The US cattle herd has fallen to its lowest level since 1951, according to an annual survey by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The annual report shows there were 87.2m head of cattle and calves on US farms at the beginning of 2024. This is the lowest level in 73 years.
The number of cows from beef breeds amounted to 28m, which was 2% or 700,000 head back on January 2023.
Two years of severe drought across much of the US has severely hit livestock numbers, with inflated fodder prices and a shortage of grazing forcing ranchers to offload stock.
The calf crop is estimated to be back 2.5% in 2023 to around 33.5m head. This will result in a reduction in beef output in 2024 – compounding the drop in output recorded in 2023.
The latest estimates from the USDA put total commercial beef production in 2023 at 26.967 billion pounds, a decline of almost 5% from 2022.
This reduction was reflected in US beef exports. Up to November 2023, the level of exports had dropped 17% in value terms compared with 2022 and 13% in volume terms.
The drop in beef supplies has pushed cattle and beef prices to record levels. Beef in the shops reached $8/lb (€7.50/lb), while live cattle prices have jumped 20% to reach $1.80/lb (€1.60/lb).
Cattle prices for 2024 are forecast to remain high, with the USDA predicting that they could push on a further 2% on 2023 levels.
However, weather conditions will play a key role in determining US cattle and beef prices for the year ahead.
Scientists claim that parts of the US are experiencing their lowest rainfall levels in 1,200 years, with more than one third of its 48 ‘home’ states – excluding Alaska and Hawaii – still in drought as late as November.