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The cattle industry is one of the worlds most important agricultural

enterprises. According to the United Nations, there were over 1.37

billion cattle worldwide in 2004. On a percentage basis,
approximately 35 percent of these animals were in Asia, 23 percent
in South America, 17 percent in Africa, 12 percent in North America,
10 percent in Europe, and 3 percent in Australia and Oceania. While
this distribution is slanted toward Asia and South America, the
livestock systems and uses of cattle vary substantially by location.
For example, cattle often have dual purposes, particularly in Asia,
where cattle are often used principally for traction and secondarily
for meat and milk. In North and South America, however, cattle are
used principally for meat and milk products.

According to William Lesser, a professor at Cornell University, cattle

have been domesticated for several thousand years. He suggests
that domesticated livestock provided early societies with four
important functions: (1) a supply of high-quality protein, (2) the
ability to store foodstuffs not directly consumable by humans, (3)
hides for clothing and shoes, and (4) motive (traction) power (Lesser
1993, p. 31).
Lesser indicates that prior to the Industrial Revolution, cattle
systems were relatively primitive. Cattle were kept without shelter,
for example, and they had to forage for themselves. However, with
the rise of the modern city during the Industrial Revolution, the

cattle industry evolved from being a very local industrywhere

cattle generally provided traction, meat, leather, and livestock

products for individual familiesto an industry organized to produce

cattle products that were transported from rural areas to urban


Cattle primarily consume various types of forage, or fodder, and

livestock systems have evolved in order for cattle and other
livestock to harvest forages and convert the energy contained in
forages into protein. This protein is then consumed by humans
primarily in the form of milk and meat. Leather produced from cattle
hides is also an important material used in making shoes, other
clothing items, and clothing accessories.

In the United States, the evolution of the cattle industry may be best
illustrated by the large cattle drives of the 1880s, where cattle were
trailed (walked) from the south-central United States to rail centers
such as Dodge City, Kansas. The cattle were then transported by rail
to urban centers like Chicago, where they were slaughtered and
processed. The beef was then shipped to urban consumers. The era
of the cattle drive was the heyday of the American cowboy. Cowboys
were necessary to control the cattle herds as they moved
northward. This period of American history has been romanticized,
as has the role of the cowboy as an independent free spirit who
battles the elements to care for the cattle under his care. Today, of
course, anyone who cares for cattle could be considered a cowboy,
but the American cowboy remains an icon of the American West.
The South American gaucho has also been romanticized in a similar
fashion. Both the American cowboy and the gaucho are known for
their distinctive clothing, equipment (such as a lariat), and their

Important technologies for shipping cattle carcasses and marketing

cattle products were developed in the late 1800s by companies such
as Cudahy, Wilson, and Swift. According to Lesser, this led to the
rise of modern meatpacking, which was originally conceived on the
same principles as the automobile industry. Henry Ford developed
the idea of the modern assembly plant at the beginning of the
twentieth century. Modern meatpacking plants have used the idea of
product assembly in reverse, for they are essentially large
disassembly plants. In meatpacking plants, cattle are slaughtered
and their carcasses are disassembled and protected by plastic
wrapping. The parts are then reassembled with like parts, referred

to as cuts, before being placed in a cardboard box for shipment.

One of the most important innovations in meatpacking during the

last decades of the twentieth century was the development of this
boxing operation, which has largely replaced the traditional method
of shipping whole cattle carcasses to butcher shops and retail
outlets. Today, boxed beef is usually shipped directly to retailers,
who are then required to provide only a minimal amount of
additional preparation before the beef can be served or sold to the
final consumer.

International trade in cattle and beef is now dominated by a few

large exporting and importing countries. The United States is the

worlds largest beef and veal producer, though it holds a relatively

small portion of the total international beef market. Other large

beef-exporting countries include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Canada,
and Australia. Large beef-importing countries include Japan, South
Korea, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. As the international
trade in beef has increased, animal disease control and food safety
have received increased attention. For example, concerns related to
standardizing trade issues affected by bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) and foot-and-mouth
disease have become important issues in the international beef
trade. Concerns regarding input use, such as growth-enhancing
hormones, and the tracking of animals and meat have also resulted
in trade frictions, especially between the United States and the
European Union.

Systems for producing beef in the developed world are

differentiated primarily by the types of feeds used during the final
stages of growing the animal prior to slaughter. This final feeding

stage is referred to as finishing. In locations with abundant forage

resources, cattle are primarily finished by grazing the animals. For
instance, grass-fed beef is the primary type of beef produced in
Argentina, Brazil, and Australia. In locations with abundant grain
supplies, cattle are typically finished by feeding them grains. Grain-
fed beef is common in North America, especially the United States
and Canada.

The modern beef industry in the developed world faces a number of

significant challenges. Some of these are related to the relatively
small number of large firms involved in meatpacking and food
retailing, which leads to fears on the part of farmers and consumers
that these firms may have too much influence on prices and the
variety and types of beef products that are available.

Other challenges involve building better connectivity and

coordination in the marketing channel between the processes used
to produce beef and the characteristics desired by consumers. For
example, some consumers perceive that there are significant
inconsistencies in the tenderness and flavor of beef, both of which
are desirable characteristics, from one eating experience to the
next. A growing number of consumers in developing countries are
also demanding more information about the types of inputs and
processes used to produce beef. This has led to more information
being provided to consumers about beef products through labeling

and certifications. For example, certifications such as organic,

assurances about the beef being produced under natural

conditions, and assurances about the traceability of the beef are

becoming more common. Traceability is defined as being able to
track the beef product backward through all handlers and
processors in the marketing chain to the original farm where the
animal was born.


Lesser, William. 1993. Marketing Livestock and Meat. Binghamton,

NY: Food Products Press.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2005.

Statistical Yearbook. New York: United Nations Publications.

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