American cattlemen are selling off the future just to survive the present.
With drought drying up water holes and burning up the feed cattle need, and sky-high prices making it too expensive to truck in feed from elsewhere, ranchers are cutting herds.
Overall, the Department of Agriculture estimates America’s cattle herds have shrunk 2 percent in the past year, according to Fox Business.
But it is not only the numbers that indicate short-term desperation that will have long-term consequences.
“We are seeing large numbers of female stock have been placed in feedlots,” USDA livestock analyst Shayle Shagam said Tuesday. Males are usually preferred for meat.
Shagam said that a combination of increased females being sold and an overall decline in cattle means “supplies of cattle going to feedlots is going to be declining,” leading to “progressively tighter supplies of all fed cattle available for slaughter as we move into 2023.”
And that means the existing 9.7 percent increase in the price of ground beef from a year ago could keep getting worse.
National Cattleman’s Beef Association CEO Colin Woodall said the extent and severity of the drought have checkmated strategies for coping with regional droughts that might mean relocating cattle or trucking in hay to feed them.
“There’s no place to go because everybody is struggling to find the forage they need to feed their cattle,” Woodall said.
“We do expect the prices to continue upwards, but everybody has to remember that it’s not cattle producers setting that price. It’s all about costs. When you look at those who make a decision to send their cattle to market to either thin down their herd or completely eliminate their herd, it is always going to be attributed to the increase of their input costs. And that is everything from the cost of feed, cost of hay and cost of diesel for tractors, diesel for the truck, fertilizer costs. And there’s so many things that go into producing cattle that the producers just don’t have any control over,” he said.
The glut of sales this year means shortages down the road.
“A heifer is two years old before she produces her first baby,” John Kleiboeker, who owns a breeding cattle operation in California, Missouri, said. “That calf is another 18 months after that. So you’re talking about close to 40 months from the time that little baby heifer is born until she has produced a pound of beef.”
Kleiboeker said on an average year, he buys 110 to 120 big round hay bales from one supplier. This year, all he could get were 57 bales, and the cost was up 50 percent. Trucking in hay will be costly, he said.
“There is hay available, but with freight, the cost of transportation to bring it 200 to 250 miles south may be prohibitive,” Klieboeker said. “Well, if you go adding an extra $1000 to $1,200 to a load of 30 round bales of hay, it gets really expensive real fast.”
“When Mother Nature’s slamming you like this, I mean, whether it’s feed for the cattle or running out of water, something’s gotta give and you got to let some of them go,” he said. “At the end of the day, people rely on this as an income.”
“It’s gonna continue this way until it rains, or we sell off the last of the cattle around here,” he said.
The impact of the drought is compounded by sky-high prices for everything that goes into ranching, he said.
“That’s why some people are throwing their hands in,” Luensmann said.