Sort & Cull

Cows Are the Heartbeat of the Beef Industry

Rick Kment
By  Rick Kment , DTN Analyst
Charting cow and bull slaughter as a percent of total cattle slaughter vaguely resembles an EKG. This is a good reminder that the heart of a healthy beef market remains a strong cow herd. (DTN ProphetX chart by Rick Kment)

There continues to be a lot of focus on daily and weekly cattle slaughter numbers based on the overall health and activity level in the beef industry. This is an important measurement, and with daily slaughter levels reaching back to pre-COVID-19 levels, around 120,000 head per day, the focus on stability in the market and clearing cattle inventory levels remains important. However, most have not taken the time to look beyond these numbers and what makes up overall slaughter totals.

On a typical weekday, an 118,000- to 120,000-head slaughter run may be made up of 93,000-95,000 head of steers and heifers, 23,000-25,000 head of cows and bulls, and 1,000-2,000 head of calves. Although the majority of cattle are steers and heifers, cow and bull slaughter numbers should not be overlooked.

Most that are not familiar with the intimate details of the cattle industry may innocently assume that overall cattle slaughter numbers are limited to fed steers and heifers, designed from birth for beef production. But, on average, 20% of daily slaughter levels are made up of cows and bulls. This becomes a significant portion of the beef industry; this feeds an important segment of the industry and makes up a significant portion of the lower cost beef supplies available to the market. Cow and bull slaughter levels are made up of both beef and dairy animals, and traditionally focus on culling activity that is seen through the market, utilizing the healthy, but typically older or lower-performing cows, and making up the bulk of this beef market segment.

Since March, there have been significantly more downward ticks when measuring cows as a percentage of total slaughter. Even though overall cattle slaughter has stabilized, in the past few months, as packing plants have returned to more normal production, the number of cows and bulls being slaughtered has slowed, especially during weekend schedules. Although it is still too early to tell the overall impact of these changes in slaughter levels, it is likely that more cows are being held back right now. This could indicate a larger calf crop in 2021, meaning continued expansion to the beef industry over the long term.

With current drought issues limiting feed supplies in several cow-calf regions, combined with higher grain prices, the expectation is that overall cow slaughter would be larger on an overall percentage basis of total slaughter. With cow and bull slaughter accounting for 20% of all cattle slaughter (blue line), increased slaughter is much more evident during November 2019 through February 2020 than after March. The marketing year is not finished, and volatility in the market during the next several months could shift cow numbers held for next year. But for now, it appears that overall cow numbers may be increasing based on levels of slaughter by market segment.

The overall percentage of cows moving to market will continue to fluctuate but keeping track of overall cow slaughter trends can be helpful when focusing on short- and long-term market direction.

Rick Kment can be reached at


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