A feedlot in central Kansas (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
Family trips, back in the day, had their fair share of peril, or so I thought.
My irritating little sisters. My Irish Catholic mother making us say the rosary so we wouldn’t fight. And, of course, passing the big, stinky feedlots.
Whenever I’d hold my nose and complain about the smell, my dad would always respond with: “That’s the smell of money, honey.”
To this day, I think of Dad’s line when I’m near the large feedlots that often line the highways and county roads in the Midwest. It came back to me, too, when I was doing a story for NPR on the beef industry.
I learned a lot in reporting that story – including the fact that selling cattle has changed dramatically since I was a kid.
Now, the industry is bottle-shaped, with lots of cow-calf producers at the large bottom of the bottle. There are roughly 750,000 farmers and ranchers who fall into this category, and the average U.S. herd size is 40.
Then the business starts to narrow when cattle are moved to the feedlot stage. There are 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.
The neck of the bottle is the tightest, with just four meatpacking companies producing 80 percent of the beef we eat in the U.S. Those four companies are Tyson, Cargill, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing Co.
This lack of competition has many people worried.
"We can't continue these trends, because if we do, we're going to end up with a handful of farmers, a handful of packers, a handful of processors, a handful of grocery stores, and at that point, the consumers will suffer as well,” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsacktold a August 2010 meeting of cattle producers.
Now, most cattle sales are on a contract basis with these companies. The meatpackers say that this keeps beef affordable and high quality. But producers say that the current system doesn’t fairly reflect the animals’ value.
Harvest Public Media and The Kansas City Star are working on a reporting project that looks at cattle sales. Do prices accurately and fairly reflect the value of cattle? Are the markets competitive? We are researching the current state of the beef industry and need your insights.