Economic Tidbits

Counting Counties’ Cows

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics revealed last month that Nebraska’s beef cow herd had declined to 1.703 million head, down 5 percent from last year. The dropoff was just the latest in a string of consecutive years of declines. Since 2019, the number of cows has fallen almost 11 percent. The drought, rising feed costs, and poor returns are probable factors in the decline. The statewide decline makes one wonder whether every county is experiencing declines? Or, is the dropoff centered in one particular region of the state? County-level data for 2023 is not yet available, but couty-level data from 2019-2022 can be used to examine changes over the past four years. Data, though, is not available for every county, particularly a few notable cattle-producing counties like Cherry, Custer, and Buffalo Counties. Nevertheless, the county-level data which is available accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s herd, so some sense of  changes at the county level can be discerned.

Figure 1 shows the beef cow numbers in 2022 for counties where data is available. Darker-colored counties indicate more cows. Counties colored grey are ones where data is not available. Holt County wins the prize as Nebraska’s “Cow County” with 93,000 head followed by Lincoln County with 77,000 head, Sheridan County with 53,000 head, and Knox County with 49,500 head. Combined, these counties accounted for 15 percent of the total Nebraska herd. Given their geographic size and topographies, it’s not surprising Holt and Lincoln Counties top the state. Cherry and Custer Counties would probably have comparable numbers given their similar attributes. In terms of regions, Nebraska’s herd appears to be concentrated in the northern tier of counties near the South Dakota border, in Sandhills counties, with a sprinkling of counties in the Southwest.

Figure 1. Beef Cow Inventory, 2022

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

Figure 2 shows the percent change in cow inventories between 2019-2022 for each county. Here, a lighter color indicates a larger decline. Nebraska lost almost 110,000 head, or 5.5 percent of its herd, during this period. Four counties experienced losses of 7.0 percent or more—Douglas, Washington, Sheridan, and Box Butte. Urban encroachment and population pressure might have played a role in the declines in Douglas and Washington Counties. Drought and profitability challenges were probably factors in Sheridan and Box Butte Counties. Six counties saw declines of less than 5.0 percent—Knox, Blaine, Brown, Nemaha, Dundy, and Boyd. No county experienced a gain.

County-level data indicates that every county experienced losses in cows since 2019. Data for 2023, when available, will also reveal further losses. Cattle prices are higher entering 2023 and promise to move higher, providing an incentive to producers to rebuild herds. Drought, low forage stocks, and higher feed costs counter the incentive of higher prices. Cow numbers are likely to continue to decline this year, and it could be 2025 or 2026 before they trend higher again.  

Figure 2. Percent Change in Beef Cow Inventory, 2019-2022

Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service

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