The Wild, Wild Days of Ranching

       Cattle ranching in the United States has changed dramatically from the days of the old and often Wild West, with horses and prairies replaced by minimum wage workers, industrial slaughterhouses and huge feedlots. But, while the science and methods driving the cattle industry have evolved over time, some fundamental concepts have remained as hardened as the pioneering cowboys of yesteryear.

     Advances in technology, discoveries and changes in feeding, breeding and environmental and nutritional sciences have driven a majority of today’s cattle ranching industry methodologies, many of these driven by shifts not only in ranching fundamental approaches, but altering consumer habits and, as a result, marketing techniques as well.

     In the end, and as with any business in today’s highly competitive business world, the all-mighty dollar reigns supreme, and can guide changes seemingly overnight.

The Changing Face of the American Consumer
As with any industry, in order to flourish in the cattle ranching industry, an in-depth understanding of the marketplace has become fundamental to success. The advent of the internet, fad diets and new consumer demands and awareness regarding nutrition have carved several marketing niches that can be exploited, but only after a thorough understanding of the basic tenants of good ranching stewardship; a principal that has remained consistent since the industry was born.

     Globalization, federal and local rules and regulations have also been adjusted as science advances and understanding increases as well. Today, the impact of Mad Cow Disease can not be discounted, and its effect on the ranching industry as a whole—not just its impact on beef and cattle—has altered the course of global attitudes and laws regarding importation and exportation, labeling, monitoring, and other inherent industry methods.

A Return to Ranching Roots?
All of these factors have driven an increased but still somewhat muted interest in smaller, localized ranching, with many raising smaller herds of cattle on a small amount of acreage, bucking the feedlot system in favor of a sustainable and more environmentally sensitive approach that takes into account new consumer attitudes.

     This approach has proven successful, and more and more ranchers are exploring some of the methods that have emerged in this industry to see their farms flourish under these new practices at the same time the quality of their product increase.

     Somewhat ironically, this new approach is inherently more akin to the ranching of the old west—it’s 1800’s ranching with a 21st century mindset. And, though no one would deny the feedlot and mass-production facilities still feed the average American consumer—it has the potential to change some of the landscape of the cattle industry.

The Market Savvy Rancher
As a result; however, traditional marketing tactics, especially for the smaller rancher, must also fast forward to the 21st century and beyond, and encompass this new methodology in a broader strategy to maintain the traditional selling points of beef, while capitalizing on industry and consumer trends which have driven the profits of niche producers.

     Ranchers today must not only know how to maintain their land, pick and tend to their cattle and be able to take their end product to market, but today’s rancher must also be consumer and market savvy, and, at the same time, have an inherent understanding of technology and its impact on both the methodology and the marketing of the industry.

Beef, It’s what’s for Dinner
Gone are the days when hundreds of cattle can be left to graze on the open range, eventually brought to market, products sold for the going rate, the profits returned to the farm with a little left over for the pocket. Instead, the cattle ranching industry in the United States has become a multi-billion dollar industry, run primarily by big business, with a burgeoning yet still somewhat scattered and disconnected network of mid-level and so-called "mom and pop" ranches vying to fill their own space. Among all these groups; however, there exist the dueling forces of competition and the seemingly contradictory but necessary need for cooperation driven by changing consumers, industry trends and regulations.

     Another thing all these industry levels have as a common strength is the fact that, while consumption may be down and habits may have changed, old habits die hard. Americans love eating red meat and dairy. There is no doubt they will always love a good old fashioned steak on the grill and millions of current and future generations will still get those late night cravings for an ice-cold glass of whole milk and a warm batch of chocolate chip cookies. The challenges facing today’s cattle ranching industry—whether you’re the small acreage rancher or a a multi-million dollar corporation—are understanding this, and, at the same time, adapting to the changing face and habits of the American beef consumer.

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