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Count ’em up! Explaining the data in U.S. beef rankings

Progressive Cattle Editor David Cooper Published on 24 June 2021

Americans love a good list of rankings. We list our ball teams, presidents, influential books, favorite movies, all by rankings.

Every decade, Rolling Stone prints a list of the 500 greatest rock songs of all time, and “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen never cracks the top 50. This is an utter travesty, and I’m boycotting that rag until that’s fixed.

The beef industry loves some good rankings too. That’s one motivation for our Beef Statistics poster with eight pages of data, figures and charts showing how the U.S. stacks up to everyone else.

It’s quite an odyssey in data gathering, but the revelations it uncovers are always intriguing – with a few mysteries thrown in.

The U.S. produces more beef than any country on the globe – a record 27.2 billion pounds. In spite of having less cattle than India, Brazil and China, we produce 20.5% of the world’s beef supply. That’s efficiency, genetics and outstanding product traveling the globe.

If you’re producing beef in the U.S., the bulk of it is sold to your fellow Americans. But a good chunk – around 11.3% – goes to international trade. The biggest market is East Asia – home to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and yes, China. The region paid approximately $5.2 billion for beef in 2020. In 2013, just as Japan was ramping up more U.S. beef imports, it was around $3 billion for the region.

Collecting all these figures isn’t possible without the USDA and its various offices of economics and statistics – we use four different divisions within the agency to get it all, in addition to help from the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Navigating it all requires a few experts to answer our questions and cut through the confusion surrounding the figures.

For instance, what happened to Cherry County, Nebraska?

Since we started ranking U.S. counties with the most beef cows back in 2013, Cherry County of the Sandhills region has always ranked first as a paradise of cow-calf country. That ranking stuck until 2020, when it dropped out – not just from the top ranking but out of the list entirely.

Some good folks from Cherry County wrote in asking just what was going on.

A USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service official explained how Cherry County’s numbers weren’t published in 2020 for confidentiality reasons under the USDA survey. The last survey estimated that county with 150,000 beef cows in 2019. But without sufficient responses from producers in the following years, they can’t publish a new estimate.

The annual survey, it should be remembered, is voluntary while the five-year ag census is mandatory. The last census in which Cherry County recorded official data was 2012 – with 135,852 beef cows – still tops in the U.S. but less than the 2019 survey figure.

This mystery requires more unraveling, so I’m anxiously awaiting what the Cherry County people let me know this time. I know those cows are out there, folks. Just like I know The Kingsmen deserve a spot somewhere above The Doors. end mark

David Cooper
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