In the chicken and pork industries, nearly every aspect of the animals' raising has long been controlled by just a handful of agriculture conglomerates. But the cattle industry is still populated by mom-and-pop operations, at least at the calf-raising level.
Barbara McIntire Roux likes to say that she was born into the cattle business. Roux, 70, is a third-generation Shorthorn rancher in central Kansas, where the prairie pastures are thick with brome and bluestem grasses.
"We have to record about as much information on those calves when they're born as what a human baby has to have collected," Roux says with pride.
Roux is among the 750,000 farmers and ranchers who have what's called a cow-calf operation, and with 50 head of cattle her herd is just a little larger than the average U.S. herd size of 40.
But that small size is true only at one end of the cattle industry. In simple terms, the business is bottle-shaped — large at the bottom and narrowing to the neck, where just four companies control the majority of the market. Roux's end of the business is the pretty, pastoral part of the cattle industry, the place schoolkids come for tours. But it's also the piece of the industry with the least amount of power over the process.
As part of Morning Edition's "Meat Week," we looked at the shape of the cattle industry, from farm to feedlot to factory to grocery store. So here's how it works:
On the ranch, the calves are weaned off their mothers at 200 days old, when they weigh up to 600 pounds. Then the animals are sold to what's called a "backgrounder," a larger operation that buys the calves in groups, transitions them from weaning to feeding, and bulks them up.
"That's where these animals are placed on grass or placed in a facility in which they are grown," says Dan Thomson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University. There the cattle pack on up to 800 pounds, receive their immunizations and get prepared for the next step: the feedlot.
Great Bend Feeding Inc. houses about 30,000 cattle on 320 dusty, hot acres in central Kansas, tended by cowboys on horseback. The cattle are kept in pens made with steel and wood fencing and eat three times a day at the six miles of concrete bunks that line the corrals. They are fed grain, alfalfa and protein supplements — a high-calorie diet that will literally fatten them. It's called "finishing."
Some of the feed is processed here on site in a steel feed mill that turns whole corn into something like a corn flake. "The reason we do that is, cattle being somewhat sensitive in the digestive system, we want to make sure it's as efficient as possible," says Andrew Murphy, CEO of Innovative Livestock Services, which owns Great Bend Feeding.
At this stage, the industry begins to get smaller. There are just 2,160 feedlots that have more than 1,000 head of cattle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The top 25 feedlots — which will house more than 100,000 animals — control 47 percent of the market.
"When you have a bottle-shaped industry like we do, where you have almost 800,000 cow-calf producers down to essentially ... four packing plants, we're just the last first point in that bottleneck," Murphy says. "It makes it very difficult for anyone to break through because [meatpackers] have control of the pounds. It's not a negative comment. It's just a fact of life."
The cattle are shipped to the meatpackers when they are between 14 and 16 months old, weigh up to 1,400 pounds and, at today's prices, are worth about $2,000 each.
"Once they reach the desired fat, thickness or desired finishing point, that's when the animal goes to slaughter," Thompson says.
The cattle from Great Bend Feeding are sold to meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc. This is the neck of the bottle-shaped industry, and Tyson shares it with Cargill Inc., National Beef Packaging Co., and JBS, the world's largest beef processor. Those four companies produce 82 percent of the beef on the market.
Does this market concentration at the top mean the cattle industry will go the way of the chicken and pork businesses, where the entire process is controlled by just a few companies? That hasn't happened yet, but many ranchers fear it.
In the last 20 years, the number of farmers and ranchers who raise cattle has declined more than 20 percent, according to the USDA. The concentrated markets can constrain farmers and ranchers by limiting options, says Mary Hendrickson, a rural sociology professor at the University of Missouri.
"Often they're the ones who have the least power to negotiate better prices. If beef consumption has a downturn at the marketplace, the packers are often the ones who push changes in prices back through to the farm level," she says. "There are a lot of farmers who are disgusted with this."
So will future generations of the Roux family get to stay in the cattle business? It's hard to say. Meanwhile, those cattle raised in central Kansas and processed by Tyson will end up in your grocery store like all the rest, red meat under plastic.
Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Despite the growing popularity of the local food movement, most of the meat consumed in this country is produced by a handful of ag conglomerates. The chicken and pork industries have long been controlled by just a few companies, but cattle business is different. As part of NPR's Meat Week, Peggy Lowe of Harvest Public Media reports the beef you buy at the grocery store is raised by lots of small farmers - that is, until it moves up the food chain.
PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: Picture it like this: If you draw the cattle industry on a piece of paper, it's shaped like a wine bottle. At the bottom is the cow-calf operation. There are more than 750,000 ranchers in the U.S. who do this. Let's start there.
BARBARA MCINTIRE ROUX: I'm Barbara McIntire Roux, and I have been in the cattle business for almost 70 years.
LOWE: Barbara Roux doesn't look like a rancher. She's in blue jeans and white sneakers. But her family's been raising short-horned cattle since her grandfather came to Kansas 100 years ago. She has about 50 cattle - just a little over the average U.S. herd size of 40.
ROUX: We have to record about as much information on those calves when they're born as what a human baby has to have collected. We have to give them the same identifying number as what their mother has, which is an ear tag. And we have to weigh them. We have to measure how tall they are.
LOWE: This is the pretty pastoral part of the cattle industry, the place school kids come for tours. But it's also the piece of the industry with the least amount of power over the process. The animals are put out on pasture until they're weaned off the mother at about seven months old. At this point they're just kids, though they can weigh up to 600 pounds. Now they're sold to what's called a backgrounder.
DR. DAN THOMSON: I liken it to a new student going to kindergarten - and I'm on the school board locally of our community. And so I started to think about, you know, when we have kindergarten roundup.
LOWE: That's Dr. Dan Thomson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University. So now at the backgrounder, the calves immunized and acclimated to new surroundings. They're fed grass and grain and are packing on weight to as much as 800 pounds as they're prepared for their last stop.
ANDREW MURPHY: This is one of our feed yards. This is Great Bend Feed. And this is the yard that our family started or my father started back in 1959. And this has a capacity of about 30,000 head of cattle.
LOWE: We're in Andrew Murphy's pickup, driving through a huge feedlot on a windy, dusty 320 acres outside Great Bend, Kansas, about 75 miles west of Barbara Roux's place. Here the cattle are fed three times a day at the six miles of concrete bunks that lie in the corrals. If it seems like it's straight out of the Old West, well, it is. These guys get around on horses.
MURPHY: We've come up with all kinds of creative names that sound a lot better than cowboy, but none of them have stuck - you know, cow care technician.
LOWE: This is where the bottle-shaped beef industry starts to narrow towards the neck. Remember those 750,000 ranchers? Their cattle are run through the 2,100 feedlots in the U.S. that handle a thousand or more head of cattle - the first big concentration. The cattle are now on a high-calorie diet to literally become the fattened calves. Then when they are just over a year old and weigh about 1,300 pounds - well, let's hear it from the veterinarian, Dan Thomson.
THOMSON: You know, I hear a lot of people say, you know, this is not a slaughter facility, it's a harvest facility. And I think we just say what it is. Once they reach a point of desired fat thickness or desired finishing point, that is when the animal goes to slaughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW)
LOWE: At today's prices, each of these animals is worth about $2,000. The cattle here are all sold to Tyson, one of only four meat-packing companies that process 82 percent of the beef on the market. So from the 750,000 ranchers to the 2,100 large feedlots, the cattle are then processed by just four companies controlling the majority of the market. This is the neck of the bottle-shaped industry. So does this market concentration at the top mean the cattle industry will go the way of the chicken and pork businesses where the entire process is controlled by just a few companies? That hasn't happened yet, but many ranchers fear it. The cattle here at this Kansas feedlot will end up as a cut of beef or other product that Tyson sells to large chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger and found in your grocery store - bright red meat sealed in plastic. For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.
WERTHEIMER: That piece comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media stations in the Midwest, based at KCUR in Kansas City. This summer the project is collecting stories about life on the farm. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.