U.S. Cattle Inventory hits 73-Year low - Impact on Ag Markets

Feb 08, 2024

By Farms.com

The U.S. cattle inventory as of January 1, 2024, is at its smallest in 73 years, with 87.2 million head, down 2% from the previous year. The calf crop is also at its lowest since 1948, with 33.6 million head. Despite historically low cattle numbers, the supply of cattle on feed remains high. Beef production in 2023 decreased by 2% but had record-high dressed weights. The decrease in inventory, coupled with higher weights, has influenced the forecast for 2024 commercial beef production. 

Implications and Analysis: 

  • Market Dynamics: 

  • The low cattle inventory is considered for the market, setting the tone for cattle markets in 2024. 

  • Despite the low inventory, there is a curiously high supply of cattle on feed, likely maintaining stable beef prices in the short term. 

  • Cattle Cycle Contraction: 

  • The decline in replacement heifers is slowing, possibly indicating a slowing contraction phase in the cattle cycle. 

  • Production and Prices: 

  • Beef production in December 2023 was below the previous year, but higher weights contributed to a record-high average. This, coupled with the smaller calf crop, has led to forecasts of increased beef prices in 2024 and 2025. 

  • Supply Chain Challenges: 

  • The decline in the calf crop and replacement heifers may result in a shortage of cattle in the supply chain, potentially leading to higher prices in the latter part of 2024. 

  • Domestic Demand: 

  • Despite higher prices, domestic consumer demand for beef remains strong. However, there is an expectation of a decline in consumer willingness to pay, potentially impacting consumption. 

  • Global Demand: 

  • Global demand for U.S. beef faced challenges in the final quarter of 2023, but demand from key Asian trade partners remains robust. Economic conditions and increased Australian beef production could affect global demand. 

  • Input Costs: 

  • Improved drought conditions due to El Niño have positively influenced feed costs, but higher cattle prices and increased interest expenses pose challenges for farmers looking to expand their herds. 

  • Barriers to Herd Expansion: 

  • The Federal Reserve's decision to maintain higher interest rates may hinder farmers' ability to borrow money for expansion, potentially slowing down herd recovery in the coming years. 

The overall outlook for the U.S. cattle industry in 2024 suggests both opportunities and challenges. While low cattle numbers may provide profitability for cattle businesses, a smaller calf crop and potential supply chain challenges could lead to record beef prices for consumers. The ability of consumers to withstand higher prices will play a crucial role in determining the industry's trajectory in the coming year. 

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