My US farmer classmate described his ‘small’ farm as having 50 cows and 4,500 acres

Farm sizes in the US vary hugely, writes Michael Cox, whose farmer classmate recently told him of his ‘small’ farm of just 50 cows and 4,500 acres of corn.

Iowa is situated in the Midwest Corn Belt region of the US. The fertile black soils of Iowa produce some of the world’s highest yields of corn and soybeans. The landscape of yellow cornfields as far as the eye can see was certainly a shock when I first arrived.

Although tillage is the primary farming activity, many beef farms can also be found throughout the region. Most beef farms are grass based, despite the weather extremes of 35C in summer and -20C in winter, which shortens the grazing season greatly. Farm sizes vary greatly from the ‘hobby’ farmer with five cows to herds of 2,000-plus cows, as does the perspective on size; a farmer classmate described his ‘small’ farm as having 50 cows and 4,500 acres of corn.

Beef Production/Livestock Judging

Cow requirements are considerably different to Ireland. Farmers often run 2,000 cows on 10,000 acre grazing pastures. Calving ease is crucial, cows must be able to calve unassisted. Any calving difficulties will result in cow/calf death as most farms are simply too large to monitor all cows closely at calving time. As a result, double muscled cattle are avoided.

Initially, the local Charolais cattle appeared plain and ordinary in comparison to Irish stock. However, after completing a livestock judging module at ISU, I’ve noticed that US cattle are heavier boned, with muscling spread evenly across a wider skeleton. In comparison, many Irish cattle are slightly narrower, with more extreme muscling, especially through their hindquarters.

Here in the US, there is huge emphasis placed on livestock judging. Many of my farmer classmates competed at high school livestock judging competitions and the tradition continues through university.

Throughout the semester I sometimes lapsed into Irish farmer mode, selecting ‘Irish-type stock during my judging class. I received a few funny looks one day after picking a big, strong, powerful ewe for first place, only to discover she was deemed ‘too coarse in her shoulder’ by the locals.

Huge emphasis is also placed on cattle ‘practicality’. ‘Practicality’ refers to the ability of cows to milk, rear a calf and go back in calf, while grazing moderate quality grass in high temperatures. It also factors in structural correctness.

Cattle must be ‘built correct in their skeleton’ to allow them to comfortably travel across large fields and thrive in intensive feedlot conditions.

Angus cattle have become the most popular with the US farmer as they produce small, light claves at birth, have good growth rates and excellent marbling through the finished carcass.

The ‘cow/calf pair’ is grazed at grass from late spring until autumn. Due to the shorter grazing season, stocking rates can be as low as 1LU to 20 acres.

Commercial bull calves are castrated at weaning. Some are sold directly to feedlots, while others are stored by the farmer over the winter and grazed on early grass/wheat crops in the spring, before being sold for finishing.

Feedlots in the Iowa region typically carry 1,000 to 5,000 head although larger feedlots of 100,000 cattle can be found in the Texas Panhandle.


While travelling through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Colorado it is noticeable that the local farmer keeps farm infrastructure very basic. Simple wooden railings are used for most feedlots and handling facilities throughout the countryside.

Apparently the Irish farming press mantra of ‘minimising costs within the farm-gate’ has reached American shores.

Cost reduction also extends to the AI and genetics sector. Selection traits such as ‘$EN – Dollar Energy’ (savings on the cost of keeping a cow for a year), are available for AI and stock bulls.

Although beef farming in the US is quite different, I still feel we can learn a lot from our American counterparts. The US capitalist culture has produced farmers who see profit as the ultimate goal, as opposed to having ‘fancier cattle’ than your neighbour, which we Irish are sometimes guilty of.


Special thanks to Jon DeClerk, Senior Livestock Judging Lecturer at Iowa State University, who provided information for this article.

As part of his UCD Animal Science Degree Programme, Michael Cox has spent four months studying abroad at Iowa State University (ISU), Iowa, in the US.