In the Beginning—the State’s Cow/Calf Sector
It begins with the state’s cow/calf sector. Without it, Nebraska’s cattle and beef industry wouldn’t play the prominent role it does in the state. For example, a recent economic impact study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) showed the state’s cattle industry (including dairy) contributed $4.3 billion to the state’s gross product. Nor would the industry play the prominent role it does nationally—fourth in number of beef cows; third in cattle on feed; and tops in beef processing. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), as of January 1, Nebraska’s beef cows numbered 1.92 million head, roughly one cow for each Nebraskan. Only Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri have greater numbers of cows (Figure 2). It’s probably a pretty sure bet, though, that these states can’t match Nebraska’s cow-to-citizen ratio.
Nebraska’s cow/calf producers tend to be larger and more commercialized relative to the rest of the nation. Table 1 shows a breakdown of the beef cow numbers by ranch/farm size in the U.S. and Nebraska. Nationwide, 79 percent of the ranches have between 0-50 cows which account for 27 percent of the cow inventory. In contrast, 53 percent of Nebraska’s ranches/farms have less than 50 cows which account for 10 percent of the total number of cows. In Nebraska almost 4 percent of the ranches have greater than 500 cows, accounting for 32 percent of the cow inventory. Nationwide, less than 1 percent of ranches have herds above 500 cows, accounting for 17 percent of the total.
Calves born on Nebraska’s cow/calf operations totaled 1.8 million head in 2019. These calves move into feedlots and eventually flow into processing facilities. October’s cattle on feed report showed Nebraska held 2.4 million head in feedlots. Nebraska beef processing facilities processed 7.7 million head of cattle last year, far ahead of Kansas with 6.4 million head. Product from these facilities finds the way to consumers’ plate in the U.S. and overseas. If it were not for Nebraska’s cow/calf sector, it would be difficult to find Nebraska beef of these plates.
Figure 2. Beef Cows by State, Jan. 1, 2020
Source: NEFB graphic based on data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service
Table 1. Breakdown of Cow Inventory by Ranch Size, U.S. & Nebraska
Source: Burke Teichert & USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017 Census of Agriculture