This May we celebrate the nation’s beef industry and the farmers and ranchers driving its success.

In honor of National Beef Month, we’re taking a look at the various sectors of the U.S. beef industry and diving into the factors that make cattle and beef production the largest single segment of American agriculture. For example, did you know more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (35 percent) than any other type of farm?

If you’re ready to learn more, read on—chances are you’re going to walk away with a greater understanding of the U.S. beef production system.

Sectors Making Up the Nation’s Robust Beef Industry

Because beef has the “most unique and complex lifecycle of any food”, it includes a variety of segments, including several changes in ownership between the time cattle are weaned and slaughtered. It helps explain why it takes 2-3 years to bring beef from farm to fork. The major segments of the beef cattle industry include seedstock production, cow-calf production, stocker/backgrounding, and feedlot.

In short: Seedstock operations primarily produce bulls that are used to service cows in commercial cow-calf operations, and the primary product of cow-calf operations is weaned cows, which are sold to stocker operators, backgrounding lots, or feedlots.

Calves from cow-calf operations can follow one of two paths. They are either transferred directly to feedlots at or around the time of weaning—these are called “calf-feds” that stay in the feedlot for 240 days or more before being harvested. They make up approximately 40 percent of the fed cattle population in the U.S. The other path they may head is into a backgrounding or stocker operation, or a combination thereof, to be grown on a forage-based diet before fattened on a high-concentrate diet (about 60 percent of the nation’s calf population takes this route).

It’s also important to note that male calves from dairies constitute a significant component of the beef cattle market. These calves are acquired from dairies when they’re about three days old, after which they are transferred to calf ranches. Once they reach a weight of approximately 330-440 pounds, they’re commonly sold to feedlots.

Cull beef and dairy animals contribute to the beef supply as well, and they’re typically shipped from seedstock, cow-calf, or dairy operations directly to abattoirs for harvest, although a relatively small and variable proportion is sent to feedlots to be fed high-energy diets for 50-100 days before being slaughtered.

While the beef cattle production industry is multi-segmented and involves a wide variety of individuals and businesses, the U.S. beef slaughter industry is heavily concentrated as four farms account for more than 80 percent of the beef slaughter capacity.

Latest Beef Industry Facts, Stats, and Developments

According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the U.S. lays claim to 913,246 total cattle and calf operations, with 727,906 of those being beef farms and ranches, and 91 percent of those are family-owned or individually-operated.

Overall, the nation comprises 31.7 million beef cattle—that’s a two percent increase from 2017—with the top cattle states including Texas (12.5 million cattle), Nebraska (6.8 million cattle), Kansas (6.3 million cattle), California (5.2 million cattle) and Oklahoma (5.1 million cattle).

One of the U.S. beef cattle industry’s most recent developments is the signing of the modernized Korea-United States Trade Agreement (KORUS), which has helped increase beef exports and made South Korea a leading destination for U.S. beef—in fact, exports to South Korea have accounted for more than $1 billion annually over the last two years.

Moreover, U.S. beef exports are on the rise in general, with the beef export value averaging $320.92 per head of fed slaughter in August of 2018 (an increase of 11 percent from August 2017). As a result, U.S. beef exports exceeded $750 million for the first time in August of 2018, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and compiled by the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

Currently, the top U.S. beef export markets include Japan, with 307,559 metric tons exported; Mexico, with 237,972 metric tons exported; South Korea, with 184,152 metric tons exported; Canada, with 116,561 metric tons exported; Hong Kong, with 130,728 metric tons exported; and Taiwan, with 44,800 metric tons exported.

AgAmerica Lending Can Serve Your Beef Cattle Operation

AgAmerica Lending is proud to support U.S. beef cattle producers as well as the developments that make our nation’s beef industry an ever-changing enterprise. If you’d like to explore what our custom cattle ranch loans can do for your cattle operation, contact us at or 844.516.8176 to speak with one of our land loan experts.