Friday, November 30, 2018

Size of Ranches In America Today

Dear Friends,

This post is an effort to answer a couple of questions put to me regarding the size of an average ranch in the United States. When it comes to ranching in America today, what's the average size ranch? How many head of cattle does the average ranch run each year?

But before we get into that, I need to ask a favor. While I don't expect him to be reading my blog since he had nothing good to say to me, if you're that big rancher who says he owns half of Montana and obviously looks down your nose on others who only have a few acres -- please don't write me again.

The last time you wrote me, you said, "you have to own a thousand acres and run a working cattle ranch of a thousand head before you have the right to write about ranch work or the cowboy lifestyle."

Yes, I was actually told that by a rancher in Montana. With his attitude toward others, we can all thank God that he's not representative of American ranchers, big and small.

A few years ago, I more or less stopped writing about horses and cattle and ranch work simply because I got really tired of people writing me nasty letters. And frankly, like most folks who I know, I have a real hard time dealing with people who act like that snobby rich kid in high school whose parents bought them everything and who never had to worry about any real problems because they had their money handed to them. They'll treat you like dirty trailer trash because your family doesn't have what theirs does.

That was about the time when I was contacted by that rancher in Montana who told me that I have no right writing about horses and cattle because I've never made my "living" in horses and cattle. Even after my telling him that I have worked to help save a few ranches of very close friends, worked without pay from families needing help, have gathered cattle and worked roundups and brandings for years, and I've been around cattle and horses since I was just a kid. None of that mattered to him. To him, that didn't matter at all. Unless you "owned" a big cattle operation with large acreage with a large herd -- you don't know what you're talking about.

As for addressing my small piece of heaven that I call home, he made how he feels about anyone with less land than a thousand acres very clear. As he put it, "unless you make your living on a cattle ranch of a thousand acres or more, you just have a hobby and don't know what you're talking about. You don't matter and should shut up!"

So now, let's talk about size.

I've known a few breeders who have raised champion livestock on fairly small breeding facilities. I know of a horse breeder who only has 80 acres. That includes a racetrack and workout facility for racehorses. I know a bull breeder who was raising a champion bloodline of Limousin cattle. I believe he had 20 acres. Before he passed away, I believe his stock won all sorts of awards and was known for its quality genetics. There's a cowgirl in Nebraska who is working hard trying to start up her own herd. I believe she has 40 acres. I know a family that started up a feedlot with only a few acres and ended up expanding over the years.

The point being is that someone has to start somewhere, and they shouldn't have wealthy jerks who claim to own half of Montana looking down their nose at them. No one should be looking down on others no matter how big their farms and ranches are compared to others. Folks are working hard and should be respected for that.

Sometimes it's hard to keep an operation going. 

That goes for beef cattle operations, horse ranches and rescues, and dairies. For example, while most know really well how horse ranches and rescues have good years and bad years depending on the economy, the cost of hay, and other operating costs, most know how a bad year can almost kill an operation and how they are always fighting to stay afloat no matter how hard folks work. Well, the same goes for dairies.

January 2018's milk production report from the Department of Agriculture showed that the number of licensed U.S. dairy farms dropped by 1,600 farms to 40,219. That’s a decline of 3.8%. Over the past decade, the report stated that America has lost nearly 17,000 dairy farms. That's a decline of about 30%. Since our population is growing, that's a huge concern. 

With 9.4 million dairy cows in the U.S. dairy herd in January of this year, the average herd size is now 234 cows. The average herd size in 2008 was about 163 cows. Those numbers are absolutely true.

The January 2018 report reflected what was going on around the country in 2017. Wisconsin still has the most licensed dairy farms, with 9,090 farms producing and shipping milk. But we should be concerned since Wisconsin lost 430 farms in 2017. Pennsylvania came in second with 6,570 farms, down just 80 operations. New York reports 4,490 licensed operations, down 160 farms. And believe it or not, Minnesota has 3,210 dairy farms remaining. That's down for that state by 140 farms from 2016. As for California, this state is still the largest dairy-producing state. This is the case, even though this state is down 30 licensed farms with just 1,390 continuing still in operation. 

