Beef Herd Shifts in the Great Plains

The U.S. beef herd contraction continued into 2024 – falling to levels last observed during the 1960s (Figure 1). To provide additional context around the trend, this Weekly Insights post considers state-level changes and the shifts among Great Plains states.

Figure 1. U.S. Beef Herd, 1920-2024. Data Source: USDA NASS.

State-Level changes

The U.S. beef herd last peaked at 31.6m head in 2019. Today, the herd is smaller by 3.4m head or 11%. Considering state-level changes, Texas alone posted a 540,000 head contraction (Figure 2). However, this isn’t entirely surprising, as Texas has the largest herd at 4.1m in 2024. In fact, Texas has twice the number of beef cows as the next largest state (Oklahoma). To account for this, the data labels in Figure 2 report the change since 2019 on a percentage basis. The decline in Texas, -12%, was mostly in line with the national average.

South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas also posted significant declines. However, the percentage changes for these states were more aggressive than the U.S. average. For example, South Dakota’s 316,000 head contraction was equivalent to 17%.

Similar to Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri – the second- and third-largest herds -declined at a pace comparable to the national average (11%).

Figure 2. Change in U.S. Beef Cow Inventory, States with Large Head Declines. 2024 Less 2019. Data Source: USDA NASS and Calculations.


Figure 3 shows the states with the largest percentage declines since 2019. Again, South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska made the list. However, the states with the most significant percentage declines – Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont, and South Carolina – have small herds.

Figure 3. Percent Change in U.S. Beef Cow Inventory, Select 10 States. 2024 Less 2019. Data Source: USDA NASS and Calculations.

Shifts in the Southern Plains

A final consideration is the trend over a longer period. In 2006, the U.S. beef herd peaked at 32.7m head. Figure 4 shows the state-level share of the U.S. total in 2006 and 2024.

Two states jump out in this data. First is Texas. While the Lone Star state’s recent decline was on pace with national trends, the longer-run story has been a declining share. In 2006, Texas accounted for 16.4% of the U.S. total. Today, the share is just 14.6%. Nearly two percentage points smaller, Texas posted the largest adjustment observed in 18 years.

The second state is Oklahoma, where the share increased by 0.6 percentage points.

Collectively, the 15 largest states have posted declines. In 2006, these states represented 72% of the U.S. beef herd but now only account for 70.5%. This means the 35 states the smallest herds have, as a group, increased their share.

Figure 4. State Share of U.S. Beef Cow Herd, 2006 and 2023. Data Source: USDA NASS and Calculations.

Wrapping it up

The timeframes and measurements used can affect the conclusions. On a head basis, Texas stands out during the recent herd contraction, largely because of its overall size. On a percentage basis, the Texas decline is similar to the national pace. The recent downturn has been driven more by Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. These states have large herds and posted percentage declines larger than the national average.

In the longer run, attention returns to Texas. While Texas still has the largest beef cow herd, it represents a small share of the U.S. total today.

Still curious? See our accompanying piece on productivity and usage trends in U.S. beef (here). Sneak peak:

“â€Ĥa single data point can lead to conclusions that don’t capture the entire picture. For example, only considering the size of the U.S. cattle herd – or U.S. crop acreage, for that point – and jumping to a conclusion about limited supply completely overlooks productivity gains. Imagine how disappointed you’d eventually be if your entire investment thesis was buying agricultural assets (farmland or cattle) because they were at historically low levels.”