The smallest cattle herd since the 1950s likely will mean higher beef prices at the supermarket for the next two years.
Beef prices could climb by as much as 10 percent a year in 2012 and 2013, experts said, and the increase could be even greater if demand from other countries increases.
Those higher prices would follow steady increases that have seen the average retail cost of a pound of hamburger rise by 23 percent, from $2.38 in December 2010 to $2.92 last December, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Last month, the USDA reported that the U.S. herd had declined to 90.8 million cattle, 2 percent less than the previous year and the lowest inventory since 1952, when there were 88.1 million.
"We're producing less beef, so prices are going to go up," Texas AgriLife Extension Service livestock economist David Anderson said.
Ranchers have sold more of their cattle in recent years to meet increased costs for feed, fuel and other expenses. The soaring costs of feed come amid heightened demand for corn to produce ethanol and to meet a growing export market.
The situation has been worst in Texas, the nation's leading cattle producer, and other parts of the Southern Plains and Southwest, where a record drought caused pastures to wither, leaving ranchers with few options but to sell their cattle or pay top dollar for feed.
There are 1.4 million fewer cattle -- a record 660,000 of those cows -- in Texas this year, compared with the previous year, accounting for about 74 percent of the drop in numbers nationally. The animals were either moved to another state or were slaughtered.
Texas still leads the nation with 11.9 million head of cattle and calves, an 11 percent drop from last January. Cattle numbers plunged by 12 percent in Oklahoma, to 4.5 million head, and in New Mexico by 10 percent, to 1.39 million head.
While cattle numbers dropped in those states, they have climbed elsewhere, especially in the Northern Plains, where more rain led to plentiful pastureland.
Even in the Southwest, there has been some good news, as the USDA reports that producers held on to more heifers, or young cows, than some expected. The January report showed a 1 percent increase over last year's number of heifers retained.
That could put the industry in position to grow the herd more quickly.
Until the cattle supply increases, consumers will see higher prices, said Lane Broadbent, a livestock analyst with KIS Futures in Oklahoma City.
Broadbent said worldwide demand for U.S. beef also could increase in the next couple of years, causing prices to stay steady or rise even if the herd size grows as expected.
"An era of cheap meat might not happen for another two to three years," Broadbent said. "It's basically supply and demand, and this USDA report showed that our supplies are going to increase."