Since 1975, increases in production technologies have increased the output per cow and have reduced the need for a national cow herd as large as the 1975 herd. On January 1, 1975, the cow inventory peaked a record 56.9 million head, and in 1976 commercial beef production reached its cyclical peak of 25.7 billion pounds. Cow inventories then declined to 47.9 million cows on January 1, 1979, and beef production declined to 21.5 billion pounds in 1980. Since 1980, beef production has increased cyclically, almost reaching its 1976 level again in 1998. Production surpassed the 1976 peak in 1999, and has generally exceeded it since reaching a new record of 27.1 billion pounds in 2002. In 2013, beef production was about 5 percent below 1976 production, but the cow inventory on January 1, 2013 was 32 percent lower than the 1975 peak.
The relatively high levels of beef production per cow have been possible for several reasons. Dressed weights of cattle have increased partially as a result of genetic selection for larger weaning and yearling weights, resulting in larger slaughter and mature weights, along with improvements in feeds and feeding technologies and management and animal health and well-being. For example, dressed weights of federally inspected steers have increased significantly from a yearly average of 673 pounds in 1975 to a record 864 pounds in 2013, a 28-percent increase.
Increased cattle imports, both in number and size, have also contributed to the increase in beef production. Cattle imports have increased from about 1 million head in the early 1970s to about 2 million head in 2013. These imported cattle have also become larger over time for the same reasons as U.S. cattle, further contributing to increasing beef supplies.
Despite generally declining cattle inventories, increases in beef production since the mid-1970s have not completely offset population growth. As a result, per capita beef disappearance has generally declined. Retail per capita disappearance peaked in 1976 at 94.4 pounds and has since declined steadily to 56.4 pounds in 2013. Many factors have contributed to the per capita declines, including increased exports, but also factors affecting domestic demand, such as health perceptions and increases in consumption of other meat and seafood. Largely as a result of historically low inventories, reduced placements of feeder cattle—especially heifers—in feedlots, and reduced cow slaughter, beef production is expected to decline further in 2014 and perhaps a few years beyond. Coupled with increases in population, these tighter supplies of beef are expected to result in further declines in per capita disappearance.