November 18, 2011

A glimpse into beef cattle history

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

grazing cattle

Dr. Stephen Hammack, a beef cattle professor and extension specialist emeritus at Texas A&M University, has done a lot more than study cattle history—he’s lived it.

“I’ve observed beef cattle history now for 70 years,” Hammack said in a recent interview.

Over the years, Hammack has seen the U.S. beef industry change dramatically. He said that cow genetics, U.S. population growth and even modern-day “cowboys” created the beef industry we have today. 

Hammack said the number of beef cows in the country peaked about 40 years ago.

“We reached, in the mid-1970s, the most beef cattle that we’ll ever have in this country,” Hammack said.

Data from the United State Department of Agriculture shows the recent decline in numbers. According to a 2009 National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAMES) report, beef cattle numbers peaked around 1978. And between 1993 and 2008, the number of beef cows in the U.S. declined 2.8 percent.

That doesn’t mean the industry is producing less beef. Hammack explained that selective breeding has led to bigger cows. Beef producers now use fewer cows to get the same amount of meat.

Even with the slight decline, beef cow numbers are still far higher than they were in the early 1900s. Hammock said the reason for the beef cow boom is simple: the U.S. population has grown.

“There’s been more need,” Hammack said.

Data from the 2010 U.S. Census show that the country’s human population has grown 2.9 percent since 1920. The beef cattle population growth corresponds with that increase. According to the NAHMS report, the U.S. had 12.5 million beef cows in 1920, compared with 32.4 million beef cows in 2008. That’s about a 2.5 percent increase in beef cows.

Though many beef cattle are now raised in large feedlots, Hammack said many smaller, family-run farms have survived the years. He said many people, even those several generation removed from the farm, are motivated to raise beef cattle. Indeed, the NAHMES report shows that size of an average beef cattle herd is 42 animals, data which indicate the presence of small farms.

Hammack said there are several reasons for the survival of small cattle operations. Farmers growing crops may have land that’s not good for row crops, so they let cows graze that land. In Texas, Hammack said, land owners can get a tax break on land used for agriculture, so some people keep cows on their property. Others hold onto land for tradition’s sake. Hammack said many people who grew up on farms do not want the land to leave their families. He’s also seen people from non-agriculture backgrounds start in the small-farm business.

“There’s still an appeal for a lot of people,” Hammack said. “There’s a certain amount of romance.”

But in Texas, Hammack’s home state, a recent drought may change the course of ranching history.

This summer, Texas and much of the American Midwest and South were hit by record-setting heat waves and severe drought. Feed prices spiked and the grass on grazing land died. Cattle died too, and many beef producers chose to sell their animals early and recoup what money they could.

“Are some not going to rebuild herds?” Hammack asked.

It’s a tricky question. The history of beef cows in the U.S. is a story of growth and improved efficiency. Hammack hopes we’ll continue to see the industry improve in the future.

Correction: This article originally stated that “beef producers have increased efficiency by using fewer cows to get the same amount of meat.” Dr. Hammack has pointed out that “efficiency has not necessarily been increased by increasing cow size. That merely allows the production of a given amount of beef with fewer cows. But bigger cows require more nutritional input per cow, so they may or may not be more efficient.” ASAS regrets the error.