As we celebrate Independence Day and the freedoms we enjoy in this country…often with a grilled hamburger…think also about the vast and varied cattle industry across the country.  The U.S. cattle industry is very complex in no small part as a result of the tremendous variety of environments and climates in which cattle production takes place.  I have the privilege to visit and learn about cow-calf, stocker and feedlot operations in many different locations and situations. 

I am endlessly fascinated and impressed by the many shapes and sizes of the cattle industry across the country.  Every operation is part of the same broad industry that collectively satisfies the wide range of demands for countless beef products. The underlying economic principles that drive the industry are the same for all producers.  And yet, those economic principles lead to very different answers about the optimal way to manage production in environments that range from subtropical to subarctic.  The industry uses a vast array of forage and feed resources in very dynamic markets which make efficient management a constantly moving target.

In just the past two weeks I traveled from the Mexican border on the southernmost part of New Mexico to within 100 miles of the Canadian border in Western Montana.  This covers extensive production in arid regions of the Southwest with stocking rates of 60+ acres per cow to intensive irrigated pasture and hay production in western Montana that use about 2 acres per cow.  In such a range of production conditions, the marginal economic decisions that optimize production result in very different answers for many production factors such as cow size, calf weaning weight, weaning percentage, etc. and a variable focus on cow-calf and/or stocker production.  The cattle industry is unique among livestock industries because production must be figured out in every region.  Though the questions are the same, there certainly is no one set of right answers to be found in any book that fit all regions of the country.

Included in a few examples that I have visited in recent months is cattle production in the swamps of Florida with very unique challenges of nutrition, disease and health management in the subtropical climate. Preconditioning calves is often impractical in such an environment so the majority of calves are shipped west at weaning. In contrast, the cattle industry in the Northeast operates somewhat apart from the rest of the country with feeder cattle flowing north from Virginia for finishing in feedlots and under bank barns. The Sand Hills of Nebraska provides an ocean of grass, shoulder high on a horse, for cow-calf production while farther south the Flint Hills in Kansas is home to early intensive summer grazing for many thousands of stockers.  Wheat pasture in the Southern Plains provides a winter home for millions of stocker cattle. Cattle move from widely dispersed cow-calf production all over the country towards increasingly concentrated stocker and feedlot production in the middle of the country.

I continue to be amazed that a single industry can look so different in different settings and even more amazed that markets are able to efficiently coordinate all of this diversity with market forces to provide a steady flow of beef products that is competitive in domestic and international protein markets.  As you celebrate July 4 with those hamburgers on the grill, don’t forget to celebrate the hard work of cattle producers in all parts of the country who figure out how to produce in every environment and the incredible markets that guide and coordinate it all so that consumers everywhere can take for granted the availability of fresh beef all year around.