Why is California the leading dairy producer with 1,390 dairies? It's because of cow numbers. Based on the January 2018 cow numbers, Wisconsin, which is the Number 2 dairy state, has an average herd size of 140 cows. In California, the average herd size is 1,250 cows. That's a huge difference.

Of course, even though the average herd is large in California, the state's desire to over-regulate is driving this state's dairy producers to relocate to other states or shut down completely.

As a piece of trivia, the largest dairy farm in the United States is Fair Oaks Farms. They are out of Indiana and have 25,000 acres of land. That's 40 square miles of land. They also run 32,000 cows to produce 2.5 million pounds of milk every day. That's enough milk from that one farm for all of the 8 million residents in Chicago and Indianapolis. 

As for beef cattle operations in America, the stats may surprise you. My research shows that the average size of a farm and/or ranch in the United States today is under 442 acres. In the United States, this is according to the USDA, small family farms average 231 acres and under. A large family farm actually averages 1,421 acres. The fact is, like very large farms with an average acreage of 2,086, these are not the norm. Small family farms and ranches make up 88 percent of the farms and ranches in America.

Let's take a look at Texas. According to the 2012 Ag Census data for Texas, data shows there are roughly 178,000 operations claiming a total of 90.3 million acres of permanent pasture in Texas. That breaks down to an average of 507 acres per cattle operation. But that figure is not realistic since many ranches in Texas fall in the large to very large category. So why the discrepancy? Well, it's because there are more small cattle operations than large and very large operations.  

This is the same reason that data regarding the average number of cattle per outfit in Texas is so misleading. That 2012 Ag Census report puts the number of Texas beef cattle inventory of 4.33 million head on 134,000 cattle operations.

If we do the math, that breaks down to an average of 32 head of cattle per outfit. Since we know that can't be right considering the fact that some Texas ranches in the very large category run thousands of head, we have to note that 36% of the Texas cattle inventory is in herds smaller than 50 head. 

So now you're asking, how can the average herd be only 32 head of cattle in Texas? Here's why. According to that 2012 report, there are 30 ranches that have 2,500 acres or more. Of those 30 ranches, they run a total of 134,000 beef cows. There are 161 ranches with 1000 acres or more that run a total of 220,888 beef cows. 

Now, compare that to the very small family cattle operations where they may be raising cattle for sale and self-consumption. According to the report, there are 54,414 family cattle operations that have less than 10 acres. Yes, less than 10 acres. How many head of cattle could that amount to? Well, at 5 cows apiece on average, combined, they add up to more than those 161 ranches with 1000 or more acres. We know this fact because that same report shows that 256,162 head of cattle are raised on less than 10-acre parcels in Texas.  

If we take all of the more than 54 thousand Texans who own 9 acres and under, and add their numbers to the more than 30 thousand ranchers who own from 10 to 19 acres, and then add them to the more than 30 thousand ranchers who have 20 to 49 acres, they add up to 115,205 beef operations having under 50 acre each in Texas. Of that, believe it or not, they raise 1.65 million beef cows are produced. Yes, 1.65 million head! That's a lot of cattle.

When you consider that 4.33 million head is produced in Texas, that 1.65 million head of cattle raised on ranches with under 50 acres is a big deal. That means there are a lot of Americans in Texas who are producing for their families and for sale. While some are start-up operations building their own herds, all are being more self-sufficient and less dependent on others.

Here's another thought, if we look at all of the 4.33 million beef cattle produced in Texas, of that, 3.64 million are produced on ranches with under 499 acres. These ranches are the majority of who's producing beef in Texas. But also, from the research that I can find, they are representative of what's going on across America.

