07/20/2012 05:21 EDT | Updated 09/19/2012 05:12 EDT

USDA reports that US has fewest cattle at least 4 decades as ranchers sell animals in drought

WICHITA, Kan. - A new report shows the U.S. with the fewest cattle in at least four decades as a widespread drought forces ranchers to sell off animals.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service said Friday that the number of cattle and calves in the United States totalled 97.8 million head as of July 1. That's 2 per cent less than a year ago.

It's also the lowest number since the agency began a July cattle count in 1973. The agency now estimates the size of the nation's herd each January and July.

Kansas State University agriculture professor Glynn Tonser says cattle numbers have been falling for several years, but that sped up last year with the drought in the Southwest. Many ranchers sold animals then, and more are selling this year amid widespread drought.