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2016 Census of The Beef Cattle Inventory

This article summarizes the trend in beef cow numbers, number of Producers and average cow herd size. An edited version appeared in the August 2017 Issue of Cattlemen Magazine. CG

On July 1 2003, less than two months after the discovery of BSE in a herd in Alberta, the Canadian Beef Cow Herd reached a new record high of 4.92 million head. For present purposes, I regard the 2003 number as the all time peak even though beef cow numbers were forced upward to 5.44 million head on July 1, 2005 and remained above 5 million until July 1 2008. This more recent increase, after the 2003 discovery of BSE, was a “forced increase” as producers involuntarily retained their cows because of disastrously low prices caused by trade restrictions resulting from the BSE incidents. Culled cow and bull exports to the USA did not resume until 2007. Therefore, the claim that the national herd has lost 1.6 million cows since 2005 is numerically accurate but includes that forced increase. In a more practical sense the national herd has lost 1.1 million head since 2003. This remark is prelude to the following analysis of the 2016 census which reports cattle inventories up to 2017.

In his June editorial, Gren Winslow drew attention to the disparity between the recently released Census numbers and the July 1, 2016 numbers. Regarding beef cows, the July 1 beef cow inventory stood at 3.8 million head while the 2016 Census set the number at set the number at 3.7 million head. Which of these numbers is closest to correct? We don’t know and have no way of knowing since both are based on estimates which are themselves based on sampling.

In this analysis, I am only concerned with beef cow numbers since all other kinds (steers, heifers, calves etc.) are direct derivatives of beef cow numbers. I will however insert this short comment on bull numbers just to get them out of the way. Because of the extensive use of AI in the dairy industry, 95% of all bulls reported are beef bulls on beef farms. This percent is highly stable and the actual number varies with changes in beef cow numbers. On average one bull is recorded per 20 beef cows.

So, another way of looking at the number of beef cows is to ignore the cows themselves and count lagged steer marketings per 100 beef cows, as at July 1 inventory report. By "lagged" I mean relating steer numbers to the weighted average size of the beef cow herd one and two years previous. In the analyses that I have done I find that the average number of beef steers marketed per 100 lagged beef cows since 2000 is 40.2 (+/- 2.6) head. This presumes that I have properly accounted for the relatively small number of dairy steers in the slaughter mix. The relative stability of this number allows one to say that the industry produces about 40 to 41 beef steers annually per 100 beef cows.

What is more important than the actual number of beef cows is the unmistakeable long decline in the reported number of beef cows and the equally obvious long-term decline on the number of beef cow herds.

In this analysis, I track the change or decline in beef cow numbers and in the number of farms reporting beef cows from 2001 onward. Note: There are some problems with the data. The number of beef cows and farms reporting are taken from the census of 2001 and 2006. From 2010 onward the numbers come from the 2016 Census. The missing years are 2002 to 2005 and 2007 to 2009 so I drew the beef cow numbers from the Jan. 1 inventory estimates for those years and simply extrapolated the number of herds. I then calculated average herd size for all years. The apparent discrepancies represent the difference between Census figures and Jan 1 beef cow number estimates. The census shows that beef cow numbers have declined from 4.75 million head in 2003 to 3.8 million head in 2017. A decline of 950,000 head or 20%. A higher rate of decline is found when one calculates the decline from the 2007 peak of 5.28 million head but, as noted above, all the growth in cow numbers between 2003 and 2007 was caused, not by deliberate herd expansion, but by the forced reduction in cow culling due to low culled cow prices and the inability to export culled cows for slaughter.


  • The number of farms reporting beef cows has declined from 90,000 in 2001 to 63,066 in 2017, a decline of 26,934 herds or 30%. The decline has been rather steady averaging a little over 2% per year.

  • Beef Cow numbers have declined 17% from the afore mentioned peak in 2003. The decline since the forced peak in 2007 has been quite erratic and may reflect inaccuracy in estimates, such as the huge 14% decline between 2009 and 2010. Nonetheless the overall decline in beef cow numbers since 2003 cannot be ignored.

  • As herd numbers have declined there was some significant consolidation as average herd size increased to 62 cows in 2017 from 53 cows in 2001. As would be expected average cow herd size increased during the years immediately after 2003 and peaked at nearly 65 head in 2007 and again in 2009 before adjusting downward in 2010 and then slowly growing to 63 head in the 2017. The abrupt spike in herd size in 2005 again reflects the forced growth following BSE.

The Provinces

The analysis for the provinces encompasses the years 2010 to 2017 inclusive.

As a bench mark the Canadian Industry;

  • lost 16% of its cow herds

  • lost 9% of its beef cows

  • average cow herd size grew from 57 to 62 cows

Atlantic Canada

  • lost 15 % of its cow herds

  • lost 35% of its beef cows * largest % loss

  • average herd size grew from 20 to 26 cows.**largest % increase

  • share of industry in 2016 - Producers 2%, Cows 1.1%


  • lost 15% of its cow herds

  • lost 18% of its beef cows

  • average herd declined from 35 to 34 cows * the only province where herd did not increase

  • share of industry in 2016 - Producers 8%, Cows 4%


  • lost 17% of its cow herds

  • lost 11% of its beef cows

  • average herd increased from 20 to 22 cows * smallest average herd size

  • share of industry in 2016 – Producers 20%, Cows 7%

Summary of Eastern Canada

  • lost 18% of its cow herds

  • lost 14% of its beef cows

  • share of industry in 2016 – Producers 30%, Cows 12%


  • lost 17% of its cow herds

  • lost 21% of its beef cows

  • average herd increased from 67 to 71 cows

  • share of industry in 2016– Producers 10%, Cows 11%


  • lost 15% of its cow herds

  • lost 7% of its beef cows

  • average herd increased from 79 to 86 cows

  • share of industry in 2016–Producers 22%, Cows 30%


  • lost 14% of its cow herds

  • lost 6% of its beef cows

  • average herd increased from 76 to 84 cows

  • share of industry in 2016– Producers 31%, Cows 41%

In practical terms, the Saskatchewan and Alberta experience since 2010 is identical.

British Columbia

  • lost 13% of its cow herds

  • lost 6% of its beef cows

  • average herd increased from 40 to 45 cows

  • share of industry – Producers 7%, Cows, 5%

Summary of Western Canada

  • lost 15% of its cow herds

  • lost 8% of its beef cows

  • share of industry – Producers 70%, Cows, 87%

The long term decline in both beef cow numbers and in cow calf producers is a matter of real concern yet has attracted little comment. The commercial cow calf sector is the foundation of the entire industry. Given the generally low net returns to cow calf production, the exodus of producers and the advancing age of those who remain, there are few signs of future growth.

I have argued for many years that one way to stimulate the sector is to recognize its importance and to provide the sector with information flow from grading results that will give them the information they need to produce cattle that combine high quality and high lean meat yield in their carcasses. This was made possible with the introduction of individual animal identification way back in 2002. The sector pays the lions share of the cost of the National ID Program but gets no benefit in terms of information flow. The industry was also promised that a more accurate system of instrument grading would improve the accuracy of yield grading in particular and improved information flow to cow calf producers would give them the information needed to produce superior cattle.

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