Where Have America’s Beef Cows Gone?

Counting the source of America’s beef is confusing for the layperson. For some reason, the Department of Agriculture uses the term “beef cows” to describe some cattle. Most people think cows are used to produce milk. However, they are also used for cattle breeding, and many of these cattle are slaughtered for beef consumption. No matter the technical term, the beef cow population is collapsing, and the reason is drought. 

Based on government records, the beef cow count was, at mid-year, at its lowest level since 1971, when the figures were first reported. The beef cow count was 29.4 million on July 1, 2023. An additional measure from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that the beef cow count is at its lowest level since 1962. This second measurement is taken at the start of every year. For 2023, the count was 28.92 million head, according to Reuters. Drought decreased the feed supply, affecting the number of cattle farmers can support. 

To make the counting of cattle more complex, the USDA reports: “All cattle and calves in the United States on July 1, 2023, totaled 95.9 million head, 3 percent below the 98.6 million head on July 1, 2022.” This complete count of all cattle for all purposes is also decreasing and has been consistent over recent years. 

The ripple effect of this decline is just simple supply and demand. According to CNBC, beef prices are at an all-time high. “All consumers will be paying more for all beef products for several more years,” Wells Fargo’s Chief Agricultural Economist Michael Swanson told the cable financial news network. The current price is about $8 per pound. 

This should not be surprising as drought grows across the areas where most cattle are raised. The states which produce the most beef are Texas, Nebraska, and Kansas. A glance at the US Drought Monitor shows that all three have large areas labeled “exceptional drought” and “extreme drought,” which are the designations for the places hardest hit by lack of water and rain. 

Where have America’s beef cattle gone? They can’t survive without water.

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