Net beef imports have accounted for roughly 4 percent of total beef production since 1990 and have, in fact, been smaller at roughly 2 percent of total annual production in the last three years. Net live cattle imports have averaged less than 6 percent of total slaughter since 1990 and will be slightly higher than that in 2010.

“While beef and cattle continue to grow in importance in terms of industry value, it does not explain our ability to maintain beef production in the face of declining U.S. cattle inventories,” Peel said. “The fact is that we have culled an average of more than 11 percent of the beef cow herd each of the past three years.”

Beef cow slaughter as a percent of the beef cow inventory has averaged 9.3 percent since 1990. Since 1990, it has only been higher than 11 percent once, in 1996. Measured another way, beef cow slaughter has represented more than 10 percent of total cattle slaughter each of the past three years.

Another rough measure of slaughter intensity in the U.S. beef industry is that total slaughter will represent more than 94 percent of the 2010 calf crop. This value has averaged 88.3 percent since 1990 and the estimate for 2010 is the highest level over the 20-year period.

“The bottom line is that it will not be possible to maintain beef production in coming years if we do not rebuild the cow herd,” Peel said. “It’s also true that we will not be able to rebuild the cow herd without reducing slaughter and beef production for at least a two- or three-year period.”

Prices seem to be approaching levels that will entice cow-calf producers into some level of herd expansion in the next couple of years. Smaller beef production will support higher beef and cattle prices.

“Consumers, who have for the most part not seen any impacts of this situation, will experience higher beef prices in the coming years,” Peel said. “This will provide a critical test of beef demand to see how consumers react to generally higher beef prices.”