An Increase In Beef Cows Requires Cropland
By: Kris Ringwall, Beef Specialist
Current industry thoughts would indicate that the beef cow herd is expanding,
but the question is, “Where?”
As cattle numbers expand, one needs to ponder where and then how. Ultimately,
cattle need land, and regardless of where one goes, land is a precious
commodity. Competition is tough, and crop production continues to dominate
agriculture. So the question that often needs to be discussed is, “Just where is
the forage base to expand cattle?”
Although the excitement of the high value of cattle and crops has diminished,
the lingering effects of high crop prices still have the potential to pull land
resources from cattle. A cattle number review shows cyclical highs and lows,
generally price-driven. Through time, 10 years generally was noted as the cycle
length, but the exact number of years certainly has varied.
Regardless, as cattle numbers go up and down, what happens to the land base?
What happens as crop production expands and utilizes land that previously was
used for cattle? History will tell us, but the real question for the beef
industry is current land use and the opportunity to graze on available land at a
The stocking capacity, the number of cow-calf pairs various land eco-types can
support, does not cycle and essentially is set for the country as a whole. Thus,
land use is the driving factor, driven by how flexible producers are in
converting from one land use to another land use.
The beef business does not stand alone. In some areas, beef cattle may be the
primary agricultural enterprise, but beef production is a subset of agriculture.
A big-picture look of agriculture is necessary.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture (https://www.agcensus.usda.gov) reported North
Dakota’s land area at 44,160,640 acres. The 2007 Census of Agriculture reported
31,970 farms in North Dakota were farming 39,674,586 acres. Five years later,
the 2012 report indicated 30,961 farms in North Dakota were farming 39,262,613
That’s not a large difference. In terms of principal crops, the 2007 report
noted 27,527,180 acres of cropland (22,035,717 acres harvested) and the 2012
report noted 27,147,240 acres of cropland (23,469,816 acres harvested), an
increase in harvested acres but still not large differences.
Interestingly, in 2007, 812,533 acres of cropland were reported as being used
for grazing. In 2012, 321,936 acres of cropland were reported as being used for
Another interesting note: Included in the total crop acres was cover crops. In
2007, 3,549,898 acres were idled for cover crops or other soil improvement. In
2012, cover crops and soil health accounted for 2,665,385 acres. In 2007,
3,434,036 acres were enrolled in a conservation program. In 2012, only 2,163,579
acres were enrolled.
These data suggest land use is fairly constant in the big picture, even though
the acreage numbers certainly are not constant. Individual producers will change
land use, but weather is the big determinant of what actual success the producer
However, the livestock industry does exist and utilizes permanent pasture and
rangeland: 10,418,885 acres in 2007 and 10,247,184 acres in 2012. The inventory
of cows and heifers that calved was 956,502 in 2007 and 899,558 in 2012. Like
total cropland, the changes appear as fewer acres. The success of those acres is
tied up in long-term practices.
Perhaps the spikes in increased crop prices were an incentive for less forage
and livestock production, but the real point is to simply acknowledge current
land use. Again, these numbers do not indicate a lot of real differences, and
one certainly would question just how much the cow-calf industry can expand
without a significant change in producer thoughts regarding long-term land use.
A change in land use, particularly from crop production to cattle, may take a
minimum of two to three years, and maybe longer, to take advantage of known
production practices that enhance forage and pasture production by cattle.
Changing from cattle to crop production can occur in one season.
So where are we at today, at least in North Dakota? In 2012, 69.1 percent of
North Dakota’s land was in cropland, 26.1 percent was in permanent pasture or
rangeland, 4.1 percent was in farmsteads and .7 percent was in woodlands. These
figures are readily available from the Census of Agriculture for any state; just
click on the state-level data.
Let’s look at the bottom line. The 2012 North Dakota inventory of cows and
heifers that calved was 899,558 head. With 10,247,184 acres as pasture, that is
11.4 acres per cow-calf pair. The 2016 inventory is even higher, thus lowering
the available pasture acres per cow-calf pair.
Acres per cow-calf pair vary, depending on location. However, cattle producers
are going to have to find a way to use cropland if much expansion for cows is
going to happen. The increase in beef cows requires cropland.
May you find all your ear tags.