Although the U.S. beef-cow inventory appears to have reached a bottom, growth in cow numbers will start out slowly, and it likely will take several years for the turnaround to become evident in larger beef production. According to the USDA’s latest Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook report, released on Feb. 14, the 1 percent decline in U.S. beef-cow inventories during 2013 represented the 16th year of decline since 1996, with the exceptions being 2004 and 2005, when the inventory increased by less than 1 percent.

USDA: Beef production drops, herd growth will be slowRanchers are likely to keep more heifers for breeding over the next few years, but it will take until at least 2016 before total beef supplies rise above current levels, according to the report.

The report notes that production technologies have increased output per cow, resulting in a decline in beef production that has been much smaller than the decline in cow numbers. In 2013, beef production was about 5 percent below 1976 production, but the cow inventory on January 1, 2013 was 32 percent lower than the 1975 peak.

Genetic improvements and advances in feeds and feeding technologies have increased cattle dressed weights from an average of 673 pounds in 1975 to a record 864 pounds in 2013, a 28-percent increase.

Cattle imports also have helped account for the decline in domestic cattle numbers, growing from about 1 million head in the early 1970s to about 2 million head in 2013.

Other key points in the report include:

Shorter supplies, higher exports, health concerns and competition from other proteins have resulted in a decline in per-capita beef disappearance from 94.4 pounds in 1976 to 56.4 pounds in 2013.

U.S. cattle imports in 2013 totaled 2.028 million head, a decline of 11.2 percent from 2012. Imports fell due to a 32.6 percent reduction in shipments from Mexico, which more than made up for a 27.5 percent increase in shipments from Canada.

U.S. beef imports rose 1 percent in 2013 to 2.25 billion pounds. Australia was the top supplier for U.S. beef imports last year despite an overall decline in volume.

In 2013, Australian exports to China increased over 300 percent year over year, and China’s market share of Australian exports rose from 3 percent in 2012 to just over 13 percent.

U.S. beef exports rose 5 percent in 2013 to 2.6 billion pounds. Exports to Asia were especially strong, with increases in shipments to Japan and Hong Kong or 49 percent and 71 percent respectively. Exports to Japan reached their highest levels since trade stopped due to BSE in 2003.

The authors project U.S. 2014 beef exports will drop off by 10 percent to 2.3 billion pounds, largely because of our projected 5 percent decline in beef production.

Read the full Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook report from USDA.