Cattle Ranching Is the Most Decentralized Sector in U.S. Agriculture. Will It Survive Another 100 Years?


Beef wears a bulls-eye in the climate war, but if every American went vegan, emissions would shrink less than 3% (without accounting for replacement calorie production).

It’s difficult to understand the attempt to make beef a boogeyman until you consider our corporate landscape.

Cattle ranching is the most decentralized industry in agriculture. Ranchers farm grass and turn it into protein through managing cattle herds. There are no powerful companies going to bat for the interests of agrarian grass farmers. These operations are small: 31% of all U.S. farms are beef cattle operations, 97% of these are family-owned and operated, and 79% run less than 50 head of cattle. The average income generated from a cattle ranch is lower than any other type of ag operation.

You’ll find the real corporate muscle in the beef industry in the “Big Four”—four mega-meatpackers who buy and process 85% of all U.S. beef: Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef. But it seems these companies are not interested in advocating for the ranchers who supply them. Brazilian-owned JBS is opening a commercial-scale fake meat plant in Spain set to produce more than 1000 metric tons of lab-grown meat per year.

The Big Four have a stranglehold on the industry. Since 2015, cattle prices have shrunk 35% while prices at the grocery store rose 8%. Meatpackers are raking in profits while ranchers are barely hanging on, drawing attention from legislators.

The last real antitrust law in the U.S. passed 100 years ago. At that time, the Packers & Stockyards Act of 1921 set out to protect ranchers from unfair competition at the hands of what was then the “Big Five.” Today we’re down one beef mega-company, and the “Big Four” control even more of the market.

Cattle ranching is the last ag sector to stave off market consolidation and vertical integration. It is by necessity small scale and scattered. The arid landscapes of the American West so perfectly suited to grazing ungulates are a limited resource. Moving large herds of cattle across these plains is labor intensive and doesn’t pay all that well. The family operations still raising cattle on pasture are scrappy, multi-generational, independent, and shrinking in number.

Beef ranchers have no real advocates because there is no centralized corporate interest vested in their survival. Lab-grown meat, subject of glowing press coverage and market attention, offers a tantalizing future to food corporations: mass-produced factory protein slime, centralized in urban power centers, powered by fossil fuels.

The meatpacker lobby, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), is cozy with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some ranchers and policy experts say the USDA is failing to enforce existing antitrust regulations, to a suspicious degree. Big Four boardrooms are full of well-paid former government officials and bureaucrats. In 2021, Kevin Arquit joined JBS as chief legal officer after serving as general counsel and head of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition. Former House Speaker John Boehner was a member of the four-person advisory board at JBS. Several long-serving USDA officials now work at NAMI.

Portrait of an American cowboy, 1887

Between a photo of a cowboy in 1890 and a portrait of his 21st century counterpart, one might strain to find a difference. What other industry is so unaffected by industrialization? Cattle roam land that can’t be crop cultivated, often rough and unwieldy, best traversed on horseback. Nobody has invented a machine to replace a Blue Heeler or Border Collie.

Through photosynthesis, cattle transform the sun into protein. 90% of the bovine diet is human-inedible. Their unique digestive systems allow cattle to produce 19% more protein than they consume. As they graze, cattle remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep beneath the soil where it is safe from wildfires—which is why grasslands are recognized as a more secure carbon bank than rainforests. Beef is, really, a climate miracle food.

New research finds that the greenhouse emissions caused by domesticated beef cattle are similar to the greenhouse gas emissions of wildlife on the African savannah, but you won’t hear climate activists calling to kill the giraffes. Some scientists even question if rangeland left wild and ungrazed would actually end up emitting more methane via grass rot.

But facts be damned, the Green Movement is no less susceptible than any righteous political cause to the influence of money, muscle, and power. By nature decentralized, cattle ranching is in danger–corporations have found ways to capture similar sectors before. No one saved the American pork industry either.

Once praised for his self-reliance and knowledge of the land, a one-time American icon is defenseless, done in by his independent streak. The Cowboy’s habits, one constant in a changing world, are now pinpointed as the cause of escalating temperatures. Pavements cover his old pastures and concrete rises where corrals used to be, and corporations pay marketing companies to frame his cattle as the villain of modernity. Scapegoat of the jet set crowd, the lone American Cowboy is easy pickings.

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