The University of Tennessee
Institute of Agriculture
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James B. Neel, Professor
Animal Science
University of Tennessee

Tennessee's beef cattle industry is an important part of the state's economy. It is even more important to Tennessee's agricultural economy. Cattle are produced in every county in Tennessee and have greater economic importance in the Middle and East Tennessee areas than in West Tennessee.

The Tennessee beef industry is locally owned by family farmers. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, 97 percent of the nation's cattle farms are family owned, and 42 percent have been in the same family for more than 50 years.

The cattle industry converts locally produced resources into dollars that are "spent at home" and supports the growth of local economies and jobs.


Cattle also contribute to the aesthetic environment of the "Volunteer State" in that they help to maintain the "green space" that makes Tennessee attractive to both residents and tourists.

Following are some facts about the Tennessee beef industry that will illustrate its importance to the Volunteer State and why it has grown to its current level:

  • More Tennesseeans are involved in beef production than any other agricultural enterprise. There are 82,000 farms in Tennessee and beef cattle are found on 48,000 (59.0 percent) of these.

  • Tennessee is one of the top beef-producing states in the nation. Tennessee ranks ninth in the nation in beef cow numbers and fourteenth in total cattle. Tennessee exceeds all states east of the Mississippi, except Kentucky, in numbers of cattle. Only Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma have more cow-calf operations than Tennessee. More than 2.3 million cattle in Tennessee are valued at slightly more than $1.7 billion. Fifty-two percent of these cattle, or 1.2 million, are beef cows.

  • Tennessee's beef cow numbers have increased 370 percent since 1955. This increase can be attributed to several factors: the decline in dairy production; reduction in acres devoted to row crop production; increase in pasture acreage; growth of local manufacturing, resulting in off-farm employment opportunities; age of the operator or farm owner; and the number of farms that have been passed on to the succeeding generation. A large number of the state's cattle producers now reside on this acreage and have employment off the farm.

  • Sale of cattle and calves is the number one source of agricultural income in Tennessee. The cattle industry has held this position for a number of years. The cash receipts from the sale of cattle and calves during 2005 totaled $500 million which was 20 percent of the state's total agricultural income and 1.8 times greater than the number 2 Agricultural sales. These monies stay in the state's and local economics. National Cattlemen's Beef Association economists report that every dollar made in cattle sales is multiplied or turned four times. This means that the state's cattle industry generates an additional $2.0 billion of business activity for the state's economy. This activity also contributes to the sales tax revenue.

  • Beef production in Tennessee is based on producing and marketing feeder cattle. Feeder cattle production starts with cow-calf operations which make up 88 percent of the state's beef operations. The remaining 10 percent are backgrounding or stockering operations. Tennessee annually markets more than 750,000 feeder calves to backgrounding operations and feedlots, primarily in the Midwest and High Plains areas of the country.

  • Beef production provides an opportunity for Tennessee agriculture to secure monetary returns from several thousand acres of land not suitable for intensive agricultural production. Beef cattle are ruminants. They have the ability to consume materials such as grass and hay and convert them into a much more valuable, easier-to-market product. Approximately 85 percent of the total feed used in the production of a slaughter beef animal comes from forage, roughages and other by-products that are not edible by humans or other simple-stomached livestock. About five million acres, or 40 percent, of the state's agricultural land is pasture. Pasture is grown on areas that would otherwise provide little opportunity for agricultural revenue.

  • Beef cattle farms contribute to the state's natural beauty. The pasture that cattle graze results in a great deal of "green space" for both tourists and residents to enjoy. The pastures also aid in reducing soil erosion and benefit and encourage development of wildlife.

  • Beef cattle fit well with, and complement other agricultural enterprises. As a result, the sale of cattle is not the major source of income for a large percentage of Tennessee farms. A recent survey revealed that tobacco, row crops, other livestock enterprises and miscellaneous agricultural enterprises were also sources of financial support for approximately 60 percent of Tennessee cattle producers.

  • A large percentage of beef cattle are owned by producers with off-farm employment. Data collected in the 1996 beef survey indicated that 48.7 percent of beef producers are employed off the farm. Beef cattle production requires less labor and smaller investments in equipment and facilities than do other agricultural enterprises. This makes it attractive to land owners who have off-farm employment. Tennessee's average farm size, 138 acres and the 293-cow average size herd also facilitate off-farm employment.

  • Fifteen purebred cattle breed associations are leaders in breeding and marketing seedstock. These purebred breeders annually provide the Tennessee beef industry more than 14,000 bulls which annually provide half the genetic makeup of the state's calf crop.

  • Thrity-eight weekly livestock auction markets allow producers the opportunity to market cattle year-round. In addition, several local feeder cattle marketing associations and marketing alliances carry out in-barn cooperative feeder calf sales, tele-auctions, video and board sales. Cattle grading and marketing assistance are provided by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

  • The beef industry is well served and represented by the Tennessee Cattlemen's Association, Tennessee Beef Cattle Improvement Association, Tennessee Beef Industry Council and the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. Feed, health products, equipment, veterinary services and production inputs are accessible in all areas of the state. The Tennessee Department of Agriculture aids in marketing, health, and regulatory programs. Educational and research support are provided by the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, Agricultural Experiment Station and College of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Tennessee.

  • Beef cattle fits well with the life style. People enjoy working with beef cattle and it fits well with the rural life style people are seeking.

The beef industry is the most important agricultural enterprise in the state. More people are involved than in any other agricultural enterprise and it is the greatest source of agricultural income. The Tennessee beef industry will continue to grow. Beef cow numbers will remain at 1.0 to 1.2 million and the backgrounding of feeder calves is expected to increase. The greatest opportunity for increased income to Tennessee agriculture is in beef production. Because of its climate, topography and other changes in agriculture, Tennessee will continue to produce acreage of pasture and forage, contributing to beef cattle continuing as the agricultural enterprise of choice.

Photos courtesy of USDA NRCS.