Improved forage conditions and lower feed prices are tempting cattlemen to enter a heifer retention phase.

This would reverse a beef industry trend of downward numbers, but expansion is expected to begin slowly.

The number of beef animals has been in a downward spiral since 2007 due to drought which has ravaged pastures and due to high prices of corn, soybean meal, and forages.

Pastures and ranges have returned to more favorable conditions for much of the country including the Northeast, the Southeast, Midwest, and the Northern Great Plains. Improvement is also noted for the Central and Southern Plains, although drought conditions are still lingering.

Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas have received some recent rains which may help to continue the abatement of drought. Nationally, 73 percent of pastures are rated in the fair, good, or excellent condition this year compared with only 46 percent at this time last year.

Markets are currently expecting feed prices to drop sharply when new crop harvest gets under way. New crop corn prices are about $2 per bushel lower than nearby bids and fall soybean meal prices could be as much as $200 per ton lower than current scarce old crop offers.

Beef cow operations in some parts of the country where pastures have been restored are probably getting ready to retain heifers.

Beef cow numbers have declined in the Southeast by about 700,000 head, or 12 percent, since 2007.

Midwest numbers have dropped by 680,000 head, or 14 percent, since 2007. Both of these areas should have the pasture and the feed to begin heifer retention. The Northern Plains is another area that is ripe for herd expansion.

On the other hand, pasture and range recovery has not yet reached a critical mass for expansion in the Central and Southern Plains and Western U.S. These regions include 43 percent of the beef cows and have had a 14 percent drop in those numbers since 2007. More rain and more improvement in pastures and ranges will be required.

So, the initial retention of heifers will likely occur this fall in areas primarily east of the Mississippi River, plus the Delta, the Western Corn Belt, and the Northern Great Plains. This is a large area that currently has 57 percent of the nation’s beef cows.