Livestock Patterns

In mid-century, livestock production was a major part of the agricultural economy and was becoming concentrated in the hands and fewer and fewer farmers.

The 1969 Census of Agriculture noted that during that year, “livestock, poultry, and their products accounted for 62.5 percent of the value of all farm products sold.” Supplying meat to America’s tables was the primary activity of American agriculture.

In addition, land use patterns reflected the importance of livestock production. The 1969 Census noted, “In total, four-fifths [80 percent] of all U.S. farm and nonfarm land used for agriculture was used for the production of animal and poultry feed.” Over 153 million acres were planted to hay and feed grains, and there were 610 million acres of pastureland – all devoted to feeding livestock.

But while livestock numbers continued to increase through this period, the number of farms producing livestock decreased dramatically. The livestock industry was concentrating into the hands a few producers.

The trend was noted explicitly in the 1959 Census of Agriculture.

“Farms reporting cattle declined almost 1 million from 1954 to 1959. There was less than one-half as many farms with cattle in 1959 as in 1920. From 1954 to 1959, the number of farms reporting milk cows declined more than 1.1 million. The number of farms with milk cows in 1959 was only two-fifths of the number of farms with milk cows in 1920. The quantity of milk sold and the number of cattle and calves sold have increased significantly during the last 20 years. However, the number of farms reporting the sale of whole milk declined 18 percent from 1954 to 1959. The number of farms reporting whole milk sold in 1959 was only 66 percent of the number in 1944. The number of farms reporting cattle and calves sold was 12 percent less in 1959 than in 1954 and 24 percent less than in 1944.”

By 1969, only 21 percent of 2.7 million farms reported having even one milk cow. In 1920, almost 70 percent of 6.45 million farms reported that they milked at least one cow. What these numbers reflect is a profound change in the business of farming. In the 20s, most farms were diversified operations with a few livestock for their own consumption and for occasional cash sales. By 1969, milk and most other agricultural commodities were being produced by specialists, in this case dairy farmers.

Beulah Gocke InterviewThe same was true in each of the major livestock sectors. Cattle, poultry, hogs and sheep producers all found they had to specialize in their own particular markets – and to meet the demands of increasingly opinionated consumers – in order to survive.

For instance, Beulah Gocke and her son Raymond have concentrated on producing sheep efficiently for specific ethnic consumers. “The Muslim population and the Jewish population, that’s their favorite meat,” She says. Beulah and Raymond have developed a breeding program that produces the kind of meat that these customers want and increased production to where every ewe has, on average, almost two lambs. “You’ve got to produce a product that somebody wants, otherwise you’re not going to be in business for very long.”

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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