USDA: No Consolidation in Cow-calf Operations the Past 5 Years

The midsized cow-calf operation hasn't grown in the past five years still standing at 110 cows, a sign that consolidation hasn't impacted much of the beef industry. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Agriculture has been consolidation across nearly every market sector, the one major exception is beef production when it comes to cow-calf and stocker production.

According to a recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) report focusing on consolidation for the past three decades all areas of livestock production besides beef have fewer and larger operations. In a webinar hosted by co-author James MacDonald, senior economist for USDA-ERS, outlined some of the highlights and takeaways from the 55 page Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture report.

“On the livestock side, developments in confinement feeding, changes in housing and feeding systems allow less labor therefore allow a farmer or farm family to effectively manage larger herds and larger flocks,” MacDonald says.

In 1987, the midpoint beef cow herd was at 89 cows. At that same time the midpoint dairy herd was 80 cows. Ten years later the midpoint beef cow herd was 100 cows, while dairy was at 140 head.

Modest gains were made for beef cows increasing to a midpoint of 110 cows in 2007. Dairy producers grew the midpoint herd size to 570 cows.

The latest data shows no change for beef cow herds, but dairy herds are still consolidating with 900 cows on the midrange dairy in 2012.

For pork and poultry production contract farming, along with the rise of vertically integrated operations had led to rapid consolidation in the past three decades. The midpoint broiler farm went from 300,000 birds in 1987, 480,000 birds in 1997 and 680,000 birds in 2012. Midsized hog operations are 33-times larger than three decades ago. In 1987, a midpoint for hog farms was 1,200 pigs, and by 2012 the midpoint was 40,000 pigs.

MacDonald concludes that beef production hasn’t seen the same kind of consolidation because genetic changes can’t be made as quickly or in a uniform manner compared to pork and poultry.  

The report also states that nearly half of U.S. farmland is dedicated to cattle, largely for grazing purposes. “Most cow-calf operations take place on relatively inexpensive land around the country,” MacDonald says.

Because of the cheaper land-base and the amount of acreage needed, cow-calf production hasn’t had to chase a confinement model like other species.

“People also can confine those species in buildings to control the climate and manage for feed efficiency and disease easier,” MacDonald says. He adds that this is a reason dairy has consolidated quicker.

Other findings:

  • Feedlot consolidation has stabilized after the midpoint cattle feeder doubled from 17,532 head in 1987 to 38,000 in 1997. The midpoint cattle feeder was 38,369 head in 2012.
  • While cropland consolidated into larger farms between 1987 and 2012, pasture and rangeland did not, but instead shifted away from the largest farms and ranches and toward smaller operations. In 1987, farms and ranches with at least 10,000 acres of pasture and rangeland operated more than half (51%) of all pasture and rangeland, while those with less than 1,000 acres held 15 percent. By 2012, the share operated by the largest acreage class had fallen to 44%, while farms and ranches with less than 1,000 acres of pasture and rangeland operated 22%.
  • Family farms still dominate with farm families accounting for 98.7% of farms and 89.4% of agriculture production.

To read the entire report click here.

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