Beef cattle numbers decline

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By Rick Greenwell

In late January, USDA released their annual Cattle Inventory report, which estimated the size of the US cowherd. As expected, beef herd liquidation continued during 2010 despite the stronger fall markets. US beef cow numbers fell by 1.6 percent, which was largely consistent with pre-report estimates. The number of heifers held for beef replacements may have been the biggest surprise of the report, falling by about 5 percent. With fewer cows and less heifer development, the 2011 calf crop will clearly be smaller than 2010.
Of course drought was a factor on many Kentucky beef cattle operations last year. Many began feeding hay in mid-summer and reports of hay shortages are becoming more common. This was no doubt part of the reason why Kentucky beef cow numbers continued to decrease. Also, rising production costs and increased competition for
land for row crop production were at play. Kentucky beef cow numbers were estimated to be down by 47,000 (-4 percent). Kentucky’s cow herd has decreased by 184,000 cows since January of 2007. Since cow herd expansion is clearly not underway, it is worth revisiting some cattle cycle basics. The initial sign of expansion is an increase in heifer retention rates. Once this happens, it takes approximately two years for those heifers to be developed, bred, and to wean their first calves. Therefore, even if expansion were to begin in 2011 (and they stress the “if”), we are still at least two years away from seeing larger calf crops. So, while there are some clear market risks, including beef demand and grain prices, beef supplies should remain very tight over the next few years.


Of all the factors affecting hay quality, stage of maturity when harvested is the most important and the one in which greatest progress can be made. As legumes and grasses advance from the vegetative to reproductive (seed) stage, they become higher in fiber and lignin content and lower in protein content, digestibility, and acceptability to livestock. The optimum stages of maturity to harvest for yield-quality persistence compromise is usually when plants are making a transition from vegetative (leafy) to reproductive (flower-seed) stage. Making the first hay cut early permits aftermath growth to begin at a time when temperature and soil moisture are usually more favorable for plant growth and generally increases total yield per acre. After mowing, poor weather and handling conditions can lower hay quality. Rain can cause leaf loss and can leach nutrients from plants during curing.   Sunlight can lower hay quality through bleaching and lowering Vitamin A content. Raking and/or tedding dry, brittle hay can cause excessive leaf loss. Hay plants with an80 percent moisture content must lose approximately 6,000 pounds of water to produce a ton of hay at 20 percent moisture. Crushing stems (conditioning) at time of mowing will cause stems to dry at more nearly the same rate as leaves. Conditioning will usually decrease the drying time of large-stemmed plants by up to a day and can result in leaf and nutrient savings. Raking and/or tedding while hay is moist (about 40 percent moisture) and baling before hay is too dry (below 15 percent moisture) will help reduce leaf losses. Store to minimize loss, preserve quality and feed for efficiency.