The semi-annual Cattle report was release on Jan. 31. The report showed what many analysts had already been saying; the total number of cattle and calves in the U.S. was at 94.4 million head, slightly down from January 2019’s number of 94.8 million head. This number indicates that the industry has entered into the liquidation phase of the cattle cycle. But what does that mean for cattle markets?

Cattle cycles have different phases: a liquidation phase, where cattle numbers decrease, and an expansion phase, where cattle numbers increase. This most recent cattle cycle began expansion in 2015, following seven years of contraction. The previous cycle had eight years of contraction.

Beef production cycles lag the cattle numbers because in order to contract the herd, more cattle must be harvested and to grow the herd, cattle must be kept back as replacements. Price cycles typically work opposite cattle cycles, in that when cattle numbers are increasing, cattle prices are decreasing.

Given that we are in the liquidation phase of the cycle, we could expect an increasing trend in cattle prices, over the next few years. The liquidation phase begins after beef supply increased enough such that the decrease in beef price triggers a decrease in the cattle numbers. Given the high slaughter numbers at the start of the liquidation phase we typically see a further dip in prices.

At the beginning of the liquidation phase, packers typically hold the greatest amount of leverage. As the cycle progresses through liquidation different segments will hold greater amounts of leverage until we get to the expansion phase. At the start of the expansion phase, the cow-calf producer typically holds the greatest leverage.

Raising stocker cattle through optimizing marketing strategies

Steers grazing grass as part of a stocker cattle management protocol.

As we move through the increased slaughter numbers the overall decrease in cattle numbers will bring cyclically higher prices, but that won’t occur until 2021 at the earliest. The lower calf crop will likely bring higher calf prices relative to 2019 in fall 2020. — Brenda Boetel, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Wisconsin-River Falls

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