New Ag Census: Cattle Count Down, Beef Prices Up

ag census cattle beef

The last time there were this few cattle in the United States, the New York Yankees played the New York Giants for the World Series championship, “An American in Paris” and “A Place in the Sun” split the Oscars, Nat King Cole’s “Too Young” topped the Billboard charts, and Harry Truman was president. That’s right, trivia buffs – it was 1951.

The last time beef cost this much at the grocery store – well, there hasn’t been such a time. The price is higher than it’s ever been. Last November, a pound of ground beef hit an all-time high of $5.35.

Such are the reports from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (or BLS, on beef prices) and the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistical Service (or NASS, on cattle numbers), which publishes the national Census of Agriculture every five years.

Though its numbers aren’t as fresh, the newly released 2022 Ag Census tells a similar story. Cattle numbers have been on the decline for several years. The 73-year low reported for the end of January is only a two percent decline from the same time the previous year.

Ag economists chalk the continued slide in cattle numbers up to a combination of factors, including the infamously cyclical nature of cattle markets, coupled with a lengthening drought in the southern Plains that has led many ranchers to trim their herds.

Perhaps reflecting its location at the epicenter of that regional drought, Oklahoma’s fared even worse than the nation as a whole at maintaining its herd numbers. Between 2017 and 2022, the two most recent ag census years, the cattle inventory for the U.S overall fell by 6.1%. Oklahoma’s herd shrank at nearly double that rate, 11.4%.

As for the rising cost of beef at the grocery store, it seems like Economics 101: reduced supply means higher prices, right? While that principle is certainly in effect, it’s also playing out against a backdrop of increases in the price of just about everything – including the inputs for cattle operations.

A little historical perspective might reveal that the inflation we’ve all been feeling could actually be a good deal worse. Last year, the annual inflation rate came in at 4.1%. Back in 1951, the last time there were this few cattle on U.S. farms and ranches? It was 7.9%.

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