Pasture conditions have been a growing concern this season as drought has continued to intensify across critical cattle production states. USDA reports current pasture and range conditions are some of the worst ever for May with nearly 40% of pasture and rangeland experiencing negative conditions. Approximately one-third of U.S. cattle and over half of milk cow inventories are covered by some level of drought right now, according to the most recent Drought Monitor.
USDA’s latest condition ratings show 39% of pasture and rangeland are rated “poor-to-very poor”, a slight improvement from 43% last week. However, that compares to the five-year average of just 12%. It’s also higher than where they were in the significant drought year of 2013, when 27% of U.S. pastureland was in the PVP categories. Only 28% of U.S. pastureland is rated “good-to-excellent” versus the five-year average of 58%. In 2013, 42% was still rated good-to-excellent at this point in the year.
In the severe drought-stricken West, Drought Monitor authors have noted increasing reports of reduced pasture forage, livestock requiring supplemental feed and/or being sold off, and some reports of livestock mortality. Additionally, stock ponds are running dry and farmers have been forced to haul water in some locations. Pasture and rangeland conditions are the most severe in Arizona, where 90% is rated poor-to-very poor (PVP) in the USDA’s latest report. Utah comes in second-worst with 73% rated PVP, followed by New Mexico (62%), Washington (63%), Oregon (55%), Montana (50%), and California (45%).
Drought conditions have also intensified across the Dakotas. In North Dakota, 71% of pasture and rangeland is rated “poor-to-very poor”, only 8% is rated “good”, and there is nothing in the “excellent” category. Drovers recently reported that conditions have become so severe that ranchers are selling cow-calf pairs. Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange in Dickinson, North Dakota, sold 700 such pairs last Thursday, according to Drovers, which is typically a rare occurrence this time of year.
Meanwhile, South Dakota has reported poor water quality in livestock water sources in northwestern parts of the state where extreme drought has expanded. Nearly half (47%) the pastureland in the state is rated “poor-to-very-poor,” with just 13% rated “good-to-excellent.”
One result of the tough conditions producers are facing is a notable increase in the number of cattle being sent to market. While this is partially equated to higher margins, it is also being fueled by deteriorating pasture conditions. Evidence for this is found in the high rate of heifers being sent to slaughter. April beef cow slaughter was +8.4% higher than 2019 levels (pre-pandemic) at 289,700 head. In fact, Daily Livestock Report pointed out that total beef cow slaughter in the first four months of 2021 outpaced where it was running during the same timeframe in 2011, a year that saw the highest annual cow slaughter rate of the past decade. Additionally, the total inventory of cattle on feedlots as of May 1 came in at the second-highest on record for the month, another indication that herd liquidation may be underway. (Sources: USDA, Dovers, Daily Livestock Report)