Beef industry

From its beginnings during the early stages of colonial settlement, the raising of cattle has grown steadily in the United States. Following its greatest period of expansion–the era known as the Cattle Kingdom on the Great Plains in the second half of the nineteenth century–the beef industry has continued to be a major American food production industry.

Cattle were introduced to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish during the early period of exploration and settlement. They were also brought into the British colonies to the north quite early in the settlement process. By the end of the seventeenth century, cattle were being raised in the backcountry for sale in eastern cities such as Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore. They were generally left to forage on the land and then captured and driven in herds to their final destination. This pattern continued through the first half of the nineteenth century, as settlement pushed west.Beef industry

Westward Expansion

During the late 1860’s, however, the production of beef for commercial purposes took on a new meaning, primarily as a result of railroad construction and continued western expansion. The advent of the railroad made the transportation of livestock much easier. When the railroad reached Chicago in 1852, several different railway companies established stockyards there to facilitate the shipment of cattle eastward, and Chicago quickly became a major rail center for the industry. At this time also, a major new mode of beef production began to develop with the rise of what would come to be known as the “beef bonanza” or Cattle KingdomCattle Kingdom in the Great Plains region.

As the railroads pushed west and the market for beef in the eastern cities grew, the Cattle Kingdom took shape. Utilizing a style of raising cattle introduced by the Spanish in Mexico several centuries earlier, the process involved the open grazing of cattle on the plains. Large herds of a particularly hardy breed known as longhorns, which had also been introduced by the Spanish, were allowed to graze freely, watched over by individuals called by such names (depending on the region) as “cowboys,” “cowpunchers,” or “buckaroos.”

When cattle were mature enough for market, they were driven along cattle trails, some of them hundreds of miles in length, to towns along the newly constructed railroads. The individual credited with originating this system was Joseph McCoy of Illinois, who began putting it into effect during the late 1860’s, using the town of Abilene, Kansas, located on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, as his principal shipping point. For the next twenty years, this system expanded, helping create the rich cultural traditions of the Wild West that have been celebrated in Western films and novels. Terms like “roundup,” “cattle drives,” “broncobuster” (reflecting the importance of the horse as a tool of the cowboy), and “rodeo” permanently entered the American vocabulary at this time. As the economic importance of the cattle industry grew, Chicago continued to serve as a major rail terminus and processing center. The Union Stockyards built there in 1865 and the large meatpacking plants such as Swift’s and Armour’s that grew up around the stockyards brought rapid economic growth to that city.

Rise of the Modern Industry

The age of the Cattle Kingdom lasted only through the 1880’s. Permanent agricultural settlement spread onto the Great Plains as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the beginning of the wheat boom during the later years of the century. The amount of land available for open grazing declined. The continued development of a rail system in the region eliminated the need for the long cattle drives of the earlier period, and the introduction of barbed wire (developed by Joseph Glidden during the 1870’s) enabled wheat farmers and eventually cattle ranchers to fence in their land. Several years of bad weather, including the drought of 1883 and the severe winter of 1886-1887, further undercut the system. By the 1890’s, the raising of cattle on fenced-in ranches had largely replaced open grazing, although the old system was still practiced in some areas into fairly modern times.

Over time, other dimensions of the industry also changed. Although Chicago remained a major meat-processing center and destination point for cattle into the second half of the twentieth century, a process of decentralization within the industry gradually took place. Refrigerated railroad cars, initially a boon to centralization, in the end also made it possible (and cheaper) to slaughter animals where they were raised rather than transport them to large urban centers. During the 1950’s, both Armour’s and Swift’s closed their Chicago plants, and in 1971, the Union Stockyards also closed, bringing another key part of the old system to an end.

Beef production remains a major food industry in the United States. Beginning with the National Cattle Growers Association in 1884, various organizations have been formed to encourage unity among cattle producers as well as to promote consumer interest in beef products. Scientific practices, including understanding and treatment of animal diseases and animal feed requirements, have been introduced. The beef industry, in both its historical development and its present practices, stands as one of the leaders in the shift from independent producers to what is known as modern agribusiness.

Further Reading

  • Carlson, Paul H., ed. The Cowboy Way: An Exploration of History and Culture. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2000. A collection of essays on cowboy life and culture including several on nonwhites–Mexican Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans–who made up approximately one-third of the cowboy workforce.
  • Dale, Edward Everett. The Range Cattle Industry: Ranching on the Great Plains from 1865 to 1925. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960. Originally published in 1930, this work remains a classic study of the Great Plains cattle industry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. Examines the effects of the cattle industry on the development of five famous Kansas cattle towns–Abilene, Dodge City, Ellsworth, Wichita, and Caldwell.
  • Gressley, Gene M. Bankers and Cattlemen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. A study of the role of eastern capital in the rise and fall of the Cattle Kingdom.
  • Skaggs, Jimmy. Prime Cut: Livestock Raising and Meatpacking in the United States, 1607-1983. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986. Covers the history of beef production in America from colonial to modern times, integrating the topic with other forms of livestock raising (primarily sheep and hogs), as well as with the associated growth of the meatpacking industry.



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