Beef cattle in feedlot

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Cattle on Feed” report released March 20 shows a total inventory of 11.806 million head as of March 1 for the United States. The lack of change year-over-year is right in line with analyst expectations of an average increase of 0.2 percent in feedlot inventories.

Many beef producers in Illinois will find little to celebrate during Beef Month. A supply glut, production problems due to weather conditions and COVID-19 have taken a toll on the industry.

“I’m trying to put a positive spin on things, but right now the sentiment of most cattle producers is pretty negative,” said Travis Meteer, a University of Illinois Extension beef educator. “There are more challenges than opportunities right now.”

The state beef cow herd has contracted over the past decade. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the number of beef cows in Illinois has fallen from nearly 400,000 two years ago to about 378,000 in January 2020.

“In the last couple of years we’ve seen the beef industry in Illinois experience weather challenges,” said Jill Johnson of the Illinois Beef Association. “And they continue to fight against regulatory issues.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. With restaurants forced to temporarily shut down inside dining, the market for high-quality meat has suffered.

“For those folks who have invested in genetics to produce premium cattle, those premiums will bounce back,” Meteer said. “But in the next month or two, they could be facing some pretty nasty break-even numbers.”

Regulatory issues also come into play. The Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act was enacted in 1996 to strike a balance between rights of cattle producers and those of their non-farm neighbors. IBA and other farm organizations oppose measures to allow county governments to regulate livestock building construction.

“We want to make sure we protect the LMFA so beef producers can continue to build new facilities or expand them,” Johnson said. “The main priority is to protect that act, along with focusing on animal health priorities that are balanced.”

There have been relatively few complaints about expansion of the Veterinary Feed Directive, which regulates use of antibiotics in livestock. Still, IBA is vigilant.

“We see continued oversight in terms of the issue of antibiotics,” Johnson said. “We’re looking to make sure there’s a balanced approach that makes sense for everyone.”

Meteer said cattle producers are working to keep costs down while continuing to seek new marketing opportunities.

“There are a lot of challenges in the markets and lot of challenges with policy,” he said. “From a production standpoint, the story hasn’t changed. There is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel, hopefully.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.