Cattle on green pasture

Analysts have been watching trends in cattle slaughter to get an idea what it will mean for the upcoming July 1 cattle inventory report.

“The July 1 Cattle Inventory is still (over a month)away, but there have been some interesting trends in female beef cattle slaughter that warrant starting that discussion,” the Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC) said in an analysis. “Beef cow slaughter is 2% ahead of 2019 year-to-date.”

Although slaughter rates are still ahead of last year, the pace has leveled off after a rapid start, with the decline attributed to plant closures related to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Before slaughter plant closures began, weekly beef cow harvest was running well ahead of year ago levels,” LMIC said. “The last 7 weeks of data has shown beef cow slaughter below a year ago between 2%-20%.”

Another trend to watch is heifer slaughter, which often points to producers’ future plans for their herds.

“Heifer slaughter, usually a breeding herd retention indicator, is year-to-date smaller than the prior year, by about 4%,” the LMIC said. “Smaller heifer slaughter would normally imply, when discussing inventory, the possibility that this liquidation phase of the cattle cycle is over and producers are adding breeding type animals.”

However, the decrease in heifer slaughter might be a function of recent economic conditions in the cattle industry and the atypical impact of the virus.

“The decrease in heifer slaughter is misleading for a couple of reasons, but is not indicative of breeding herd growth,” LMIC said.

“First, slaughter disruptions have caused data patterns that are atypical. The backlog of fed cattle is likely skewed towards more heifers, because of the lighter dressed weight they can likely stay on feed longer than a heavy weight steer. Second, heifer slaughter should fall below a year ago after last year’s large numbers of heifers on feed and a smaller 2019 calf crop. Lastly, producers are cautious after a couple of years of negative returns for cow-calf operations. Many are not thinking of expanding.”

The center says there are still a lot of unknowns ahead of the report.

“It seems likely the beef breeding herd will be smaller than a year ago, but the estimated range of possibilities is wide at this point,” LMIC said.

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.