Your beef takes a winding path
Barbara McIntire Roux likes to say that she was born into the cattle business.
Roux, 70, is the third generation of her family to raise Shorthorns here in central Kansas, near Moundridge, where the prairie pastures are thick with brome and bluestem grasses. Her grandfather started raising the breed soon after he arrived here before 1900, and now his granddaughter raises registered Shorthorns, red and white cattle with a pedigree.
“We have to record about as much information on those calves when they’re born as what a human baby has to have collected,” Roux said. “We have to give them the same identifying number as what they’re mother has, which is an ear tag. And we have to weigh them. We have to measure how tall they are.”
Unlike the chicken and pork industries, in which every aspect has long been controlled by just a handful of ag-conglomerates, the cattle industry is still populated by mom-and-pop operations like Roux’s. She is among the 750,000 farmers and ranchers who have what’s called a cow-calf operation – and with her 50 head of cattle she is just a little larger than the average U.S. herd size of 40.
But that small size is true only at one end of the cattle industry. In simple terms, the business is bottle-shaped – large at the bottom and narrowing to the neck, where just four companies control the majority of the market. Roux’s end of the business is the pretty, pastoral part of the cattle industry, the place school kids come for tours. But it’s also the piece of the industry with the least amount of power over the process.
As part of Morning Edition’s “Meat Week,” we looked at the shape of the cattle industry, from farm to feedlot to factory to grocery store.
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The calves are weaned off their mothers at 200 days old, when they weigh up to 600 pounds. Then the animals are sold to what’s called a “backgrounder,” a larger operation that buys the calves in groups, transitions them from weaning to a feeding stage and adds weight to the animals.
“That’s where these animals are placed on grass or placed in a facility in which they are grown, they aren’t finished,” said Dan Thomson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University. “These animals will harvest the grass. They are placed in a position in which they grow at a slower rate, mature, and on lesser expensive feeds.”
The cattle pack on weight up to 800 pounds at this level, receive their immunizations and get prepared for the next step: the feedlot. This step is called “finishing,” and with reason.
Great Bend Feeding houses about 30,000 cattle on 320 dusty, hot acres in central Kansas, tended by cowboys on horseback. The cattle are kept in pens made with steel and wood fencing and eat three times a day at the six miles of concrete bunks that line the corrals. They are fed grain, alfalfa and protein supplements, a high-calorie diet that will literally make them the fattened calves. Some of the feed is processed here on site in a steel feed mill that towers over the lot.
“We take whole corn in and further process it – we steam-flake it. It looks very much like what a corn flake would look like,” said Andrew Murphy, CEO of Innovative Livestock Services, which owns Great Bend Feeding. “The reason we do that is, cattle being somewhat sensitive in the digestive system, we want to make sure it’s as efficient as possible.”
At this stage the industry begins to get smaller – there are just 2,160 feedlots that have more than 1,000 head of cattle, according to the USDA. The top 25 feedlots – which will house more than 100,000 animals – control 47 percent of the market.
“When you have a bottle-shaped industry like we do, where you have almost 800,000 cow-calf producers down to essentially … four packing plants, we’re just the last first point in that bottle neck,” Murphy said. “It makes it very difficult for anyone to break through because (meatpackers) have control of the pounds. It’s not a negative comment. It’s just a fact of life.”
The cattle are shipped out of the feedlot when they are from 14-to-16 months old, weight up to 1,400 pounds and, at today’s prices, are worth about $2,000.
“I hear a lot of people say ‘This is not a slaughter facility, this is a harvest facility.’ I think we should just say what it is,” Thomson said. “Once they reach the desired fat, thickness or desired finishing point, that’s when the animal goes to slaughter.”
The cattle from Great Bend Feeding are sold to Tyson Foods Inc., one of only four meatpacking companies that produce 82 percent of the beef on the market. This is the neck of the bottle-shaped industry, and Tyson shares it with Cargill Inc., National Beef Packaging Co., and JBS, the world’s largest beef processor.
Does this market concentration at the top mean the cattle industry will go the way of the chicken and pork businesses, where the entire process is controlled by just a few companies? That hasn’t happened yet, but many ranchers fear it.
Already, there are fewer people on the production side of the business. During the last 20 years, the number of farmers and ranchers who raise cattle has declined more than 20 percent, according to the USDA. The concentrated markets can constrain farmers and ranchers by limiting options, said Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociology professor at the University of Missouri.
“Often they’re the ones who have the least power to negotiate better prices. If beef consumption has a downturn at the marketplace, the packers are often the ones who push changes in prices back through to the farm level,” she said. “There are a lot of farmers who are disgusted with this.”
So will future generations of the Roux family get to stay in the cattle business? It’s hard to say. Meanwhile, those cattle raised in central Kansas and processed by Tyson will end up in your grocery store, red meat under plastic.