This classification covers establishments primarily engaged in the production or feeding of beef cattle, except feedlots. Establishments primarily engaged in raising dairy cattle are classified in SIC 0241: Dairy Farms.
Beef Cattle Ranching and Farming
There were 774,630 operations handling beef cattle in 2004, most of which had fewer than 500 head. Although dairy farmers produce 20 percent of the beef in this country, that beef is largely a by-product of the milk business and is not included in this industry classification. This category includes all activities of ranchers or beef farmers up to the time their cattle are sent to the feedlot. Issues regarding the operation and management of feedlots are discussed in SIC 0211: Beef Cattle Feedlots.
The sale of cattle and calves is the largest segment of the American agricultural economy, which in turn comprises 16 percent of the gross national product. In 2003 cattle accounted for four-fifths of the total $56.2 billion in meat animal cash receipts. Moreover, sales of cattle and calves account for almost one-fifth of the country's farm and ranch cash receipts. Beef cattle are one of the few agricultural commodities produced in all fifty states, and the industry comprises more than 1 million businesses.
Beef has been central to America's dining habits for a long time. Recently, however, poultry has made great strides in eroding that primacy. Much of poultry's popularity has been attributed to lower prices and low fat content. The beef industry has worked hard to produce and promote a leaner product, and cites that one-third of all Americans have eaten some type of ground beef in the past 24 hours. Despite the many advances of the poultry industry, beef surpasses its competitors in both production and sales, and remains the country's favorite protein source.
The United States is the largest producer of beef products in the world, although it ranks fourth in total number of beef animals. This high production rate is made possible by the high efficiency of U.S. producers. The United States is the third largest exporter of beef in the world. It also is the largest importer of beef, particularly of ground beef in frozen form. Despite a recent drop in annual beef consumption, U.S. per capita beef consumption ranks third in the world.
Because a vast amount of acreage is needed to support beef cows, cattlemen own or manage more land than any other single industry. In the meadows of Montana or the irrigated pastures of California, one acre of land supports a cow and her calf for an entire year. In the deserts of the Southwest, however, an entire section of land, or 640 acres, can support only a handful of cows.
More than 1.2 billion acres of this country are considered agricultural lands by the USDA; this comprises approximately 50 percent of the United States and two-thirds of the contiguous states. Though two-thirds of this land is considered to be grazing land, 90 percent of it is unsuitable for growing commercial crops because of limited rainfall, steep slopes, rocky terrain, or poor soil. Thus, the land can only be used for pasturing beef cattle, sheep, goats, bison, horses, and wild animals.
These grazing lands are ideal for cattle, because the cattle can convert grass and other forages into high-protein food sources. The typical beef cow does not spend a single day in a cattle-fattening feedlot, but instead lives on grass and hay her entire life, being retained for breeding and nursing. Her offspring may be fattened in a feedlot for 20 percent of their lives, or her female offspring may be kept as replacement females. A typical range cow loses her productivity between the ages of eight and ten and must be replaced.
The cow is like a factory for the beef industry: she generates more cattle. Beef cows have a nine-month gestation period and usually give birth to a single calf either in the fall or the spring. These calves are called "commercial" cattle as opposed to "purebreds," which are born from both a sire and dame of purebred ancestry. The majority of calves in this country are born in the spring and sold in the fall. The average calf weighs between 80 and 85 pounds at birth and lives on a diet of grass and its mother's milk. The calves run beside their mothers until they are weaned, which usually occurs when the calves are between six and eight months old. At this age, the calves usually weigh between 500 and 550 pounds, though there are significant variations due to management and feed conditions.
While they are still running alongside their mothers, the calves are gathered or rounded up much like they were in the early days of ranching. The calves are then branded by their owners and vaccinated for a variety of diseases. Bull calves are altered or castrated, at which time they are called steers. Steering a bull prevents fighting, accidental breeding with cows and heifer calves, and allows for easier management.
Before the calves are weaned, bulls are turned in with the cows to breed them. Normally, between 80 and 90 percent of the cowherd will be bred successfully. Those cows that don not conceive are referred to as "open" and are sold for beef. The bulls that are used are usually purebred cattle in which multigeneration pedigrees have been maintained by a breed association. These bulls are produced by purebred breeders, whose sole intent is to provide seedstock for the commercial beef cattle producer. These purebred producers test their cattle for weight gain and meat quality, and keep extensive records on their pedigreed livestock. When commercial producers subsequently purchase bulls in the spring or fall of the year, they are aided by a pedigree and by computerized records that indicate how a particular sire's offspring might perform. The price of these commercial bulls usually ranges from $1,500 to $4,000, while the purebred sire that was used to produce them might cost upwards of $20,000. It is not uncommon for a particularly good purebred bull to be syndicated for several hundred thousand dollars or to be purchased by a bull stud. The use of artificial insemination and embryo transfer has become commonplace in the beef cattle industry and has made it possible to use genetics from the best cows to produce several offspring per year instead of a single calf.
When the calves are ready for weaning, they can be sold through an auction market or over a satellite video hookup known as a satellite auction. They also may be traded in-country by an order buyer, or the cattlemen may prefer to retain ownership. The calves are then run as "stockers." Stockers go back to feeding on grass until the time they weigh approximately 800 pounds. Other weaned calves may go straight into the feedlot for the final finishing stage and skip the stocker stage completely. As cattlemen continue to improve the genetics in their herds, many calves are weaning in excess of 650 pounds and reaching a finished weight of 1,250 pounds in the feedlot, when they are just over one year old.
Many ranchers consider themselves nothing more than grass farmers. Their job is to convert grass to beef as efficiently as possible. Cattle spend between 80 and 100 percent of their lives on grazing lands and have played a role in sustainable agricultural systems for centuries...