March 9, 2016

3 Min Read
Why the USDA suspension of the midyear Cattle report is troubling

Last Friday, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) announced it is suspending its midyear Cattle report, scheduled to be released July 22. Here’s what NASS says in its news release announcing the suspension:

“Before deciding to suspend these reports, we reviewed our estimating programs against mission- and user-based criteria as well as the amount of time remaining in the fiscal year to meet our budget and program requirements while maintaining the strongest data in service to U.S. agriculture. The decision to suspend this report was not made lightly, but was necessary, given our available fiscal and program resources. We will continue to review our federal agricultural statistical programs using the same criteria to ensure we provide timely, accurate and useful statistics.”

In addition to suspending the July report, NASS is also suspending its Canadian Cattle report scheduled for August 23. That report is done in conjunction with Statistics Canada and assuming that the Canadian agency continues to collect those numbers, that’s less of a concern because the Canadian information will still be available.

But the suspension of the July Cattle report is of great concern. Was it suspended for budgetary reasons? Staffing reasons? Bureaucratic reasons? Political reasons? It’s hard to tell. Further, is this a one-year suspension or will it be permanent?

NASS spokeswoman Sue King provides this statement in response to BEEF's questions:

"To make this decision, we looked at our estimating programs, mission- and user-based criteria along with the amount of time remaining in the fiscal year to meet our budget and program requirements with the intent of maintaining the strongest data in service to U.S. agriculture.  The decision was difficult and unpleasant but necessary given our available fiscal and program resources. We truly regret any difficulties this loss of data presents. Our intent is to provide these data next year, but we don’t have our FY17 budget and will have to evaluate all programs against the same user- and mission-based criteria when we get our budget."

While the midyear Cattle report is only an estimate, it is important to cattle producers and number crunchers for a number of reasons. We’re in the middle of the first full-blown expansion in cattle numbers in 20 years. The midyear report gives us a glimpse of the extent to which expansion is or is not occurring. As in years past, should drought return to cattle country and stocking rates decrease, some of the heifers held for replacement, as indicated in the January Cattle inventory report, may go to town. We need to know that.

Remember a few years back when this happened?  That was in 2013 and because of a government shutdown, the industry lost not only the midyear Cattle report, but virtually all other reports as well. The industry was on the cusp of expansion and losing the midyear Cattle report, along with the Ag Marketing Service auction reports and all the other important and even essential data that USDA collects left a big hole in our ability to gauge and understand where we stood.

While this move is not as severe as what we endured in 2013, the concern is every bit as valid. And the lesson of 2013 is every bit as poignant. Not only will we lose the middle-of-the-year checkpoint to gauge our progress, or lack thereof, we lose another benchmark in our historical data series, making it more difficult to look back over time and understand cattle cycle dynamics.

It’s been an ongoing battle with USDA to keep data flowing. It is too easy for politicians and bureaucrats to treat data as an orphan child and fail to recognize its critical value until after it’s lost. Then it’s too late to get it back.

This is unfortunate and a great disservice to the cattle industry. I hope USDA will reconsider.

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