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 165.

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

    Whoaw GM modified chickens the size of steers .... and the eggs ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I think most of you arte missing the point of "government demand by the EPA" is creating this economic situation. The cost for producing ethenol is more that oil to gasoline. If we have a shortage of oil, the Gov releases reserves to reduce the stress; whats up with not reducing the requirments of ethenol production under drought conditions? Big Brothers demand for "no/less beef" because of Opra?

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Had their share of pies already, not many of them would fiit on a horse now anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    What I'm going to say may be offensive to some pet owners of cats or dogs.

    Our family has a dog and we feed her on dried dog food, and many cat owners do the same.

    What really gives me the creeps are those celebrity adverts for tins of succulent fish and meat for trophy pets. Something is awry don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Humans have evolved to be omnivores - therefore have adapted not to be reliant on one type of food - wild or farmed. We can eat and digest fish, meat, vegetation, fruits, nuts, seeds etc., to meet our protein and other nutritional needs.

    The difficulty is that vast mono-culture farming, in any country, makes us more vulnerable in it's pursuit of trying to feed too many people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Ref beef cattle & methane - you can grow "poor quality" corn on much of the world's poorer farmland ot use as a fodder crop.

    Feed cattle on fodder corn & you get a massive reduction in methane production.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    For the person who wanted more recent data on solar irradiance:

    note no trend that would explain global warming.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Between extreme weather conditions and the fact that America is on the whole a poor nation based on average earnings, so ignore MTV super sweet 16 series and so on; Red meat consumption has been on the decline for the past 10 years because of price and suspected BSE in some steers, therefore decline in numbers is down economic forces an cheaper imports, American beef is good, but I have had better

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Could it be that more cattle are being produced on cleared land in Brazil at a cheaper cost?

    By "cleared land in Brazil" I assume you mean land that used to be Amazon Rain Forest? Yeah, that will really help the global environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    The fattest person I've ever personally know was a vegetarian. He refused to eat meat or fish. His meals consisted of junk food. Chips, butter tarts grilled cheese sandwiches and all the deserts he could pile into his gaping pie hole!

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    #150 ~ where exactly do you see reference to stereotyping of American ignorance ~ there is none that i can see.

    Meat has been in decline for some time and the trend will continue for multiple reasons ~ and I know that as an ex-beef farmer from the UK.

    I'm a hypocrite though ~ I like meat on my plate but I've seen the look in a steers eye as he's loaded into a slaughter pen ~ glad I'm out of it

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.


  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    re. 148.Trollicus: "The mandate is for ethanol production it does not require it to be made with corn."

    True but biomass or other domestic sources are still unavilable in sufficient quantity to meet the demand for use in fuel. The corn lobby was quite effective at blocking imports and stalling funding to develop alternative methods and sources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.


    # 101 Check the facts.

    1lb of 90% of lean beef has approx 800 calories.
    1lb of mixed vegetables has approx 170 calories.

    To produce 800 calories of beef, you must feed the steer 8000 calories of corn, most of which the steer uses to keep itself alive.

    Instead of growing enough corn to produce 1lb of beef you could grow 47lb of mixed vegetables

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    As a beef eating, large truck driving, gun owning American in the South West USA, I completely fail to see how this is anything other than a straightforward business report on the US beef industry. I find not a hint of innuendo suggesting that American ignorance is the root of the problems facing this industry.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Not to long ago the BBC ran this article
    Stating that Americans are dumb and know of Scotland only from the Movie Braveheart. Today the BBC says Americans are beef eating lunatics. To stereotype any other country the way BBC,Der Spiegel, and AFP have would have posed ethical questions by most Europeans. Sadly Europe likes to be lied too about the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    # 101 Check the facts.

    1lb of 90% of lean beef has approx 800 calories.
    1lb of mixed vegetables has approx 170 calories.

    That means to get the same calories as 1lb of beef you would need to eat at least 4.7 times the weight in veg. One of the reasons ancient man changed from a veg only diet and began to eat meat.

    Also that staple diet rice produces far more methane than cattle do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    The mandate is for ethanol production it does not require it to be made with corn. Six new cellulosic biorefineries, estimated to cost a total of $1.2 billion are being built to use native "switchgrass" which can be grown on "marginal land" not currently used. Switchgrass requires no pesticide or herbicide. So more food (yeast for animals) and more fuel in a very environmentally friendly crop.

  • Comment number 147.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    My point is that yeast (esp from the wet processed ethinol byproduct) actually improves the digestion in grass fed cattle and is a net positive over the use of raw corn. New technologies also improve the efficiency of production 12.4 ponds is low-end 18 pounds of feed for modern processes. This article seems to exaggerate the negatives and completely ignores the benefits.


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