For consumers, fewer cows will mean less beef and higher prices down the line, particularly as demand from overseas increases, Tonsor said.
As “the United States and global population continues to increase … There is less beef around for them to argue over, bid for,” he said.
Among those already feeling the pain is Kansas rancher Nathan Pike, who has sold off 600 cows over the past couple of years. With just 130 pregnant cows left, he considered trying to buy back a few animals this winter in the hopes of better weather next spring, but cows cost significant more now than when he sold his animals because there are fewer left.
“We are gambling,” said Pike, 80. “We are just trying to figure out a way to make a living.”
In New Mexico, cattle numbers are down for the third straight year and the number of ranchers looking to sell off their herds and get out of the business continues to grow. The overall herd is down to 1.3 million animals, the fewest since 1991.
“It's trite, but it is the perfect storm,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association. “We have no rain, there's no feed readily available, what is available costs too much and the cost of transportation has increased. We're just in a bad place.”
Despite the hardships many ranchers are facing, Cowan said the selling off of herds by longtime ranching families could open an opportunity for younger ranchers who can't afford to buy land to work with those who still own property.
“We continue to look for the silver lining,” she said.