Maybe it’s just spit-balling on my part. But I’d venture most of you were either not alive, or not directly ranching cattle back in 1952.

Cooper david
Managing Editor / Progressive Cattle

However, that year is a critical point of comparison for today’s industry. The beef cattle inventory has now reached a generational low mark in the U.S. And if you play your cards right over the next two years, it will be to your significant advantage.

The Jan. 31 U.S. Cattle report showed the overall beef cattle inventory dropped another 2% below 2023, down to 87.2 million head. The beef cow numbers also dropped 2% to 28.2 million head. Both of those totals are the lowest on record since 1952, when America was saying “I Like Ike” and the world saw Queen Elizabeth II accede to the British throne.

Additionally, the calf crop in 2023 went down 2.6% to 33.6 million calves, its lowest count since 1948. As for the signs of a rebuild, the numbers of heifers retained as replacements were estimated at 4.9 million head, down 1% over the previous year. Smaller than the 6% drop seen last year from 2022, but still not moving up.

Production of actual beef was able to climb in the last few months of 2023 thanks to higher weights on fed cattle. But overall the production levels went down 5% compared to 2022, and production for 2024 is forecast to go down another 3% to 26.1 billion pounds.


That means higher prices for cattle, higher prices for beef, and what Bernt Nelson of U.S. Farm Bureau calls a bullish forecast report to start this year.

This is your clarion call, and it doesn’t come often. We are seeing some indicators that recall the same picture of exactly 10 years ago. Supplies were down; gas prices were starting to drop due to ethanol’s collapse. The demand index (what prices beef is at, plus, what price consumers are willing to pay) was solid. And what commenced was the biggest run of cattle prices seen in generations.

Today there are similar indicators. Supplies are low, even lower than in 2014. We are increasing domestic oil production to huge levels; gas prices should be low for the next year and probably longer. Beef demand is looking good domestically, but inflation concerns are still out there.

There are two variables to how you will handle this opportunity for higher cattle prices and preparing for expansion.

One is weather. How will grass recover this summer, and will the El Nino weather pattern be short-lived, stretching more drought and requiring more liquidation?

The second factor will be interest rates. Will the Federal Reserve reduce rates at any point in 2024? It’s an inflation economy and a national election year, so all guesses there are impossible to predict.

What is certain is that supplies are going to be low for two more years, maybe longer. You can plan ahead with healthy profits in mind. So don’t worry about the past, and make the most of the present.