Winter feed planning

Oct 19, 2012

Snow is starting to fly and winter is just around the corner. By now, most of you all should have your winter feed secured so you can keep that valuable cow herd intact. It’s going to be tough if you haven’t got your plan figured out. We’ve heard anecdotal reports that cornstalks are renting for $70 an acre in Nebraska and that feedlots have been offering cow wintering programs that look pretty reasonable, for a short winter. But we need a good hard winter. And we all know the price of hay and hauling it.


In the past, it was easy to just sell the cows when hay costs got high and there was no winter pasture, but when you’re looking at $1,600 to $2,000 bred cows and $300 hay and know you’re going to sell an $800 to $1,000 calf next fall, it gets a little harder.

Some ranchers have already pulled the plug on portions of their cowherds and markets have been reporting larger bred cow receipts. But those cows don’t seem to be showing up on USDA’s cow slaughter report. Cow slaughter is still way behind last year, although it isn’t necessarily the best comparison with the huge liquidation in Texas and Oklahoma. But it appears some folks have figured out how to winter those bred cows or they’re taking long trips to the Northwest or east where pasture conditions have dramatically improved. A part of Texas and Oklahoma have received good moisture in the past few weeks which has changed the landscape. Abilene, TX, had 8 inches of rain two weeks ago, enough to fill the tanks and lakes in the area.

However, if weather conditions remain dry, it will continue to put pressure on the U.S cow herd and we will see further liquidation. Jim Robb at the Livestock Marketing Information Center (LMIC) said, “Two years of drought have dramatically impacted the U.S. cattle industry. On top of devastated pasture and range conditions, drought in the Midwest caused surging feedstuff costs. Still, there has been some confusion about the direction and magnitude of change in the size of the beef cowherd.

“Both the beef cowherd and the total inventory of cattle and calves in the U.S. will be smaller as of Jan. 1, 2013; the uncertainty is how much, which will depend mostly on beef cow slaughter levels this fall quarter.” Robb thinks the January inventory report will show a reduction of 1.5 percent.

USDA reported the number of beef cows in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2012, at 29.9 million head, which was down 967,000 head or 3.1 percent from a year earlier. At midyear, beef cows were 2.9 percent below a year ago.

So far this year, beef cow slaughter, based on Federally Inspected (FI) data through the end of September, was down 12 percent from a year ago, dairy cow was up 7 percent, and total cow slaughter was down 4 percent. LMIC estimates 2012’s FI beef cow slaughter will be about 460,000 head below year ago. The number of cows slaughtered in the fourth quarter is projected to pick up seasonally but remain below a year ago. It is critical to remember that the U.S. beef cowherd slaughter in 2011 was nearly 3.8 million head, the largest since 1996.

LMIC currently forecasts that the U.S. beef cowherd decline in 2012 will be at a slower rate than 2011’s. So, as of Jan. 1, 2013, the U.S. beef cowherd is expected to be about 29.4 million head. That would represent an annual drop of 475,000 to 500,000 head (-1.6 percent). The total cattle and calf inventory could be down close to 2 percent. All major categories reported by USDA should post year-on-year declines.

Long term weather forecasts are suggesting that conditions will remain dry; the most recent long term forecast reports that the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to California remains cold, while the North Atlantic is near record warm.

This configuration favors dry conditions through much of the country and El Niño is not likely to have a strong impact on precipitation over the next three to four months. Given the current weak state of El Niño, it could be that this event will die by early 2013.

October will start as a cold month in the northcentral states, while the west will be warm. By November and December, warm temperatures in the west will build eastward into the Plains and Great Lakes. The warm ridge of high pressure in the west will suppress precipitation from the Southwest into the Rockies and the Plains. El Niño conditions have the best chance of producing above normal precipitation in the southern Plains by December and January, but dry weather is likely through much of the region, especially in November. — PETE CROW