The Livestock Industry Grows

As with other crops, livestock producers in the U.S. responded to the wartime need for more meat and animal products. The numbers of cattle, hogs and sheep reached new highs during the early 40s, and several livestock sectors began trends that continue to this day.

Cattle production during the 40s continued a cyclical trend as more cattle are added to herds when prices rise and then culled from the herds when prices fall back. In 1940, cattle producers were at the bottom of the cycle with 68.4 million cattle in the nation’s herds. With demand peaking during the war, that number jumped to 85.6 million cattle in 1945, and dropped again to 76.8 million animals in 1949.

Despite these cycles, there was a general upward trend particularly from the end of the war until cattle production peaked at an all-time high of 132 million animals in 1975. The last quarter of the 20th Century saw a general downward trend in America.

Stockyards. There were significant changes in the way cattle were fattened for market and then sold. Both operations began to decentralize after World War II.

In the 1800s, if a cattle or hog producer wanted to sell his product to the growing urban markets in the East, he had to drive them to a railroad line where they were shipped to central stockyards in Chicago and later Omaha or Denver. That’s where the packinghouses were located. The animals were killed there and the meat shipped to urban markets back east.

All of that began to change as trucks got bigger and the railroads were pressed into troop transport duty during the war. Packinghouses began to build plants nearer the source of their products, and farmers found it cheaper and easier to truck their livestock to local auction houses and packers.

By 1950, two-thirds of the hogs and one-fourth of the cattle went directly to local markets instead of a central terminal. By 1970, the Chicago Stockyards – at one time the biggest in the world – closed. Omaha’s hung on a few more years before closing as well. Today, huge packinghouses are built in near rural towns.

In addition, how cattle are raised and fattened began to change during the 40s. Antibiotics and food additives made it possible for large herds to be confined in huge feedlots and fattened scientifically. Before the 40s, diseases could wipe out entire herds if too many were confined in one place. For more on antibiotics and feed additives, see the next story.

The dairy industry saw some of the biggest changes begin during the 1940s. During the war, inventors came up with tanks, pumps and machinery that made it possible for dairy producers to handle milk in bulk. Cows were brought in to the milking parlor, an automatic milking machine was attached to the udder, milk was pumped into a series of tubes and then collected in large tanks where it was immediately cooled. No more one-legged stools and open buckets. Milk cans and cream separators were fast becoming antiques.

The first commercial automatic milking systems were sold in 1948, and within seven years or so, dairy producers found it virtually impossible to have milk picked up by the creameries if it was in a can.

Other advances in breeding and feed technologies have created an astonishing increase in the amount of milk each cow produces. The number of milk cows in the U.S. peaked at 25.6 million animals in 1944, and then began a steep decline. Today, there are only 9.2 million milk cows in the U.S. However, the amount of milk produced remained roughly constant (around 120 million pounds) until around 1980 when it started increasing to around 160 million pounds produced today.

That means that each cow had to produce much more milk than her mother did. In 1944, the average cow produced 4,572 pounds of milk in a year. In the year 2000, she produced 18,197 pounds of milk. That’s four times as much milk from a single cow over a 55-year period. That’s remarkable in another way – milk cows weigh around 1,000 pounds, so each cow is producing 18 times her own weight in milk each year.

Hog production had dropped tremendously during the Great Depression of the 30s and then spiked sharply higher in the middle of the war before settling back into an historic range. Between 1933 and 1934, the number of hogs on American farms dropped from 58.6 million animals to only 39 million. As the Depression drug on, numbers stayed low for three or four years, and then climbed higher as the 40s began. Then, in 1942, the number of hogs went from 60.6 million the year before to almost 74 million animals.

In 1943, the number of hogs on American farms reached 83.7 million animals – by far the highest number before or since. Undoubtedly, this increase was due, in part, to the need to feed soldiers and allied populations around the world. The spiced ham canned meat SPAM was very popular both on the frontlines and on the home front. At home, SPAM wasn’t rationed like fresh beef was, so it was popular with homemakers. Overseas, it was part of C-ration kits because it didn’t need to be refrigerated. And Nikita Kruschev credited imported SPAM cans with sustaining the Russian Army.

However, the very next year, hog numbers dropped back down to around 60 million animals and have hovered around that threshold for the next 50 years.

Sheep on American farms also peaked during the 1940s, but their numbers began a sharp and continuing decline in the years following. In 1942, there were 56.2 million sheep and lambs on farms. Then, numbers dropped. By 1950, there were just under 30 million sheep on farms. The numbers stayed roughly level for a decade. Then, in 1961, sheep began to decline, again. Today, there are fewer than 7 million sheep on American farms.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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