More and more heifers are heading to the packing plant rather than the pasture.

Heifer slaughter is up about 17 percent over the past six weeks, says David Anderson, Extension ag economist with Texas A&M University. He says heifer slaughter as of April 1 was 16 percent higher than a year ago, and weekly slaughter levels have been the largest since May 2013.

“Cattle slaughter surged over the last six weeks, with weekly slaughter over 650,000 head every week since the first of May, except the Memorial Day shortened week,” he writes in his “In the Cattle Markets” column. “Total cattle slaughter is up about 9 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Much of the year-over-year increase in slaughter is from heifers.”

Anderson says seasonal slaughter patterns run differently for steers, heifers, beef cows and dairy cows.

“These depend, in large part, on seasonal production patterns,” he says. “Beef cow culling tends to climb in late spring-early summer then peaks in fall. Dairy cow culling bottoms out in summer. Looking at the last few years, heifer slaughter tended to be at its seasonal low from about May-July at the same time steer slaughter hit its seasonal high.”

Anderson says heifer numbers have been the result of cow herd expansion.

“Summer seasonal lows in heifer slaughter over the last few years reflects cow herd expansion,” he says. “Fewer heifer calves were sent to feedlots as they were kept to enter the herd. The seasonality of heifer slaughter is likely changing as the herd size has recovered from the drought, and expansion is slowing.”

Anderson says numbers will be fine-tuned over the next couple of months.

“The Cattle on Feed report each quarter includes a breakout estimate of the number of steers and heifers on feed,” he says. “The April Cattle on Feed report indicated that there were 14 percent more heifers on feed than the year before. That estimate is not far off the growth in heifer slaughter, year-over-year, in the April-early June period.”

Anderson says while heifer feedlot numbers have been large, the numbers are very close to averages from 2007 to 2012, before major drought issues and higher feed costs due to ethanol production expansion.

Jeff DeYoung is livestock editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.