Missouri once again has the nation’s second-largest cattle herd, but Andrew McCrea looks across his land and neighboring farms in northwestern Missouri and sees the long-term decline already playing out.
Pastures that were once used to raise cows are now planted with crops, which bring higher return in times of drought, and McRea believes the trend won’t be reversed.
“That land probably won’t ever go back to being used for cattle,” he said. “It takes too much time — you can’t flip-flop quickly. The land that’s been put into crop will stay in crop.”
McCrea, who’s had cattle for close to 40 years on his farm near Maysville, buys stocker cattle mostly from the state of Missouri. He raises anywhere from hundreds to thousands of calves until they’re ready to be shipped off to feed lots. He’s one of the few who hasn’t been saddled with the problem of declining cattle numbers.
“I probably haven’t seen it yet, but I might be one of those later to see it, because we buy calves,” McCrea said.
After years of drought and doubt, Missouri increased its number of cattle by 63,000 cows from 2012 to 2013. With 1.82 million cows, Missouri is once again No. 2 in herd size, behind Texas, a position it held from 1983 to 2008. Nebraska, which had been second for two years, dropped to fourth, while Oklahoma moved up to third, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture inventory.
But Missouri still has a smaller herd now than it did in 2008, when the count was 2 million. Nationally last year, there were 29 million cows, smaller by 255,000 head compared with the previous year and the lowest number since 1962, according to the USDA.
Over the last 50 years, the United States has been unable to retain a stable number of cows, and Missouri’s rise in the ranking shouldn’t be considered a huge triumph, Mark Russell, executive director of the Missouri Beef Industry Council, said.
“I don’t know if this is a reflection of success,” Russell said. “I think this is more a reflection of the economy.”
Market prices of cattle feed and grain is going down and the cost of beef is going up, which made it a practical time for cattle ranchers to increase herd size, Bob Garino, the USDA’s estate statistician for Missouri, said.
Garino said the increase is simply a rebuilding of their herd sizes one year after the effects of Missouri’s drought, higher feed prices and lower amounts of grass and water.
A trend corresponding to the lower number of cattle numbers is the declining number of cattle farmers and farms in Missouri, Russell said.
“I think one of the things hurting the cattle industry is that the number of people raising cattle is getting (smaller) and (smaller),” he noted. “This is with at average of the producers left being around 55- to 60-years old.”
It’s harder for the young farmers to join the beef industry, Russell said—it’s just too expensive. As a result, there’s been a consolidation of operations in Missouri. As of the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Missouri only had 53,000 farms operating with cattle while Texas had 152,102; but these farms range anywhere from one cow to a large-scale operation. A lot of these farms are small operations, Russell said.
Missouri isn’t the only state feeling this combination of negative trends. Texas, with nearly four million cows, has been forced to deal with declining numbers after the drought in 2008, and other states are also still feeling the effects, according to the USDA.
“In Texas alone they’ve had to liquidate over a million beef cows,” Russell said. “That’s not only to a lack of grass but a lack of water. It’s very difficult when you start running out of water—there’s not many alternatives that you have.”
Over the past few years, however, Missouri has been one of the few states with alternatives. During the drought, southern Missouri was able to retain enough water to handle not only the cattle from Missouri, but also from surrounding states.
“Missouri was in a unique situation,” Russell said. “Because [southern] Missouri had sufficient moisture and enough grass, a significant number of Missouri producers turned around and purchased more cows from other parts in the United States.”
On the positive side, Deering said, today’s cows are producing 13 percent more beef with 33 percent fewer cattle.
The state’s farmers are taking advantage of lower-priced cattle, higher-priced beef and the strong demand for beef from Missouri, and are expecting a continued upturn in herd numbers.
“We’ve got a lot of good grass,” McCrea said. “We’ve also got good supplies of corns, beans and their byproducts. I think Missouri is still well positioned for a place to grow cattle.”
Deering agreed that “the future is bright. I think it’s a great time to be a cattle producer. The prices are good. If you have the ground, if you have the resources, now is the time to do that.”