Hog prices will also increase, although remaining below 2011’s record level. However, turkey prices will decline as production increases.

Cattle and beef

The U.S. cattle herd declined for its sixth consecutive year in 2012. USDA’s January Cattle report estimated that the number of cattle and calves on Jan. 1, 2013 fell about 2 percent, to 89.3 million head. The cow herd was estimated at 38.5 million head, over 2 percent smaller than a year earlier. The 2012 calf crop was estimated at 34.3 million head, the smallest calf crop since 1949.

The U.S. cattle inventory is expected to continue contracting during 2013. The rate of decline will depend to a large extent on the availability of forage. Producers in much of the country are facing tight supplies of forage and in many areas, supplies of pond water are critical.

Assuming normal pasture development during the year, returns to cow-calf operators would support retention of beef cows and the placement of heifers in the breeding herd. On Jan. 1, producers indicated they were retaining 2 percent more heifers for beef cow replacement. However, dairy cows, while about equal to 2012 at the beginning of the year, are expected to decline; the number of heifers held for dairy cow replacement was down 2 percent.

With a smaller total cow herd at the beginning of the year and a slight decline in the total number of heifers expected to calve during 2013, a further decline in the calf crop can be expected.

This will lead to tighter cattle supplies moving into 2014 and to the extent producers retain heifers for breeding from the 2013 calf crop, it is unlikely that calf supplies could support an increase in beef production before 2016.

The number of cattle on feed on Jan. 1, 2013 was estimated at 13.4 million head, a 5.5 percent decline from 2012. Net placements in feedlots with 1,000 head or greater capacity declined by 6.5 percent during 2012 as the number of cattle available for placement shrank.

There was also a slight decline in the number of cattle in feedlots with less than 1,000 head. However, the sharp decline in prices of light-weight feeder calves relative to heavier weight calves may have encouraged backgrounding operations which had access to forage or supplies of alternative roughages to retain cattle to add weight on the farm.

Thus, the number of cattle outside feedlots at the beginning of the year was slightly above 2012. If producers retain more heifers than indicated, the supplies of heifers available for placement during 2013 may decline more sharply.

The availability of forage will affect the timing of placements, but placements are expected to drop more rapidly in the second half of the year. Imports of cattle in 2013 are forecast to be 1.95 million head, about 14 percent below last year as smaller calf crops in both Canada and Mexico in 2012 imply tighter supplies of feeder cattle for export in 2013.

Commercial beef production for 2013 is forecast to decline about 3 percent, to about 25.1 billion pounds. Steer and heifer slaughter in first-half 2013 is expected to be virtually the same as 2012 but then decline sharply as feedlot inventories decline.