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U.S. cattle herd sees continued impacts from drought across the Southwest

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

According to the Office of the Chief Economist at USDA, over 25 percent of beef and dairy cattle inventory in the U.S are located in areas experiencing drought. 

“Large sections of the Southern Plains and Southwest have been experiencing dry conditions since the fourth quarter of 2017,” said the Daily Livestock Report on March 16. “The implications on the domestic side have been less wheat pasture available for grazing and much higher placements of lightweight cattle heading into feedlots.”

Mexican impacts

Another area impacts were seen was for Mexican cattle coming across the border. 

DLR reports, typically, Mexican cattle moving into the U.S. are placed in grazing programs, but this year, those cattle have moved directly into feedlots faster than is seen most years. 

“The drought in the Southern Plains has continued to worsen, but dryness across the border is considerably less severe,” they commented.

“According to the North American Drought Monitor, the Mexican border states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and most of the eastern interior of Mexico has very little dryness compared to their U.S. neighbors,” DLR added, also noting that drier conditions are present in Sonora and the Baja region of Mexico’s western coast. 

“Still,” emphasizes DLR, “the number of Mexican feeders crossing the border does not imply significant early movement as a result of dryness.”


Imports from Mexico show a drop of 13 percent compared to 2017, with feeder steers dropping by 15 percent and the number of heifers imported decreasing by 2.5 percent year-over-year. 

“January trade data indicated the number of lighter weight feeder cattle between 400 and 700 pounds has slowed by six percent to kick off 2018, compared to the prior year,” DLR says. “However, the number of heavyweight feeders has increased by a factor of four relative to January 2017. The four-fold increase is specific to those cattle expected to add weight in the U.S.” 

DLR further explains trade data breaks cattle over 700 pounds into slaughter cattle and feeder cattle, and data showed those cattle over 700 pounds destined for slaughter was a very small portion of the import mix, totally 166 head in January. 

“In all of 2017, the U.S. imported less than 2,000 head in the slaughter category, compared to the 700,000 head of 400 to 700-pound feeder animals,” according to DLR. 


Moving forward, DLR says, “The lower number of imports, coupled with poor grazing conditions, make placements into feedlots of bit of a wild card moving forward.”
Further, analysts are asking how many more cattle will be available for placement this year, after looking at several months of year-over-year increases already in 2018. 

“The last cattle on feed monthly placement number to register a year-over-year decrease was February 2017, but February 2016 was a leap year,” DLR noted. “The last true year-over-year decline in the number of cattle placed dates back to October 2016.” 

Double-digit percentage gains in placements were seen in 2017, and DLR comments, “There is even a possibility of posting year-over-year declines in the months leading up to the current year calf crop coming to market.”

U.S. drought

The March 23 drought summary, provided by the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) notes, “Precipitation was a mixture of above and below normal across the region during the USDM period.”

Precipitation surpluses of 0.25- to one-inch was widespread across much of the western Dakotas, eastern Wyoming, much of Nebraska, the northeastern corner of Colorado and parts of western Kansas. The eastern Dakotas, north-central Wyoming and much of southern Colorado had precipitation deficits of 0.25 inch during the period. 

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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