Another point, if we combine the 528 ranches of under 999 acres in Texas, with the 161 ranches with 1,000 to 2,499 acres there, and the 30 big ranches with more than 2,500 acres each in that state, while they have an incredible amount of cattle on each ranch, they only produce 681,241 head of cattle combined. So, in other words, those big ranches are the minority and not the majority of beef producers, as one would think.

As for the largest cattle ranch, the King Ranch has 911,215 acres of South Texas land. Yes, that's larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is home to 35,000 head of beef cattle and over 200 Quarter Horses. 

So now, while I'm not a cattle rancher and instead have created a home for a few "rescue" horses that would have otherwise been lost to killer auctions, I've made no secret of the fact that I'm retired. I worked in the private sector, and I've been self-employed. Yes, in several different trades. For those of you who had the good fortune to fall into a job and stay there all your life, I'm glad for you. But that wasn't what happened to me. After serving our country in the Marine Corps, I worked in several different occupations before retiring. I retired to the Sierra Nevada Mountain foothills, the California Gold Country, here in tiny Glencoe. I came here with the intention of doing some team roping, get into pennings, and of course, trail riding in the thousands of acres of backcountry BLM land near my place.

For those who want to know, there are those properties on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas that folks refer to as "ranchettes." According to research, a "ranchette" is supposedly any "ranch" of 40 acres or less. But frankly, I was always under the impression that "ranchettes were 5 acres and under. While most "ranchette" properties are large home lots, most of them consist of a few acres, a large house, and most likely have a barn or stable and other outbuildings. For me, since many of those "ranchettes" near metropolitan areas are raising a few head of cattle, I really would consider them "ranches." 

How can I call a small acreage a ranch? A "ranch" is defined as "an area of land, including various structures, given primarily to the practice of ranching, the practice of raising grazing livestock such as cattle and sheep most often applies to livestock-raising operations." 

While I know that definition is laughable to some big ranchers, the definition factually applies to any property producing livestock, no matter how small the operation.  

Statistics show us that you don't have to own half of Montana or thousands of acres to raise cattle for yourself or for sale. And while real working ranches are really big operations, as I said before, the definition of a ranch factually applies to any property producing livestock no matter how small the operation. 

The average size ranch in the United States is 442 acres. As with Texas, the average number of cattle on those ranches is about 300 head of cattle. That is a lot of work. While it might not be one of those 30 Texas ranches that are running 4,000 head of cattle, that's still a full-time cattle ranch operation. Those 300 head operations are the bulwark of what's going on in America today. 

While I have a few acres, my place is not a "ranchette" because Calaveras County is rural America. We don't really have what one would consider a "metropolitan area" anywhere in this county to speak of. Surely not like Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay Area, which are a few hours away from here. Much like most of the Gold Country, our county is not really like the rest of California.

What do I mean when I say that we're not really like the rest of California?

Well, for example, just the other morning when the weather was clear, while I was sitting at my computer attempting to write something, anything since I've been fighting a case of writer's block lately, I heard a neighbor doing some target shooting over at his place about 200 yards away. At the same time, my next-door neighbor was on his tractor doing some work at his place on his fields between us. 

I did not arrive here with the intention of raising a few head of beef, although there's nothing stopping me from doing so. My neighbor grows hay and runs a few cattle each year. How many head of cattle does he run? Well, like the many folks who have less than 10 acres in Texas, my neighbor only averages 5 to 6 head each year. Yes, for personal use by his family and his extended family. Of course, he also sells a couple of head to help pay his taxes each year. Obviously, a small acre place with 5 or 6 cows is not going to make for a sustainable business. But in reality, it will supplement a family's freezer and pay a bill or two -- including one's property taxes. As with my neighbor, efforts of raising a few heads each year feeds a few families and stave off the taxman.

While the Montana rancher who owns half of Montana may look down his nose at such small family operations, it is a fact of life in America that small family operations are the majority of what's going on in America. Looking at the changes in beef production in the United States, one can't help but notice that there are very few big family cattle operations left. Most very large cattle operations today are owned and run by big corporations.

