The Market's Fine Print

By John Harrington
DTN Livestock Analyst

Long before that lazy groundhog even begins to stir from his winter nap, way before seed catalogues flood the post office, and even months before the weather map can be safely folded against the threat of a blizzard, ranchers become necessarily infected with a bad case of spring fever.

Unlike the reigning variety of influenza or a serious bout of mononucleosis, the last thing this country contagion leads to is bed rest. Indeed, its characteristic deliriums and hallucinations (for example: mirages of market conditions as far as two years in the misty future) typically manifest in terms of long periods of sleeplessness and cranky worry; intense irritability known to further unhinge teenagers and cause loving wives to check their wedding vows.

Of course, I'm talking about calving season, the very epicenter of growth and vitality for the U.S. beef industry. As we move toward mid-March, peak bellering and bawling of the calf nursery will surround us. Between first-calf heifers, 6-year-old carefree "moms," open weather and endless harsh winter conditions (like much of Montana at this time), this time of year is simply a unique combination of excitement, hard work, anxiety and optimism.

Before we get too far down the newborn trail, I suppose it would be smart to anticipate objections to using "the calving season" and the early spring as the same. Technically speaking, that's not true. While the majority of steer and heifer calves hit the ground during the February-April timeframe, a good number of nurslings are born in the fall. There is even a small class of free-love calves (fathered by bulls ever at the ready) randomly pulled throughout the year.

For example, according to the semi-annual herd inventory released in late January, 73% of the 35.8 million head comprising the 2017 calf crop were born in the spring. Yet demographic data clearly indicates that family planning in this regard depends a great deal upon the size of the cow-calf operation.

Most of you are familiar with the put-down "all hat and no cattle." While that's not exactly descriptive of the real ratio between would-be cowboys and actual herd size, it comes dangerously close. Simply put, the ranching business in this country consists of many operators with small operations.

Roughly 90% of all ranchers (aka farmers who run cows through the fall and winter) are responsible for 49% of all cattle. The average herd size in this segment is 40 head. Looking down the same barrel from the opposite end, approximately 10% of the nation's ranchers tend 51% of all cattle.

With that in mind, note that producers with herds under 50 head calve 54% of all babies at random times throughout the calendar year. On the other end of the spectrum, bigger operators with herds over 200 head schedule 76% of the calf crop to drop in the spring.

While there are many legitimate factors to consider in planning the production timetable, I think many full-time ranchers strategically plan to calve in the spring in order to hit peak feedlot demand for feeder cattle the following fall.

Regardless whether their marketing plans are razor sharp or willy-nilly, cowmen are currently knee-deep in midwifing the lion's share of what promises to be the largest calf crop since 2007. Starting with a Jan. 1 cow herd of 41.1 million head, compassionate and money-minded ranchers (safely landing a newborn is still worth close to a grand) are likely to match or surpass the five-year average calving rate of 88%, amassing a 2018 calf crop of at least 36.2 million head, 1% bigger than last year's class.

Tough work is cut out for these champions of the cold night watch, and I salute them. Besides the outstanding stamina and commitment of ranchers big and small alike, these visionaries deserve to be honored for their bold courage and blind faith in the market futures.

In many ways, they're betting on the cattle and beef market of 2020 and the out-years. Will there still be a NAFTA? Will a raging trade war cause export demand to implode? Will global warming suddenly accelerate and send corn prices back to $7? Will some unforeseen health scare sabotage red meat consumption?

Such chilling potentials and more could easily urge sleep-deprived ranchers to shatter the alarm clock with pliers or calf-pullers. Let's just be thankful that most of them have brave and focused constitutions unwilling to think beyond turnout.

John Harrington can be reached at

Follow him on Twitter @feelofthemarket


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