NATIONAL DAY OF THE COWBOY: Cattle Ranching Is the Most Decentralized Ag Industry. Will It Survive Another 100 Years?


Beef gets a bulls-eye in the climate war (though if every American ate vegan emissions would shrink less than 3%, without accounting for replacement caloric production).

It’s perplexing to understand beef as boogeyman until you consider the landscape.

Cattle ranching is the most decentralized industry in agriculture. There aren’t powerful corporations going to bat for the interests of agrarian grass farmers. If a billionaire owns a ranch, it’s a money-sink hobby. 31% of all U.S. farms are beef cattle operations, making cattle production the largest segment of American agriculture. 97% of all ranches in the United States are family-owned and operated and most (79%) run less than 50 head of cattle. The average gross cash income generated from a cattle ranch is the lowest of any type of ag operation.

The real corporate muscle in the beef industry is the “Big Four”— large, foreign-owned meatpackers to whom almost all U.S. ranchers send their beef for packaging and distribution. But these companies are not interested in advocating for ranchers. Brazilian-owned JBS is in fact currently kneecapping their suppliers, 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 are foreign-owned; accused of maintaining a stranglehold on the industry. During the COVID crisis, beef prices went up and meatpackers raked it in, producers saw none of the profits.

Cattle ranching is by necessity small scale, scattered. The arid landscapes of the American West so perfectly designed for grazing ungulates are a limited resource. Moving large herds of cattle across these plains is labor intensive and doesn’t pay all that well. Families who raise cattle on pasture are small, independent, and shrinking in number.

Beef ranchers have no real advocates because there is no centralized corporate interest vested in their survival. The meatpackers have chosen a route of exploitation and replacement. Fake meat offers a corporate-friendly future: companies can easily mass-produce factory slime protein, centralized in urban power centers, made possible by fossil fuels.

If you set a photo of a cowboy from 1880 next to a shot of his 21st century counterpart, one might strain to spot a difference. What other industry is so unaffected by industrialization? Cattle roam land that can’t be crop cultivated, often rough and unwieldy, best accessed on horseback. Nobody has yet managed invent a machine to replace a Blue Heeler or a Border Collie. 90% of the bovine diet is human-inedible, though their unique digestive systems allow cattle to produce 19% more protein than they consume.

Recent research finds that the emissions of domesticated beef cattle are equivalent to that of wildlife on the African savannah. There is even a question if rangeland left wild would emit even more methane through grass rot. Through photosynthesis, cattle transform the sun into protein. At the same time, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it deep beneath grassland soil—a more secure carbon bank than a rainforest. Beef is in fact a climate miracle food.

But facts be damned, the Green Movement is no less susceptible than any righteous political cause to the influence of money, muscle, and power. Once praised for his self-reliance and knowledge of the land, a one-time American icon has found himself defenseless. The Cowboy’s independent streak may ruin him in the end, his old time habits constant in a changing, concrete world now pinpointed (strangely) as the cause of modernity’s escalating temperatures. In a fight championed by the jet set crowd, the lone American Cowboy may turn out to be easy pickings.

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