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Cattle Herds Shrivel in Face of Drought

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A widespread drought that’s forcing ranchers in New Mexico and across the country 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 reports 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.

New Mexico numbers through June aren’t yet available, because NASS only provides state-by-state numbers once a year. But as of January, the beef cattle count was down by 10 percent from the previous year, said New Mexico Cattle Growers Association Executive Director Caren Cowan.

“Most states ranged from 6 percent higher numbers in January to 2 or 3 percent below the previous year, but New Mexico was 10 percent below, Texas 11 percent and Oklahoma 12 percent,” Cowan said. “The Southwest, including New Mexico, has taken the hardest hits, and those trends have continued since January.”

Rainfall in recent weeks and the latest weather forecasts predicting higher-than-average precipitation in New Mexico and Arizona in coming months have made beef growers more optimistic.

“But not enough to get them thinking about restocking yet,” Cowan said. “If the latest (rainfall) trends continue, maybe people will begin to think about restocking, but for now, they’re just too afraid.”

Growers who sold off cattle in the drought usually got high prices because of declining supply. But restocking will be difficult, because growers will pay higher prices to buy more head, Cowan added.

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.
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal