Smaller, fewer, thinner - the future for American beef?

Cattle in a feedlot in Colorado

What has become of the US beef industry?

The country that is synonymous with steaks as big as Texas is suffering a serious shortage of cattle. The US national herd is now at an all time low. Numbers peaked at 132 million head of cattle in 1975. At the start of this year this was down to just under 91 million.

Across the US, cattle are sometimes housed in what are called feedlots to be fattened for slaughter. These huge operations on average contain around 3,000 have also suffered a significant drop in numbers, down around 12.5 % on last year.

All bad news for cowboys - So what is going on?

There are long term factors in terms of profitability and rising costs but what's really pushing the decline right now is a potent mix of environmental issues and politics.

US drought map The drought has affected large swathes of the US

The US has been suffering a desperate drought that has affected around 80 % of the agricultural land across the country. It has been so severe that in certain parts, farmers have been forced to get rid of their cattle as they simply don't have any pasture for them to graze on.

The drought has also affected the yields of grain crops, which are estimated to be down around 13 % on last year. And because US farmers depend on grain to fatten their beef herds, this has increased pressure to get rid of cattle.

Adding further complication is the politics. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had a mandate in place since 2005 that requires a certain percentage of US liquid fuel comes from renewable sources.

In practice this means blending ethanol made from grain with regular gasoline. This year, as the drought persisted, desperate farmers asked the EPA to set the mandate aside to help cut corn prices. They refused.

Feeding cattle in Kansas Feeding cattle on grass could be the future for beef farmers

This year ethanol production will consume a whopping 42 % of the corn crop, says the US Department of Agriculture.

According to Dr Stan Bevers from Texas A&M University, this factor is having a huge impact.

"The US beef industry was built on abundant corn supplies, so when a new source of governmental demand takes away roughly 40 % of the corn for ethanol production, the cattle industry must adjust and get smaller."

But bizarrely as the size of the herd has gone down, the size of individual steers has gone up. The cattle are getting fatter with carcass weights around 2 % higher than last year.

But it won't last.

According to Dr Derrell Peel, from Oklahoma State University the current problems could have long term impacts on US beef. He thinks it is likely there will be changes in how cattle are fed. Less grain, more grass, lighter cattle.

"In general that's the tendency," he told me. "The incentives have changed to a more moderate animal size, we could well see finished weights moderate."

The future for American beef cattle is smaller, thinner, fewer.

And the future of world meat production tastes a lot like chicken - but that's a story for another day.

Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent


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  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    #119 Yes deep snow is a daily event in North Dakota isn't it?

    I owned a Honda Fit as we call it here in the USA, and yes you can buy chains for it and yes is performs perfectly well in the snow. I used to take it up to Snoqulamie Pass weekly.

    Obviously if there's a snow storm on the way in (my wife's from Co) you don't go out. Too many American men by a truck because it is a 'mans' car.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    This seems like good news to me. I'm more than happy to get rid of feed lots and grain-fed cattle if it means more small, local farms can focus on quality of beef rather than quantity.

    One of the current downsides to the rising price of corn, however, is that many large ranchers are now feeding their cattle ridiculous things like gummy worms, cotton candy, and ice cream. Sigh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    It is immoral to me that these ranchers send these poor creatures to slaughter rather than feed them. Then buy more cattle when the drought is over. I live in Texas and I am a Vegetarian and these so called cowboys should get a real job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    ##It is fact that growing veg is better for the environment that meat.
    And you can feed a lot more people with veg than meat ##

    Which is bad for the environment, sustaining more humans, who also consume other things than veg.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    #120 The way I'd see is that America is rapidly making itself independent of Arab oil (unlike us). We import most of our food AND our fuel.

    Still laughing?

  • Comment number 120.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    114. Yankee_Poodle
    As a Brit expat, I love America, Americans and most of what it is - However, they need to quit driving these as their daily ride:
    Looks pretty sensible if you live in the midwest. My 1.4L 55mpg Honda Jazz isn't the best vehicle for the sort of snow you get in North Dakota.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Strange? I live in the US but have seen no reports on this affecting the supply side of the market: no price rises, no shortages.

    Perhaps this is like the recent "worldwide pig shortage" I read about months ago.......and which has failed to do anything either.

    P.S. I must say there are some tremendously entertaining (and uninformed) postings in the article. More entertaining that the article!

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    @44. Sarah
    "Does it make a huge difference if we eat the veg, or eat the animals that eat the veg?"

    Of course it does! Looking at just the weight of feed required to produce meat - chicken is around 3.5 to 1 and red meat is more like 10 to 1 - shows that producing meat is far less efficient. And that's without considering the extra energy cost of transporting feed and keeping your livestock.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    If you want to know about the American meat industry have a look at the documentry ' Meat Inc.' You will be shocked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    I think we all need to look at our diets and think not only about what foods are good for us, but about which foods are sustainable. I live in Texas and can buy practically any fruit, vegetable or meat all year round - even when it's out of season. This cannot possibly be a good thing for the environment - even if it does mean I can have a mango whenever I fancy one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    As a Brit expat, I love America, Americans and most of what it is - However, they need to quit driving these as their daily ride:

    And yes, many don't any more either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    re. 72.Tom Ray: "Bread has no nutritional value. Fills your stomach, causes bloating, does not stem your hunger."

    Perhaps you'd care to explain how the Roman legions were able to march and fight on a diet consisting mostly of bread.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    We can get massive efficiency gains by obtaining our nutrition directly from crops such as veg, fruit and grains rather than using animals as intermediaries to feed on their meat. Meat production is a waste of land and other resources, and leads to desertification. We may just need that land for forests to help re-stabilise our weather systems and keep land stable and fertile.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    108. VCE
    Oh, no! Does this mean Americans are going to have to eat a vegetable? I can't even begin to imagine how their funny little minds are going to twist this to be someone else's fault, evidence of their greatness and proof that God hates scientists.
    What a sad, sad comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Not wanting to join in on the bash-a-yank day, the entire human race is in this mess together - the natural world knows no boundaries.

    The planet can only provide for a limited number of people. What that number is I am not sure, but it is clearly going to be a very big issue if we keep growing in numbers like we are doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Grass fed beef is better for you, and tastes better than the corn fed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Oh, no! Does this mean Americans are going to have to eat a vegetable? I can't even begin to imagine how their funny little minds are going to twist this to be someone else's fault, evidence of their greatness and proof that God hates scientists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    So let me get this straight, the wealthy Texan oil magnates with ranches (for example George Bush) are asking the environmental protection agency to stop diluting their gasoline with ethanol this year so that they have to spend less money on grain to feed their cattle. Something smells, like bull.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I'm American, and I agree with Darren. America has either ignored environmental issues or been slack in environmental protection. The meat industry has made a devastating contribution to climate change, air pollution, and the degradation of land, soil, and water. And it's only going to get worse. (See "Livestock's Long Shadow" by the Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.)


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