USDA: Nebraska began 2018 with 6.8 million cattle, most since 1984

USDA: Nebraska began 2018 with 6.8 million cattle, most since 1984
In 2017, Nebraska outpaced the nation in growth of the number cattle and the number of cattle in feedlots. (World-Herald News Service)

Nebraska’s cattle industry accelerated in 2017, boosted by low feed costs, but uncertainty about foreign trade remains a threat, according to reports out Wednesday.

The state outpaced the nation in growth of both total number of cattle and the number of cattle in feedlots.

Nebraska started 2018 with 6.8 million cattle, its top commodity, up 5 percent since last year and the biggest total number since 1984. That included nearly 2.8 million in feedlots, with Nebraska maintaining its status as the top state for cattle feeding, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual cattle inventory.

The industry here and nationwide has been in a growth pattern as ranchers recovered from several years of drought, which reduced the nation’s herd to a 63-year low in 2014.

The industry continued to expand in 2017, but nationwide that growth is slowing, said Jeff Stolle, vice president of marketing for Nebraska Cattlemen.

“Overall, we’re going to see both cattle numbers and beef supply continue to grow,” he said. Retail beef prices fell in 2017 for the second straight year, amid greater supply.

But ranchers didn’t keep as many female calves in their herds as they have in years past, a sign they don’t want to expand as quickly.

“So the expansion is going to start to plateau,” he said.

Amid the growth, beef producers remain concerned about whether trade negotiations under President Donald Trump’s administration could disrupt the exports they rely on, ag lender CoBank said in a Wednesday report.

U.S. beef exports through November 2017 were up 7 percent over the same period the year before and total value was on record pace, the U.S. Meat Export Federation said this month.

“However, the U.S. is threatening to retreat from key trade deals, and the U.S.’s beef exporting competitors are forging their own deals with major global beef importers,” CoBank analyst Trevor Amen said in the report.

Nebraska cattle feeder Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, echoed that in an interview published Wednesday by the association at its annual convention in Phoenix.

Despite successes in trade, including the opening of China to U.S. beef, Uden said, “Some of these talks about renegotiation and withdrawals are still a concerning burden.”