Beef is a staple of American mealtime. Nutritious. Delicious. It is Americana on a plate. Producing beef requires the dedication of farmers and ranchers across the United States, and proper management of grazing animals can rebuild the health of pastures and rangelands.
Since 1945, Noble Research Institute has supported farmers and ranchers in fostering land stewardship, improving the soil and producing one of the world’s favorite foods.
In honor of Noble’s 75 years, below are 75 facts about beef.
Red, White and Beef
There are more than 800,000 ranchers and cattle producers in the U.S.
One-third of all U.S. farms and ranches include cattle.
Beef cattle are raised in all 50 states.
The top five states with the most beef cows are Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
As of Jan. 1, 2020, there were 94.4 million head of cattle in the U.S. herd. That’s more than the populations of California, Texas, Florida and Mississippi combined.
91% of beef farms and ranches are family-owned or individually operated.
The average farm size in 2017 was 441 acres.
The average herd size in 2017 was 43.5.
Pasture and rangeland represent 41% of land usage in the U.S.
Cattle and calves made up nearly 40% of cash receipts for animals and animal products in 2018.
About 16 U.S. presidents can say they have experience with farming or ranching, including Theodore Roosevelt, who at one point owned 5,000 cattle in the Dakota Badlands and championed conservation efforts during his presidency.
A Global Presence
The U.S. is the world’s largest beef producer, followed by Brazil.
U.S. farmers and ranchers produce 18% of the world’s beef with only 8% of the world’s cattle.
Japan, South Korea and Mexico are the top importers of U.S. beef.
The U.S. ranked fourth in the world for amount of beef eaten per capita, at 79.3 pounds, in 2016.
Ahead of the U.S. in beef consumption per capita are Uruguay (124.2 pounds), Argentina (120.2 pounds) and Hong Kong (114.3 pounds).
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They consume, on average, 112 pounds of beef per year.
In 2018, U.S. consumers purchased 26.7 billion pounds of beef at foodservice and retail locations.
70% of food service operators say that steak on the menu increases traffic.
The most popular beef products include ground beef, ribeye steak, strip steak and t-bone steak.
About 490 pounds of meat comes from one 1,200-pound steer.
Beef is one of the most important dietary sources of iron. You’d have to eat three cups of raw spinach in order to get the same amount of iron in one 3-ounce serving of beef.
It’s also a source for other nutrients our bodies need, including protein, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, niacin, phosphorus, riboflavin and choline.
It’s Not All Steak
More than 98% of a beef animal is used.
60% of a beef animal goes to make products other than meat.
One cowhide can make 18 soccer balls or 20 footballs.
Medical products, like insulin and drugs used to help the body accept organ transplants, are made from cattle.
Gummy bears and marshmallows often contain gelatin, which can be made from cattle.
Other products that may be made from cattle include candles, paintbrushes, deodorant, dish soap and toilet papers.
Cows Are Amazing Creatures
There are more than 800 different breeds of cattle in the world.
All “cows” are female. Before a female has a calf, she is called a heifer. She becomes a cow after giving birth. Males are called bulls or steers.
The gestation period for a cow, or the amount of time she is pregnant, is nine months — the same as a human.
Calves weigh approximately 80 pounds at birth.
A cow can smell odors from up to 6 miles away.
They only have a bottom set of teeth, which helps them eat grass.
And they have a rough, sandpaper-like tongue.
All cattle spend most of their lives eating grasses and other forages on grazing lands.
They can eat about 40 pounds of food a day.
Cows are ruminants, which means they have four stomach compartments. The largest is called the rumen.
The ruminant digestive system enables a cow to acquire nutrients from grasses, which humans cannot. Other ruminants include sheep, deer and buffalo.
As a ruminant, a cow digests plants by repeatedly regurgitating and chewing it up again. A cow “chews its cud” for about eight hours a day.
Beef Through History
Cows were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago.
The ancestor of domesticated cattle is thought to be the now-extinct auroch, a horned, wild ox that was black and stood 6 feet tall at the shoulder.
Spaniards brought the first cattle to the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Cattle were first brought to Jamestown, in what is now Virginia, from England in 1611, according to the writings of John Smith.
Colonists were raising enough cattle by the 1630s that they no longer needed to rely on imported cattle from Europe.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
The hamburger was popularized at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
You could buy a hamburger for just 5 cents in 1921 and 12 cents in 1950.
Photo Credit: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com
The first hamburger chain was White Castle, which was founded in Wichita, Kansas, in 1921.
Today’s beef producers use 33% fewer cattle to produce the same amount of beef that they did in the 1970s. The industry uses natural resources much more efficiently today.
Reducing Environmental Impact
S. beef represents only 2% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but work continues to be done to improve.
According to a study comparing beef production in 1977 to 2007, each pound of beef is produced with 20% less feedstuffs and 9% less fossil fuel energy.
The carbon footprint of a unit of beef produced decreased by 16% from 1977 to 2007.
Water use decreased by 14% from 1977 to 2007.
The U.S. beef industry continued to reduce water by 3% from 2005 to 2011.
Growing on Grazing Lands
There are 655 million acres of pasture and rangeland in the U.S., making it the single largest land use in the country.
About 85% of U.S. grazing lands are unsuitable for producing crops.
Rangelands naturally evolved with the presence of fire and grazing, making them processes that the land continues to need today.
One acre of rangeland or pasture may have about 1,000 pounds of standing plant mass and as much as 3,500 pounds of roots below ground, in the top foot of soil.
It takes 2,000 years for natural processes to make 10 centimeters of fertile soil. That’s why it’s so important to protect the soil from erosion and other degradation.
Ranchers are building up — not just conserving — the soil on pastures and rangelands by following five basic soil health principles:
Cover the Soil.
Minimize Soil Disturbance.
Increase Plant Diversity.
Maintain Continuous Living Plants/Roots.
Building Organic Matter
The earthy smell of a biologically healthy and active soil is the presence of an organic compound called geosmin.
Up to 1 billion bacteria can reside in a single teaspoon of productive soil.
Healthy soil with high levels of organic matter can store 20 times its weight in water, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.
A 1% increase in soil organic matter can help the soil hold about 20,000 gallons of additional water per acre.
Increased water-holding capacity reduces the need to use water for irrigation and improves the land’s resiliency in drought.
Researchers say more carbon resides in soil (2,500 billion tons) than in the atmosphere (800 billion tons) and all plant/animal life (560 billion tons) combined.
Grazing lands sequester about 30% of Earth’s carbon pool, according to a Global Change Biology
Increasing soil organic matter in pastures and rangelands will help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. By creating carbon sinks — natural reservoirs that can hold carbon — we can reduce the greenhouse effect and slow atmospheric warming.
A study in California found that grasslands and rangelands were more resilient carbon sinks than forests. Grazing lands store carbon underground in roots and the soil, whereas trees store it in their leaves and woody biomass — which release carbon back into the atmosphere during wildfires.
A Home for Wildlife
Cattle and wildlife can be compatible with proper management on native rangelands.
The most important considerations when managing the two together are habitat and cattle stocking rate.
One California-based study published in Conservation Biology found that cattle grazing plays an important role in maintaining wetland habitat necessary for some endangered species.
More than half of farmers intentionally provide habitat for wildlife.