Report: US has fewest cattle in at least 4 decades

A widespread drought that's forcing ranchers to sell off animals has helped shrink the nation's cattle herd to its smallest number in at least four decades.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Friday that the number of cattle and calves in the United States totaled 97.8 million head as of July 1. That's 2 percent less than a year ago. Beef cattle numbers were down 3 percent at 30.5 million head counted, while dairy cow numbers remained unchanged at 9.2 million.

Overall, it's the smallest cattle inventory since the agency began a July count in 1973. NASS now estimates the size of the nation's herd each January and July.

Glynn Tonser, an associate professor in agricultural economics at Kansas State University, said the smaller cattle numbers reflect a years-long trend that was speeded up by last year's drought in the Southwest. Pastures dried up, and feed prices skyrocketed, forcing ranchers to sell off animals.

More ranchers are selling animals this year as the U.S. struggles with the widest drought in decades. However, the report released Friday is based on data collected during the first half of June — before the drought spread and significant sales began.

There are two signs the cattle numbers won't recover soon. The nation's 2012 calf crop also was 2 percent smaller compared to a year ago, with 34.5 million calves expected to be born this year, the report estimated.

Also, a key indicator of potential future herd expansion is the number of replacement heifers ranchers keep in their herds. The July 1 inventory showed the number of beef replacement heifers unchanged at 4.2 million.

And, that number would have fallen if the data had included the latest drought-driven cattle selloffs in late June and July, Tonser said.