BeefTalk: Cow Herd Expansion Needs Land

By Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist

Why not more cows? That is a good question because the beef industry is begging
for cows. To do that, the cow-calf producer needs more cows to expand, the
feedlot producer needs more calves and purveyors need product.

Do I keep more cows? That is a difficult question producers must answer. Just
how many more is not an easy number to grasp because most beef operations
actually try to keep their carrying capacity or stocking rates stable. Stocking
rate, or the cow-calf pairs that inhabit the ranch, are set based on the
carrying capacity of the particular type of land. However, if land is available,
individual producers have expanded.

In fact, if one looks at the long-term historical benchmark values since 1995
for the number of cows exposed to the bull for those North Dakota Beef Cattle
Improvement Association beef producers involved in the North Dakota State
University Extension Service CHAPS program, the benchmark for 1995 was 145 cows
exposed to the bull. In 2013 and after more than 19 years, producers have
increased their cows exposed to the bull to 249.

After further reflection, the long-term historical benchmark values since 1995
for replacement and culling rate for those North Dakota Beef Cattle Improvement
Association beef producers averaged through those 19 years would be 17.8 percent
for replacement rate and 13.9 percent for culling rate.

The more recent 2013 benchmark values for replacement and culling rate would be
15.3 percent for the replacement rate and 13.5 percent for the culling rate.
These numbers are rolling five-year averages that are intended to reflect what
is happening historically with CHAPS producer herds.

By presenting the continually rolling five-year average, the highs and lows are
buffered and a more understandable trend line is generated. In reviewing older
data back to 1995, the greatest replacement rate benchmark was 20.8 percent in
1999 and the lowest was 15 percent in 2009.

When looking at the culling percentage benchmark, the lowest was 13.2 percent in
1996 and the greatest was 14.8 percent in 2010. These are typical numbers that
reflect the managerial thoughts and actions of cow-calf producers.

The replacement rate, an indication of how many first-calf heifers are in the
herd, has varied from 15 to 21 percent of the total cows exposed. As younger
cows enter the herd and if there were enough of them, the average cow age would
shift. However, the average cow age has not shifted through time. In fact, the
average benchmark for cow age since 1995 has been 5.5 years of age. The youngest
benchmark of cow age was 5.4 in 2000 and the oldest cow age benchmark of 5.7 was
recorded in 2011.

One could say the cows have gotten a little older and a few less young cows have
been put back in the herd since the mid-1990s. However, on a percentage bases,
producers have not changed much.

More critically, how have producers culled their herds during that time frame?
For the cow-calf producer, culling percentages have not varied very much (13 to
15 percent) for quite some time.

So where are new cows going to come from? It would appear that cow-calf
producers cannot add cows without adding land. Even though a producer may add
cows, because the stocking and culling rates are fairly constant, cattle on a
given land base will be fairly constant.

Thus the dilemma. Those who determine when and how fast the base cow population
expands are land people. Cattle ranchers are land people and so are others
involved in agriculture. For some, their use of the land may or may not involve
cattle or, in some cases, even production agriculture.

The competition for land and land use are compelling forces that will impact the
cattle industry. In addition, cattle forage needs land and land needs moisture.
Ultimately, Mother Nature still holds the most shares because moisture
determines the ability to utilize land at a proper stocking rate. Because the
stocking rate is set in a land-based cattle system, improved moisture following
drought only restores cattle numbers to acceptable predrought inventories.

It is puzzling how so many cows have left the nation's cattle inventory, but
just as puzzling is how there would be enough land for replacement cows. Yes,
the cow herd could add replacements. However, is the incentive strong enough to
negotiate enough land away from other agricultural enterprises or other land
uses to provide the forage and grazing needed?

I doubt it, but I really don't know. Only time will tell. 

May you find all your ear tags