Project Summary

Community Security in Beef Production Sustainability    

Principle Investigator(s):
J.D. Wulfhorst1, Hana Fancher2, John Ritten2, and Amy Nagler2
1University of Idaho, 2University of Wyoming
Completion Date:
July 2022
Key Findings

  • In addition to managing grass, feed, soil, and water, beef producers must manage an array of social and economic challenges to keep their operations secure long-term. 
  • Social ties and connectivity to local communities remain incredibly important for producers to navigate large-scale challenges. 
  • In recent decades, the cattle inventory has concentrated more, although the majority of producers in the industry remain smaller scale. The industry must grapple with the policy tradeoffs between primarily attending to needs of the majority of the animals versus majority of the operators. 
  • Most of all, of increasing importance is the recognition that the legacy of their families and operations remain tied to local rural communities as well as global scale dynamics.


Cattle producers face numerous challenges. Sustaining their operations in a secure community context has importance for animal care, resource management, and keeping the business profitable. Social challenges producers face often relate to dynamics changing in the population, ranging from consumer preferences to land-use change, to immigration policy. Project objectives were to collect and analyze national- and regional-scale socio-economic and industry data relevant to community security issues and U.S. beef production sustainability.


63 sociological interviews were conducted with producers and industry experts across all 7 NCBA regions. National-scale inventory, financial, and demographic data were collected and analyzed primarily for national/regional trends and cases of state-level variability.

results and discussion

Over the last several decades, the US beef industry has continued to consolidate, with greater concentration of the inventory moving northward and to the center of the U.S. While feedyards and a relatively small percentage of large operations dominate a majority of the total inventory, a majority of producers across regions operate with <100 head, and the vast majority of those have <50 head. This dichotomy ties directly to community security issues by compounding challenges with ranch succession, large-scale effects in the environment (e.g., drought, disease risk, invasive plants, wildlife conservation, etc), and population dynamics external to production. Based on interview data collected directly with producers, many experience long-term anxiety and worry over operation viability from year-to-year as well as legacy effects related to ranch succession. The majority of producers described greater levels and diversity of threats to their operations having worsened in recent years compounding the ‘normal’ economic cycle within the beef industry.

industry Implications

While the industry must value attention to policy and programming that addresses both the animals and producers, the inverse dichotomy in these results indicates the need for management about this structural challenge which may grow wider over time. As such, additional strain could occur for the majority of producers tied to rural community landscapes and places they rely on not only for equipment and inputs, but also social connectivity and options for secure ranch succession. Because of the large tracts of land managed by thousands of operators nationwide, cattle producers also contemplate resource stewardship daily and need community-based support to maintain that environmental health. As such, industry programming to sustain security for rural communities has vital implications for the long-term infrastructure and human base needed to meet the supply/demand balance of providing quality protein to the US population and export markets. These factors relate to risk management and emphasize the value, if not need, to maintain a diversity and range of operation size within production sectors, geographies, and processing/distribution. The synthesized social- and economic-related data for this analysis indicate that gradient of diversity is fundamental to long-term community security and viability for cattle producers.