The US beef industry has been at the centre of discussion on a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal. In the first of a four-part series examining the US beef industry and markets, Farmers Guardian’s sister company Urner Barry looks at the structure of the industry from the ranch to the packing plant.
The United States is the largest producer of beef in the world, an achievement only made possible by a sophisticated network of hardworking farmers, ranchers and processors.
With nearly 100 million head of cattle moving through the pipeline, the production process from ranch to table is a well-choreographed series of events borne from a rich history where the cattle business played a large role in shaping a young nation.
Due to its vast geographical area and varying climate, most beef cattle in the US are raised in Texas, Nebraska and Kansas.
Conjuring iconic scenes of cattle drives in the 19th century American West, these regions were ideal for building out large herds which could be driven to railheads and stockyards.
Additionally, these rural areas became large grain-producing states, which proved advantageous as a feed source in raising quality livestock.
This system built the foundation of modern day beef production, while advancements in transportation and technology have resulted in continuous improvement and efficiencies.
Today, the structure of the US cattle industry can be broken down into a series of stages, with ownership of the livestock changing hands at several potential points.
Beef production chain
A cow/calf operation represents one of the first stages in the beef production chain, where a rancher maintains a breeding herd of cows.
Once calves are weaned from the cow between three and 10 months of age, they may be sent to a backgrounding operation or directly to a stocker.
Stocking operations put young cattle, typically yearlings, on pasture to graze and mature.
Weighing 500-700lb (227-318kg) on average, feeder cattle will then be placed in a feedlot. During this time, cattle are fed high-energy rations of feed containing cereal grain and roughage which promotes the development of lean muscle and helps deposit exceptional intramuscular fat, or marbling, creating a unique eating experience demanded by consumers around the world.
Cattle remain in the feedlot until they reach a market weight of about 1,300lb (590kg), at which time they will be purchased by a packer and processed for beef.
With an economical cost of gain and added efficiency provided by the feedlot stage, the process of raising cattle to market in the US averages 18-24 months in total.
About Urner Barry
Urner Barry is a US based agency covering market prices of red meat, poultry, eggs and seafood. The Farmers Guardian sister company is launching a new report on the UK beef market this month.