COLUMBIA — When James Grant, 71, bought his farm outside Columbia in 1990, there were a lot more cows around. While he and his son, David Grant, 44, have nearly tripled their acreage to increase row production, they've cut their cow-calf operation over the past five years from 160 cows to just under 100.
"I can make a lot more money putting corn on my truck to sell it than feeding it to my calves," David Grant said. In the spring planting season, he said he hopes to switch yet another 100 acre parcel of rented land from cattle pasture to soybean production.
Since 2003, the number of cows in Boone County has dropped from 19,000 to 15,200, and from 2.12 million to 1.97 million in Missouri overall, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In the same period, Missouri farmers have put hundreds of thousands more acres into corn and soybeans.
Historically high corn and soybean prices have played a key role in this transition, said Justin Angell, co-owner of Eastern Missouri Commission Co., a livestock auction business in Bowling Green.
"The economics of land use have changed," Angell said. "Economically, when you look at how many dollars per acre corn and soybeans are worth, compared to cows, it's not even close at this point in time."
Last spring, Angell said he witnessed the largest exodus of cattle he's seen since entering the livestock business.
"They sold their cows on a rising market, so the cows were worth something and they were able to either rent their land or plant crops and come out dollars ahead," he said.
Justin Sexten, state extension specialist and MU professor of beef nutrition, said he believes this trend in moving toward crops is possible because Missouri's soil — unlike other states to the west — can accommodate crop production.
"It's not ideal, by any stretch, in that we still have places where it's too rolling and those soils are not necessarily brought up to fertility levels that would support corn or soybeans," Sexten said.
But, he said, when the price of commodities exceeds $13.50 in soybeans and $7 in corn, it becomes more economical for farmers to put money into bringing the land up to the fertility required for crop production.
Brian Lease, who runs the Central Missouri Feed and Supply Co., said he's not sure how he will afford to buy corn gluten, a popular cattle feed, for his customers this fall. Usually the price drops late in the year, but with more corn than ever going overseas and into ethanol plants, he said prices have stayed high this year.
"Although we're having record cattle prices, our input prices are going up, too, so we're not generating much money," he said.
And while high cattle prices may help cattle farmers, Lease said he worries that corresponding high beef prices will erode consumer demand.
“If it gets too high in the supermarket, the average person can’t buy it and there goes your supply,” he said.
Sexten said he shares this concern. He noted that chicken and poultry are more affordable protein options for consumers in a struggling economy.
Although modern genetic knowledge has allowed the beef industry to produce more beef per cow, Sexten said he believes the steady decline in cattle numbers nationwide could still affect beef prices.
“We don’t know how many cows have been taken out of system,” Sexten said. Since cattle take longer to grow and reach market weight than chicken or pigs, once a herd shrinks to a certain size, it can take years to recover.
Should demand for beef increase, it will be hard to maintain the supply if cattle numbers continue to drop, Sexten said.
In the meantime, the Grants will continue to raise cattle, though they say they understand the lure behind the falling cattle numbers. Producing row crops is not only more lucrative, but also less labor intensive, an important consideration for the nation's aging cattle producing population.
“A lot of these guys, as they’ve gotten older, putting hay out in the winter time and keeping up fences isn’t that appealing,” David Grant said. “They can put in 500 or 600 acres of soybeans and once harvest is over they don’t have to go out and fight the weather.”
He pointed out that the technological advances in planting and harvesting equipment have made row cropping a feasible option for the older farmer.
“Even a man in his 60s or early 70s can handle several hundred acres of cropland and probably not even have any help,” he said.
Angell said he agreed.
“It goes back to the same thing for older producers — why put the time and effort into the cattle, doing something hard, when you could farm?” he said.