HUTCHINSON - The number of beef cattle on Kansas feedlots is at its lowest point in 14 years, thanks to an ongoing drought, and industry officials said some producers could find themselves out of business if this year continues the dry pattern.
On March 1, there were 2.05 million cattle on Kansas feedlots, which is about 7 percent fewer than at the same time a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dried-up pastures and shrinking corn and soybean crops, the product of years of drought, have made it costlier to keep the cattle fed,.
Conversely, the state's dairy cattle count is up slightly from last year, but milk production is down about 45 pounds per cow, the USDA said.
Scarlett Hagins, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Livestock Association, said the high cost of feeding cattle has led some producers to sell their cattle younger and to hold onto fewer heifers as breeders.
"Because of the drought they haven't been able to rebuild their herds," she said. "They're still trying to maintain the core of their herd."
Even if weather conditions improve and there was adequate moisture this year, rebuilding herds is not going to happen overnight, Hagins said.
Milk production in Kansas was up 3.7 percent in February to about 222 million pounds, the USDA reported.
A few dairy farms that had closed in prior years reopened recently, said Mike Bodenhausen, executive director of the Kansas Dairy Association. Most states are seeing their dairy industries shrink, he said, but Kansas is one of only a handful that are making up for lost production.
Still, times are tight for Kansas dairy farmers because feeding the cattle has become more expensive. Dairy cows typically eat a "ration" of hay, alfalfa and other ingredients that have become more scarce because of the drought, Bodenhausen said.
Beef producers can easily sell off their cows during lean times, then buy new ones or hold back more cows as breeders when conditions are right for expansion, he said, because they generally have little infrastructure.
But dairy cows are more likely to live in barns with systems to deliver water and keep the animals cool, he said. That means owners try to keep their cows producing as long as possible because even without them, it still costs money to maintain the equipment.
"You can't turn the spigot on and off real easy on a dairy cow," he said.