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  • Tim Petry, Livestock Marketing Economist

U.S. Beef Production - Past and Present

The United States is the leading producer of beef in the world and has been for many years. Following the United States, in order, are Brazil, China, Argentina and Australia.


The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service publishes a quarterly report titled “Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade.” The report includes data on U.S. and global livestock and meat production, trade, consumption and stocks, with analysis of developments affecting world livestock, including cattle, beef and poultry.



The most recent report was released April 11, and the next report will be released July 12.


Global beef production in 2024 is forecast to be unchanged from 2023 at 60.4 million tons, as declining production in the United States and Argentina will be offset by increases in Australia, Brazil and China.


U.S. beef production has been on a long-term uptrend in spite of a decline in cow numbers since 1975.  Cow numbers include both beef and dairy cows.


U.S. dairy cow numbers peaked in 1945 at 27.8 million head and have generally declined since then. Dairy and beef cow numbers were essentially equal in 1953 at 23 million head each.


U.S. beef cow numbers continued increasing until 1975 when they reached 45.7 million head. Since then beef cow numbers have generally declined with cyclical declines outpacing cyclical increases.


Jan. 1, 2024, U.S. beef cow numbers were 28.2 million head. With 9.4 million dairy cows, total cow numbers were 37.6 million head.


Beef cow numbers declined for five years from 2019 through 2023, mainly due to drought conditions in important U.S. cattle producing regions.


U.S. beef production reached an all-time record high of 28.29 billion pounds (lb.) in 2022, buoyed by drought-forced beef cow liquidation. In 2023 beef production declined to 26.96 billion lb., with fewer cattle available.


The long-term increase in beef production resulted from a long-term increase in fed cattle live and carcass weights. Carcass weights have trended higher for more 60 years with steer weights increasing an average of 4 lb. per year. Steer carcass weights peaked in 2022 at 910 lb., but declined slightly to 908 lb. in 2023.


Each month, USDA predicts expected annual beef production for 2024 and 2025 in the “World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates” report. It is available at: www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde.


Fed steer carcass weights decreased from 937 to 909 lb. the first five weeks of 2024, the result of severe winter weather in December and January.


USDA’s January estimate for 2024 beef production was 26.11 billion lb., down 3.2% from 2023. However, USDA has increased the estimate each month since, due to increasing fed cattle slaughter weights and more heifers on feed than earlier expected. The June beef production estimate was 26.6 billion lb.

Feedlots are keeping cattle on feed longer due to the fewer feeder cattle available at record high prices. And beef packers are encouraging higher weights to help bolster lower beef production levels.


Interestingly, fed cattle carcass weights have been moving counter-seasonally higher since February. Since the start of the year, steer carcass weights have averaged 920 lb., above the 902 lb. in 2023.

 

Although carcass weights are tracking higher, it has not been enough to offset the lower cattle slaughter numbers, which has led to a 2% decline in year-to-date beef production.


Lower beef production and seasonal early summer beef demand have pushed fed cattle prices up to record high levels near $190/hundredweight (cwt.). With costs of gain around $1.10/cwt. to $120/cwt.  and fewer feeder cattle available, the incentive to add weight to fed cattle will likely continue.


Looking ahead to 2025, USDA is projecting beef production to decline 4.6% to 25.37 billion lb., which will be supportive to cattle prices.


USDA projects fed steers to average $184/cwt. in 2024 and $188.50/cwt. in 2025.

 

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