The U.S. cow herd is small right now because of the extended drought that’s plagued large swathes of the country. But though dry conditions have driven ranchers to sell off animals they would have otherwise kept, the decreasing size of the national herd is a trend decades in the making. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports on how livestock producers in Wyoming are turning out more meat with fewer animals.
IRINA ZHOROV: At one of the True Ranch feed lots near Wheatland, thousands of starlings flit above pens where cows either lounge in the dirt or stand chewing at the troughs.
BILL BUNCE: We’re looking at some calves right here now. This is a pen of heifer calves, they’re weighing at about 500-600 pounds.
ZHOROV: Bill Bunce is the superintendent of True Ranches. He drives along the pens until he reaches another group of animals that are closer to being ready for slaughter. The cows are lying down and they are huge.
BUNCE: Typically we used to figure that an animal was going to finish out at about 1200-1250. Now they’re finished out at about 1300-1400.
ZHOROV: That increase in weight has big impacts. The last time the U.S. had a herd size equivalent to today’s was in 1958. Yet, the amount of meat produced from the approximately 90 million head of cow has doubled between then and now.
Bunce says producers have achieved this increase through careful breeding.
BUNCE: In the ‘60s people’s recordkeeping was pretty sophisticated if they wrote the weights down on a 3x5 card as the cows left the scale. Now, you’ve got individual performance records on a computerized program. We can tell you for the most part the weaning weight of every calf that every cow has had on the operation.
ZHOROV: That attention to details has allowed producers to breed for specific traits. For one, today’s animals are better at putting on weight.
BUNCE: I would say across the board now we get the same net gain with 3 pounds of feed as we used to get with 4 pounds of feed. It’s just a more efficient kind of animal.
ZHOROV: And they’re not just putting on more weight, it’s also better weight. The animals have less fat.
BUNCE: They're bred that way. So you've got a less fatty animal. There's more red meat and there's more sellable product for the packers to put before their buying public.
ZHOROV: It’s not the first time genetics have been used to better a herd. They’ve been trying to improve herds through genetics for decades. But now operators are getting closer to an optimum genetic mix. The Wyoming Stockgrowers Associations’ Jim Magagna says that’s a good thing for producers.
JIM MAGAGNA: Over time it’s clearly led to more profitability, or at least allowed us to maintain profitability.
ZHOROV: Magagna says he expects the numbers to rebound a bit to replace cows lost due to the drought, but he think the long-term trend of fewer cows that weigh more is here to stay.
MAGAGNA: Some of our rangeland would simply struggle to provide quality forage for those numbers of animals because you’ve got larger animals that consume more. The other thing is from the bottom line of the producer if you can make the same net return off of a fewer animals by focusing on genetics and quality and how you handle those animals, it’s simply a more viable, more feasible operation than necessarily trying to maximize numbers.
ZHOROV: Magagna says most Wyoming producers are in a good place now with the genetics of their herd.
But Senior Market analyst at CattleFax, Kevin Good, says good can always be better.
KEVIN GOOD: We would contend that the trend continues because the driving force for a cattle producer remains he’s paid on pounds. So the only way to get a bigger paycheck is to produce more pounds.
Good says the average weight per animal carcass has been increasing about 6 pounds per year. With beef prices high, that trend is not likely to stop. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.