Although the open range was an important part of U.S. and Canadian homesteading history, the invention of barbed wire and cheap fencing materials virtually eliminated the need for it. There are few places that are truly open like they were a century ago, especially in the U.S. West.
One of the largest places where unfenced ranges still exist is the Green Mountain Common Allotment, which is more than 500,000 acres of space. It is currently overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, but even this space has a handful of private parcels in it.
As of 2004, the last time data was collected on ranching operations in the region, there were cattle from 17 different ranching operations using the Green Mountain Common Allotment.
The fact is that we assume open range cattle operations exist because we’ve heard about them in our history books. When we travel, the mind edits out the existence of fencing as we hit the wide-open spaces during a road trip. If you start to look for fences, however, you’ll see how endangered the open range cattle industry happens to be.
Important Open Range Cattle Industry Statistics
#1. The average number of cattle that is owned by a beef rancher in the United States is 40. In total, there are more than 900,000 cattle and calf operations, of which 727,000 are beef farms and ranches. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#2. 91% of beef farms and ranches are family owned or they are individually operated. About 11% of these operations are headed by women. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#3. The total population of beef cows in the United States is 31.2 million. Out of this number, about 6.4 million beef replacement heifers are counted, which is a 1.3% increase from 2016 numbers. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#4. The average age of a rancher who primarily raises beef cattle in the United States is 58. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#5. Americans consume an average of 55 pounds of beef products per year. The average price for USDA Choice beef in the U.S. was $5.96 per pound. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#6. The value of U.S. beef exports in 2016, which includes variety meat, was $6.3 billion. (National Cattlemen’s Beef Association)
#7. 19% of U.S. agriculture sales are based on cattle products. The sale of cattle and calves in the United States totals more than $76 billion per year, which is an increase of 25% since 2007. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#8. The demand for grass-fed beef has grown at an average rate of 30% since 2006, even while demand levels for traditional beef products has declined over the same time period. The total market share for grass-fed beef in U.S. metropolitan markets is up to 6% of the total beef share. (Forbes)
#9. Open range cattle offer a number of natural health benefits compared to traditional beef. Grass-fed beef has 65% less fat in its content, which means the calorie content is 50% lower than in traditional products. (Forbes)
#10. Texas leads the country in total revenues for cattle and calves, with $13 billion in sales each year. Kansas and Nebraska both contribute $10 billion each in sales for the industry as well. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#11. In 2015, the average of monthly prices received by farmers for calves was $263 per cwt, which is up 3% from the year before. At the time, it was the best price on-record for calves. For total cattle pricing, however, 2015 saw a decline of $5 per hundredweight. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#12. The United States imported 1.98 million live head of cattle in 2015, which was down 16% from the year before. The U.S. has not imported cattle from a country other than Canada or Mexico since 2008, when a purchase from Australia was made. 58% of live imports came from Mexico in 2015. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#13. 72% of all calves that are born to the open range cattle industry are birthed between January 1 through June 30. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)
#14. In 2017, the United States led the world in beef production, with a total of 11.9 million metric tons. Brazil came in second, with 9.5 million metric tons. The European Union and China both produced more than 7 million metric tons each. (Progressive Cattleman)
#15. Cherry County, Nebraska, is the leading cow producing county in the United States. In 2018, there were 150,000 head in the local population. Holt County and Custer Country in the state are ranked second and third respectively as well, with 96,000 and 95,000 head in their population. (Progressive Cattleman)
#16. 82% of U.S. cattle operations involve fewer than 100 head of cattle. 14.2% of cattle operations have between 100-499 head. (Progressive Cattleman)
#17. 80% of operations within the cattle industry are cow-calf/seedstock producers. Just 7% of farming operations are directly associated with dairy farming. (Progressive Cattleman)
#18. Missouri has seen the largest expansion of beef cattle operations in the United States, with a change in population of 449,000 cattle since 2013 – an increase of 26.2%. Oklahoma came in second with 437,000 more cattle. Texas added another 370,000 cattle to their population numbers too. (Progressive Cattleman)
#19. In 2017, South Dakota saw the largest beef cow growth in the U.S. than any other state for that year. In 12 months, more than 137,000 head were added to the population, an increase of 8.2%. (Progressive Cattleman)
#20. U.S. beef exports have jumped 22% in value in 2017 to China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It contributes $4.4 billion to the economy.
Open Range Cattle Industry Trends and Analysis
The open range cattle industry has its supporters. There is a push toward having more grass-fed beef available to the market, especially in the United States. With modern farming methods, however, that grass can be fed to cattle just like corn is fed to them now, which limits the need for open range grazing.
Pasture grazing can more than suffice.
You won’t find a more important industry to the United States than cattle production from an agricultural standpoint. It brings in more cash receipts than corn, even though gross cattle income has declined by 4% in recent years.
Trends in homesteading and hobby farming are increasing the numbers of open range options that are available in the U.S. West as well, but the numbers are so small at the moment that they are not reliably tracked.
The beef industry will continue to thrive and grow over the next 10-year period, potentially reaching $90 billion in the U.S. market by 2028. Open range cattle will likely continue to be less than 1% of this overall market.