Farm Consolidation? Not For These Aggies

Farm consolidation is a complicated, controversial topic.

But here’s official confirmation of what many of us, including me, already thought: Beef cow-calf operations have seen very little consolidation over the past three decades.

I sat in on a USDA webinar this week involving its new report that looked at farm consolidation over the past 30 years. The major takeaway — that while big farms account for a growing chunk of U.S. food production family farms, not corporations, still dominate — was no surprise.

Here’s my story on the report.

The report also showed that beef cow-calf operations have bucked the general trend. Cattle and economics are two of my favorite things. So I thought I had a pretty good idea of why beef cow-calf operations are an exception.

But I’m just a journalist, not an expert. So during the webinar, I asked an expert — James MacDonald, an ag economist and one of the report’s authors, who was briefing the news media — why beef cow-calf operations have avoided consolidation.

His paraphrased answer was what I expected:

Primarily because of technology. Other livestock sectors such as hogs and poultry have been greatly affected by technology, leading to consolidation in them. But beef cow-calf operations are different: Cattle’s gestation period is longer, cattle are physically bigger — and so cattle aren’t as well suited as other livestock for technological enhancements such as climate-controlled barns.

MacDonald also made the excellent point that beef cow-calf operations typically utilize relatively low-value land. That reduces both incentive and ability for cow-calf operators to invest in the technology that triggers consolidation in other livestock sectors.

Yes, beef cow-calf operators use technology, sometimes in awesome ways. But tech simply hasn’t had the same economic impact on them that it’s had on some other livestock sectors.

Whether that’s good or bad (or neither), decide for yourself.