The latest report from the USDA on pasture and range conditions shows an improvement compared to last year. However, 37% of pasture and range areas are rated as poor to very poor, with conditions in some states rivalling the worst seen since 2013. The conditions are particularly bad in the Plains, with Kansas recording the worst conditions on record based on the Condition Index.
Despite recent rains, the lack of moisture in western Kansas continues to be a concern. This has prompted Oklahoma State Extension Livestock Specialist Derrell Peel to predict that cattle herds may continue to shrink. While beef cow slaughter is down from last year, the continued drought is expected to lead to more culling by producers who barely survived the winter, with a lack of pasture and hay growth exacerbating the situation.
The recent rain may have provided some relief in some areas, but it is only temporary. Without follow-up moisture, producers in affected regions will face more tough decisions, including culling. Peel notes that the pond levels are low, and grazing conditions are poor, adding to the pressure on livestock producers.
The drought may result in additional culling, and the bigger question is when the situation will improve. Peel suggests that if El Nino conditions develop by late summer, the situation may improve next year. Once the drought stops getting worse, rebuilding can start, and that means sharply lower cow culling and increased heifer retention, which could take cattle prices to a much higher level.
While the timing of the improvement is uncertain, Peel expects it could begin in the fall and extend into most of next year. Prices could reach new highs, exceeding the levels seen during the last rebuilding period in 2014-2015.