Many of the industry indicators and trends for the cattle and beef industry are strikingly different from those of the major crops. For example, in the case of major US crops, international trade means exports, since imports are inconsequential. In case of live cattle, international trade involves more imports than exports—far more in fact, making the US the world’s largest cattle importer. Beef meat exports moved slightly ahead of imports the last couple of years, but historically the US also imported more beef than it exported. Trends in cattle and beef production and domestic consumption generally tend to be flat or declining.
US cattle numbers as measured by beginning stocks have trended downward from 111.2 million head in 1980 to 90.8 million head in 2012. Total slaughter has shown a similar trend declining from 36.8 million head to 33.9 million head over the same period while beef and veal production has increased from 10.0 MMT (million metric tons carcass weight equivalent) to 11.9 MMT.
Meanwhile the US per capita consumption of beef at retail weight declined from 76.6 to 57.4 pounds as growth in domestic demand fell behind population growth as US consumers turned to broilers as an alternate source of animal protein. The per capita consumption of broilers has increased from 45.8 pounds to 104.5 pounds.
Over the last 32 years (1980-2012), net imports of cattle into the US have increased from 615 thousand head to 2.1 million head. By way of contrast, cattle imports for the rest of the world stood at 1.0 million head in 2012, making the US the world’s largest importer of cattle with virtually all of the cattle coming in from Canada and Mexico.
In 1980, net cattle imports accounted for 1.7 percent of the US total cattle slaughter. By 2012, that share had increased to 6.1 percent.
The US is fourth in the world in the number of cattle slaughtered, behind China (40.7 million head), Brazil (40.2 million head), and India (35.0 million head). In 1980, the total slaughter for all three countries was just 23.3 million head.
The combined slaughter for Mexico and Canada was 9.5 million head in 2012, down from 10.2 million head 32 years earlier. Total slaughter for the North American beef industry is down by 7.7 percent.
Because of changes in slaughter rates and yield, beef and veal production numbers do not track total slaughter numbers. Measuring the beef industry by 2012 beef and veal production, the US stands in first place at 11.9 MMT followed by Brazil (9.3 MMT), the European Union (7.8 MMT), China (5.5 MMT), India (3.4), Argentina (2.6), Australia (2.2), and Mexico (1.8).