Friday, November 30, 2018

Size of Ranches In America Today


Dear Friends,

This post is an effort on my part to answer a question 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 and 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 owns half of Montana and looks down his 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 real 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 their's does.

That was about the time when I was contacted 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 roundup and brandings for years, and I've been around cattle and horses since I was just a kid. None of that didn't matter. To him, that didn't matter. 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 it clear about how he feels about anyone with less land than a thousand acres. 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 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 their 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 wealthier folks who 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 of know real well how horse ranches and rescues have good years and bad years depending on the economy, the cost of hay, etc. 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, 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 reported sated 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.

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 so, 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 in other states or shutdown 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. What is considered a large family farm, actually averages 1,421 acres. Fact is, like very large farms with an average acreage of 2,086, these are not the norm. Fact is 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 a 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 of 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 a piece on the average, combined they add up to more than those 161 ranches with 1000 or more acres. We know that 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 sell. 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. 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 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 private industry and was self-employed. 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, doing some trail riding in the thousands of acres of back country BLM land near my place.

For those who want to know, there are those properties on the outskirts of a major metropolitan areas that folks refer to as "ranchettes." According to research a "ranchette" is supposedly any "ranch" of 40 acres or less. While most of those properties are large home lots, most of them consisting of a few acres, a large house, and most likely a barn or stable and other outbuildings, I really wouldn't consider them "ranches." The reason is that most "ranchettes" near metropolitan areas are not raising cattle.

While 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, real working ranches are really big operations. The average size ranch in the United States is 442 acres. As with Texas, the average on those ranches in 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 must 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 is in reality, it will supplement a family and pay a bill or two. As with my neighbor, efforts of raising a few head each year feeds a few families and staves off the taxman.

While that Montana rancher who owns half of Montana may look down his nose at such small family operations, they are the majority of what's going on in America. Looking at the changes of 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 in 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 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 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. Frankly, 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 don't understand that they might not know it all aggravate me these days. 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.

That's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa 

1 comment:


  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.

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