A report from USDA and the Economic Research Service shows that growth in U.S. beef production has been supported by an increase in the average weight of cattle for beef production since 1970, despite a decrease in the overall number of cattle used in beef production.

Over the last 50 years, U.S. beef production (measured as volume of meat produced) has steadily increased by 25%, even while the number of cattle destined for beef production decreased by 6%. When beef production, numbers of cattle, and average cattle weights are viewed as indices (with a base year of 1970), the trend becomes clear.

The decline in the number of cattle has been countered by a more than 30% increase in average cattle weights, driven mainly by increases in the average weights of steers and heifers, which represent 80% of cattle destined for beef production. Changes in breeding practices have produced heifers and steers with higher growth rates and higher feed conversion efficiencies in pastures and feedlots. USDA forecasts beef production to reach record levels in 2019 and again in 2020. Both years are expected to surpass the previous record set in 2002, but with 8% fewer cattle than in 2002.

This chart appears in the ERS Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook newsletter, released in May 2019.