Skip to main content

Ranching: It’s Not Just about the Beef

Cattle ranching has been a pillar in the American community since its founding, but ranching isn’t just about the beef.

Nearly 620,000 ranching operations occupy 337 million acres in the US

Cattle pastures account for every 1 in 5 acres of non-urban land in the United States and is home to over 20.4 million beef cattle. Ranches generated $33.9 billion in gross revenue, owned an estimated $523.4 billion worth of land, buildings, machinery, and equipment, and employed over 1.9 million workers according to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census. But money isn’t all that ranches have to offer….

Rural Communities

Beef cattle operations make up a large part of the culture and community in rural areas of the United States. Ranching has been part of the American community since its foundation and the cowboy has always been an American icon. It provides a unique outlet to express the rich history of America. Cattle operations also serve as a vital income source for some rural communities, without it many families would have to move closer to urban areas which would only increase population densities in cities. Livestock operations allow for better utilization of land across the entire United States.

Wide Open Spaces

Pastures for livestock create beautiful, wide open spaces across the US where nature thrives. Natural vegetation and improved pasture grow simultaneously while wildlife and livestock commingle. Open land allows for natural environmental cycles to occur, allows ground water and aquifer recharge locations, and can help filter pollutants before reaching critical areas. Shear land volume is one of many ecosystem services that ranching provides.

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are grouped into four categories: 1) Provisioning, such as production of food and water; 2) Regulation, such as control of climate and disease; 3)supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and 4) cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

Some ecosystem services are easy to measure economic value, we can directly relate pounds of beef developed to the money generated from their sales. Other services are hard to place a dollar amount on, such as providing open land for nutrient cycles, habitat for wildlife, hiking, hunting, and fishing opportunities, and more. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff, attempted to take readily-available data and calculate the economic value of the ecosystem services ranching provides to America.

US Ranching Ecosystem Services Economic Value

Find The Fact Sheet Here 

Ecosystem services provided by cattle ranching in the U.S. has an estimated economic value of $14,813,875,051. That’s $14 billion dollars that American ranches will never see. For every pound of beef that ranches craft for consumers approximately $0.86 worth of ecosystem services is generated.

Do you like hunting? American ranches provide almost $28 billion worth of hunting economic value and opportunity.

Do you like fishing? American ranches provide over $23 billion worth of fishing economic value across the States.

Appreciate wildlife? American ranches provide for 335,625,000 wildlife watching opportunities equating to $13 billion in economic value.


State by State

NCBA has graciously provided a state by state breakdown of ecosystem services of ranching. Hover over the map below to see how much economic value each states ranching ecosystem services equate to (amount shown beneath map). Click on a state to see the complete breakdown of services, or find a complete list of the continental United States here.

More on Beef Sustainability Here

More on Cooking Beef Here: Sizzling Science | Degrees Matter

7 Comments on “Ranching: It’s Not Just about the Beef

  1. Alicia–This was a great article!!!!! Thank you for writing it!

  2. I think about this stuff all the time. Add dairy farming and the impact is even bigger. How do we get this information out to the nonfarming public and policy makers.

    • Cecelia,

      I am not sure about the ecosystem services of dairies, I would have to research if this study has been done for that industry. As far as making others aware, the best way is to share! Share this blog and others like it to help keep others informed.

  3. Hi Alicia,

    An important point not made in your excellent article is that how livestock are grazed determines whether their impact on the land is beneficial or deleterious.

    Historically, much land globally has been desertified by poor grazing management. Consider how parts of Texas that today resemble the desert was covered by grass as high as people on horseback just 200 years ago.

    Fortunately, new approaches to grazing that emulate how grazing occurs in nature are restoring degraded grasslands and savannas, improving wildlife habitat, replenishing dried-up rivers, increasing ranching profitability, and capturing in soil 1 to 3 tons of carbon per acre per year (Machmuller 2015, Teague 2016).

    This video may be of interest.

    Soil Carbon Cowboys (2014, 12 mins.)
    Meet Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis – climate heroes and innovators! These ranchers now know how to regenerate their soils while making their animals healthier and their operations more profitable. They are turning on their soils, enabling rainwater to sink into the earth rather than run off. And these regenerated soils retain that water, so the ranches are much more resilient in drought. It’s an amazing story that has just begun.

    Best wishes,
    Karl Thidemann

  4. Karl Thiderman’s comment regarding the grass in Texas 200 years ago was high as the backs of the horses is a bit exaggerated i’m Thinking. My family homesteaded in the Sandhills of Nebr 100 years ago and you could track a coyote for miles through and in between the bunch grass. Nowadays the Sandhills are covered with good feed for thousands of cattle. Actual facts should be important. Also in the comment it’s mentioned regarding the soil returning the water practices. It’s been proven that sheep and cattle grazing the land make indentations in the ground holding the water to go down to the roots, compared to taking all grazing off those pastures only ruins the soil trying to grow those plants.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *