Fatter Cows Translate to Fewer Cows

The Lempert Report
July 19, 2019

Since 1970, increasing cattle weights have fueled growth of U.S. beef production as cattle that are actually used have decreased according to the USDA.

Over the last 50 years, U.S. beef production (measured as volume of meat produced) steadily increased by 25 percent, even while the number of cattle destined for beef production decreased by 6 percent.

When beef production, numbers of cattle, and average cattle weights are viewed as indices (with a base year of 1970), the trend becomes clear. 

Since 1970, beef production has increased by roughly 25 percent. Over the same period, however, the number of cattle used in beef production has fallen by 6 percent. The decline in the number of cattle has been countered by a more than 30-percent increase in average cattle weights, driven mainly by increases in the average weights of steers and heifers, which represent 80 percent of cattle destined for beef production. 

Changes in breeding practices have produced heifers and steers with higher growth rates and higher feed conversion efficiencies in pastures and feedlots. USDA forecasts beef production to reach record levels in 2019 and again in 2020. Both years are expected to surpass the previous record set in 2002, but with 8 percent fewer cattle than in 2002.