch to the way it used to be and see my cows on my land,” said Dwyer.

“I’d like to be the fifth generation to take over the family ranch, which means a lot for me,” he said, adding that he bought 10 heifers this year to add to the 15 he has retained.

Eight years ago, when he enlisted with the military, his ranch had 350 head of cattle.

Dwyer’s purchase of the heifers this year might seem insignificant at first glance, but it and similar efforts by other ranchers are laying the foundation to reverse five straight years of a shrinking U.S. cattle herd — which is now the smallest in 60 years.

One of the worst droughts in top cattle state Texas since the dust bowl in the 1930s has forced ranchers to either cull their cattle due to a lack of pasture or send them to feedyards to be fattened on corn months before they are usually ready.

The decline has also been accelerated by feed cost rising to a record high last year and the scramble for farmland to capitalize on surging prices for grains like corn.

Retained heifers

The “green shoots” of a possible rebuilding of the U.S. cattle herd were reflected in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biannual inventory report that showed a surprise 1.4 per cent increase in the number of heifers being retained to replace beef cows.

Jeff Stolle with Nebraska Cattlemen, a state beef promotion group based in Lincoln, Nebraska, said the current economic environment is influencing ranchers’ decision to retain heifers.

“The thought is, which has to be proven over time, that at some point the drought in Texas and Oklahoma will likely mitigate and there will likely be a demand for cattle to restock the grazing lands in that part of the world that were driven north,” said Stolle.

For 59-year-old Bill Donald times are good and the future optimistic at the Cayuse Livestock Company ranch in south-central Montana. Donald and his family run the 25,000-acre 5,000-head cow-calf operation that celebrated its bicentennial a couple of years ago.

“We’ve (Cayuse) been retaining heifers for the last couple of years, sold a lot of bred heifers last year for a nice profit and hopefully it will pay back by putting more cows in the system,” he said here at the gathering of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — of which he is president.

“Taking advantage of an opportunity, we could see that the cow herd was going to be rebuilt in our area. If they had not have had a drought in south-central Texas, we certainly would have seen even higher prices for those bred stock,” said Donald.

In the short term keeping more heifers for breeding could hurt consumers, who are already paying record-high prices for beef, as it will reduce beef production.

Analysts said any herd expansion would tighten supplies even further, but there will be more beef cattle available just over two years down the road.

“As we jump down, we’re taking heifers and not putting them in into the feedlots or beef supply chain, we’re putting them in the cow herd supply chain which constricts the supply of feeder cattle in the feedlots even more,” said Donald.

“The hope is that in the next few years we’ll have enough to fill those feedlots again,” he said.

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