While that Montana rancher feels that unless you own a thousand acres and have thousands of head of cattle, then "all you have is a hobby," as he put it, that's not the case in America today. And while I have all sorts of admiration for the large outfits that run those thousands of cattle and have the huge sections of land that make up some of the greatest ranches in America, there are a lot of people who would disagree that anything smaller than a thousand acres is a hobby. It all takes hard work.

Since posting this, a few of you have written to tell me that I shouldn't take jerks like that Montana rancher to heart. Well, let me just say this about that. As I was telling a friend on Facebook, sadly, I have to admit that, as I've gotten older, I do take some things too much to heart at times. I find that I have a lot less patience with snobs and condescending jerks.

Whether it's that Montana rancher telling me how all of my time helping friends didn't matter, or some pompous self-proclaimed "historian" who thinks he knows it all when writing to tell me that the information that I've learned on my own for myself and actually seen with my own eyes can't be correct, I absolutely hate it.

I don't deal with snobs very well at all. Never have. I hate people who look down their nose at others. Besides it being a sign of poor character, it shows folks how weak you are. Frankly, as for people thinking they are better than others, I've never dealt with braggers very well. Pretentious folks who send me snide comments and look down their nose at others have never impressed me. Folks who think they know-it-all aggravate me. And yes, I've met a few. 

I'll tell you who does impress me. People who believe in hard work and taking care of one's family. Those who protect and provide for those they love. Those who have genuine respect for others. Those folks who treat others as they themselves want to be treated. Americans who have pride in being Americans and who love our great nation. Folks who take the time to thank God for all of one's blessings. They impress me. 

Some classless jerk who looks down on others because he owns half of Montana does not impress me.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa 


  1. I have seen it in combat, and combat wounded, veterans. Thinly veiled leers, open displays of disrespect, or contempt are proffered. All in the smug the name of who is, or should be, most worthy of recognition and respect. Exercises to grade and value others' worth and accomplishments through self serving metrics. Units of measure that are arbitrary, capricious and hollow at their moral and ethical cores. It is willfully chosen arrogance. Some wretched souls simply have to shore up their self worth and character by arbitrarily denigrating the same in others.

    America has always had her social and political elitists. But is has always been the every day citizens, shop keepers, small scale farms/ranches, and common soldiers that make possible and preserve the liberties for our economy and society to prosper. The little people came and succeeded first. We were mostly an agrarian economy. Many (perhaps most) cut, carved, hewed, sweated, bled, and died for tiny plots of land or small related businesses/shops.

    Laboring all day in a hot, humid, summer field, while mowing, raking, baling, hauling, and offloading hay is hard work be it in Montana or Virginia. Cold, painfully stiff hands from doing winter chores feel the same on a Pennsylvania homestead as they would be in a Nebraska winter. Hot is hot, cold is cold, pain is pain, sweat is sweat. honest labor is honest labor. Of course scale of size in an operation is a factor. Scale of sanctimony should not manifest itself at all.

    Ranching and farming are sub-cultures - chosen ways of life among very unique people of like mind and spirit. Like is claimed in other circles, size does not matter. There is no healthy reason for people to build artificial hierarchies to distinguish themselves from other people (in their own mind). The case in point here is who or what is a real rancher? Who is most worthy? What proves one rancher is inherently superior as measured pretty much on any scale. Children are introduced to this concept of a person's character by reading The Emperor's New Clothes.les, size does not really matter - except to those that need to create vain hierarchies.

  2. Interesting, and I'll look for your book. I'm doing a little research for a fiction book I'm working on. Question: my hero's fictional ranch is in Ca foothills, raising cattle, an almond orchard, and of course a vineyard. Is 1,000 acres enough? 200 head of cattle? Possible? I know for fiction I can almost say anything, but I want to be in the ballpark. I grew up in El Dorado county (where I rode my horses-pretending I was a cowgirl), lived in Calaveras, now live in San Joaquin. I've written 3 books that will probably get lost on Amazon (self published), but I still write for the love of it. (screw the guy in Montana, lol). Thanx, Cynthia A. Ruth.

