Meat & Livestock News

A Look Back to 1951: U.S. Cattle Numbers Hit a Record Low


  • The U.S. cattle inventory as of January 1, 2024, has dropped to 87.15 million head, the lowest since 1951, marking a 1.9% decrease from the previous year and a fifth consecutive year of decline.
  • The beef cow herd inventory is at its smallest since 1961, with a significant reduction in beef replacement heifers, reaching the lowest number since 1950.
  • This reduction in cattle numbers is expected to lead to a 5% decrease in total beef production in 2024, despite the industry’s significant productivity growth since 1951.

Stepping into 2024, the U.S. cattle scene hasn’t been this quiet since tunes from the ’50s hit the airwaves. Picture this: only 87.15 million cattle and calves around, numbers we last saw when folks were tuning into the first episodes of “I Love Lucy.”

That’s a dip of 1.9% from last year, marking the fifth year we’ve seen the herd thinning out, a total shrinkage of 7.65 million head or 8.1% since the high times of 2019. And the calves? We’re talking about 33.6 million, the smallest bunch since 2014.

Now, let’s chat about beef cows. With 28.22 million head, it’s as if we’ve time-travelled back to 1961. This is a 2.5% fall from last year, making it a 10.9% tumble from the peak in 2019. It seems the major beef states, holding 57.3% of our cows, felt this the most, accounting for a hefty slice of the decrease.

On the heifer front, the scene’s not too rosy either. We’ve got 4.86 million beef replacement heifers, down by 1.4% from last year and a stark 11.4% from 2022, hitting a low we haven’t seen since 1950. And those bred beef heifers ready to calve? Only 3.05 million, the smallest number we’ve had since we started keeping tabs in 2001.

As for the feeder cattle not yet in feedlots, their numbers have dipped by 4.2% from last year to 24.2 million head, the smallest crowd since 1972.

So, what does all this mean for our beef production? Well, we’re looking at about a 5% drop to roughly 25.5 billion pounds in 2024. Sure, that’s a whole lot more beef than in 1951, showing just how far we’ve come in getting more beef from fewer cows. But with the herd this small, it’s clear we’ve got our work cut out for us to beef up the numbers and meet the market’s appetite.