New count finds more cows and even more live calves

Duane Dailey

The cow counters did their job in January. The USDA found more cows than expected in Missouri. The state returned to second place, above Oklahoma, in the nation’s cow numbers. That’s our spot, as we’ll never catch No. 1 Texas.

Officially Missouri has 2,250,000 cows. That’s 5 percent more cows than last count. It’s near the biggest percent growth of any state. Our state deserves to be up there. We are cattle country with land suited for pastures. Rolling hills should be kept in grass to help retain what topsoil we have left.

Too many places suffer scandalous erosion. Soil washes away even when we know the cost. It’s our future. Forages slow run off and soil loss.

Belatedly, we’re attending to the soil. Not only soil loss, but also what we now call “soil health.”

We lost ground, more ways than one, in a surge of crop planting when corn and bean prices skyrocketed after the 2012 drought. That was a fluke.

The last couple of years, livestock have kept the rural economy healthy. Some who plowed pastures surely have second thoughts.

We’ve learned to manage grass to make more beef per acre. That’s a biggie. Management intensive grazing makes better use of forages. Missouri is a crop state, on some ground. We’re great for soybeans and we’re the edge of the Corn Belt. But we can both add cows and grow high-yield crops if we use land best suited for each.

We’re on the cusp of using cows on grassland to make more genetically superior calves. High-price calves boost returns to forages.

One of the best ways will be to seed novel-endophyte fescue to replace toxic Kentucky 31 tall fescue. That makes a big boost in meat and milk production. Toxins hurt in so many ways, with most losses invisible until calf- selling time.

In March MU Extension livestock specialists will hold ReproGene classes. These tell how to add genomics, still unknown to many herd owners, to what we know about reliable AI breeding. The Show-Me state came a long way in modern breeding by using artificial insemination.

That brings more calves worth more genetically. It’s not that complicated, just unknown. The MU Extension Show-Me-Select Replacement Heifer program leads the nation in better conceptions and higher birth rates.

That gets us back to cow counting.

We’ve well over two million cows. More of them must be of better genetics, if we stay in the beef business.

Let’s tease the numbers. U.S. cow numbers were up one percent. The calf crop this time was up two percent. Begin to think profits. If we can make more calves with fewer cows. If we put more cows on fewer forage acres what does that mean in dollars?

Some Missourians figured that out already.

Now look at another number. This tells a story, I think. The cattle on feed for slaughter are up 7 percent. We’re keeping more calves alive and getting them fed to make beef. That’s where owners collect profits.

Here’s what I see. More calves processed are grading higher. Those bring higher prices.

Daniel Madison, MU economist, gave me the numbers from the last week of January: The boxed beef price for USDA Prime was $225 per hundred while Choice grade beef was $204. If $21 doesn’t sound like much, apply that to one 900-pound carcass. It adds up. That premium is low this time of year.

Pencil pushing is in order. There are ways for herd owners to add value to their calves. Reproduction and genetics offer big boosts. Better management of grass can boost production by a third.

Then, there’s the other factor. What do consumers want? They want quality and are willing to pay more. Farmers can’t afford to ignore the signals that buyers are sending. In economics, price is a signal. Heed it.

Tell your success story at or 511 W. Worley, Columbia, Mo., 65203.