Americans soon could be crying 'Where's the beef?' -- until the cows come home.

Cattle herd may be the next casualty of the struggling U.S. economy, according to a report released Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The cattle inventory has shrunk to its smallest size in more than four decades, the report says. As of January 1, the number of cattle and calves in the U.S. totaled 92.6 million -- down 1 percent from a year ago.

Like many other industries, cattle producers are feeling the effects of a sour economy. And a shrinking supply -- combined with the rising cost of corn, the main ingredient in cattle feed -- could mean that consumers will be paying more for beef at the checkout line, or at their favorite restaurant.

The price of wholesale choice beef has already jumped 23 percent in the past year, according to a Bloomberg report. And government data show that retail prices for ground beef increased 8.8 percent in December, compared to a year ago.

The USDA forecasts consumers may pay as much as 3.5 percent more for beef this year. Maybe it's time to get your burgers while the getting is good? Then again, there's always chicken.

Follow Daryl Paranada at @darylparanada