Most cow-calf operations in the U.S. remain relatively small and have fewer than 50 cows. USDA says at the other end of the spectrum, a few very large operations with more than 1,000 cows can be found.
USDA data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service Ag Census indicates that between 1997 and 2017, most cow-calf operations remained small. In 2017, 54 percent of farms with beef cows had fewer than 20 animals, down slightly from 1997. However, during the two decades, the overall number of cow-calf operations in the U.S. dropped by 19 percent, while the average herd size on the remaining operations grew.
These changes in farm numbers and herd sizes, while notable, haven’t been as significant as industry shifts in hog and dairy production. The combination of relatively lower cow-calf-specific startup costs and pasture as a primary source of feed has resulted in a variety of operation sizes.