    1. Hello Cynthia,
      Since the average farm/ranch size in California is 328 acres as of 2017, I'd say 1,000 acres is not bad for a storyline. But you may want to increase that size to 3,000. That's true since you are growing almonds and grapes as well. I know two cattle producers who run about 400+ head of cattle each. One has close to 500 acres and he runs his 400+ cattle operation more like a feedlot where he supplements their feed simply because he really doesn't have the grass to support them. The other rancher has scaled back from his 600 to 800 head operation to run about 300 to 400 head these days simply because the cost of doing business is so high. He has about 4,000 acres. In his case, he leases part of his property (I believe about 800 acres) to a big winery. As for his cattle? He has the grass and rotates pastures to take care of 400 head. Each operation comes with it's own set of pluses and minuses. Just so you know, the average size of a vineyard in California is only about 80 acres. But they only account for about 2 percent of all wine made in California. According to a 2018 report, more than half the total vineyard area is on farms with 500 or more acres of vineyard. Here's something else, only 89 vineyards in California are larger than 1,500 acres. Those 89 vineyards produce about 30 to 40 percent of all wine in California. So now, to answer your question if 1,000 acres is enough acreage to accommodate 200 head, almond orchards, and a vineyard? Well yes, it could. It is very possible. But, if your fictional ranch/vineyard family is going to be one of the biggest vineyards in California, than you need to make that fictional ranch/vineyard/orchard property at least 3,000 acres. Just my suggestion. I hope I helped. Until later, good luck with your books, and please don't hesitate to contact me if you need more input. Best wishes, Tom

    2. Hello Tom, Terry here. Being a working cowboy (retired now) I would as the Montana Rancher where he is from? Yes, having a large ranch is a benefit, no doubt but there are many people who have small ranches or what I would call small family ranches with less acres but these folks still work hard to survive. Sometimes the may only have to 650 acres (one section) or less and only run a small amount of cattle, maybe only 50 to 70 head or even a little less, in order to turn a small profit and feed their own family's. No different than a larger company that lets say makes furniture and a small family who makes the same product but makes far less money in sales. Montana today has been invaded by the far left ideology so my question is simple, Is this Montana rancher one of socialist views who came to Montana and looks down on others as the left does? And yes, Montana has been invaded by many of these type of individuals. I have seen it because I lived in Wyoming for about 20 years and we in Wyoming use to shake our heads about the way Montana has been overrun in many places within Montana.

  3. Thank you Tom and God bless! I found your article very interesting and enlightening. A novelist (as well as a minister) I checked into your space to gather ideas for a 4th novel, I plan to locate in Nevada. The "dude" from Montana would be perfect for the antagonist. I have family who have been close to the earth with farming and the rodeo circuit. You reinforced a life style that I was trying to grasp (grew up in Los Angels) Mom was a farm girl, dad knew farming from working summers for his sister and brot her in law on their farm in Ohio. It kind of rubbed off, reason I'm out of big city into Oregon. Thank you for your service to our Country and saving those horses. I cringe when I hear of animal cruelty. God Bless. Chaplain Peg

  4. I think what many people do not realize is that the number of cattle a ranch will sustain depends on where the property is located, the fertility of the soil, whether there is enough acreage to move the cattle from pasture to pasture to allow grass regrowth, the type of grass available and whether it is properly tested and fertilized to maintain the correct amount of nutrients, and whether the rancher uses part of the acreage to cut and bale hay for the winter. Obviously, ranches in the far north or in arid areas are going to require more acreage to sustain a herd than ranches in the more southern and wetter areas of the USA. Therefore, acres required to sustain “X” number of cattle can vary widely.


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