Image credit: Beef Alliance

Tech has made the US beef industry more productive. It can also make it more sustainable

July 26, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article was sponsored by the Beef Alliance. Its 2022 Startup Challenge is seeking startups offering solutions for feedyards, with a focus on technologies that can enhance sustainability in cattle feeding. Submit your application here.


Thanks to advances in technology the US beef industry is more productive than it has ever been, providing more pounds of meat from fewer head of cattle. But that trend of innovation needs to continue if beef producers and industry groups are to meet their sustainability and emissions reduction goals.

That was the message from speakers at the ‘Cattle Feeding 101’ virtual event held by the Beef Alliance last month.

The Beef Alliance – which represents companies responsible for over one-third of the US fed cattle supply – organized the event as an opportunity for entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders to learn about the productivity and sustainability challenges facing the cattle feeding industry:

  • The main concentration of US cattle feeding operations remains in the Great Plains, with other significant hubs in the Corn Belt, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwestern states.
  • South Dakota has seen the largest growth in cattle on feed over the past decade, with an increase of 125,000 head (39%).
  • Washington has seen the greatest decline, dropping 32,000 head (-13%) over the same period.
  • Net monthly US feedlot placements in April 2022 stood at just over 1.7 million head, compared to almost 1.8 million a year previously. Average April net US feedlot placements from 2016 to 2020 were around 1.6 million head.
  • Cattle on feed numbers are continuing to go up this year due to ongoing drought in the Western US, which has moved east over the past couple of weeks.
  • The overall size of the US feedlot sector by number of operations decreased year-on-year, from just over 28,000 operations in 2020 to 27,000 in 2021; while the size of feed yards continues to increase.

At first glance, some of these figures might lead to conclusions of stagnation; but the data shows that the past few decades have seen significant increases in feedlot productivity.

Since the mid-1980s, US beef output has grown steadily in step with increasing cattle weights, while slaughter numbers have decreased in tandem.

In other words: we’re getting more meat from fewer animals.

US beef industry productivity gains 1970–2020
Index: 100=1970. Source: US Department of Agriculture / Karl Scold, JBS

These productivity gains have been hard won, mainly through the development and adoption of technologies that can improve the efficiency of beef cattle production.

And as industry, investors, and consumers alike seek more sustainable protein, technological innovation will again have a crucial role to play.

Startup Challenge 2022

To find the tech to take the US beef industry forward, the Beef Alliance is again hosting its annual Startup Challenge.

The Beef Alliance first held the Challenge in 2021, with Resilient Biotics – a North Carolina startup developing microbiome-based therapeutics and diagnostics for livestock – emerging as the overall winner.

“The Beef Alliance Startup Challenge provided a great opportunity for Resilient to connect directly with industry leaders. It’s fantastic to see the biggest players not only supporting new innovation, but also designing a conduit for startups like Resilient to interact directly with the end customer,” said Christopher Belnap, CEO, Resilient Biotics.

“It’s clear the Beef Alliance hopes to create an innovation ecosystem to bring forth new technologies that can address critical challenges in the beef industry. Winning the award served as critical validation for Resilient’s microbiome products and technology, which helps attract outside investors and adjacent industry players that want to support upstream innovation in the food supply chain.”

“The 2021 inaugural Startup Challenge was a fantastic event that fostered a one-of-a-kind opportunity between cattle feeders, innovators, and startups,” added Scott Whitefoot, chairman of Beef Alliance.

“Through the 2022 Startup Challenge, we will continue our mission to drive positive change in the cattle feeding segment that will also be beneficial to the entire beef cattle industry. This event aligns with our commitment to advance continuous improvement in cattle feeding with an openness to new technologies that improve our ability to produce high-quality, sustainably-raised beef products.”

This year’s competition is seeking applications from startups engaged in offering solutions for feedyards, with a focus on innovation and technology to enhance environmental sustainability in cattle feeding.

Areas of particular interest include:

  • Greenhouse gas emission reduction, including: enteric methane, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide
  • Natural resource management, including: pen maintenance, manure management and composting, water resource conservation, land-use conservation
  • Animal welfare and health
  • Improvement in operational efficiency, including: software and other business management productivity programs or systems, management and process efficiencies
  • Animal nutrition and production efficiency

If you’re a startup working on solutions in these or closely-related areas, apply to join the Challenge by August 17, 2022. Those selected will be announced in early September, and will get the chance to pitch their idea virtually before a panel of Beef Alliance experts on September 21, 2022.

The Beef Alliance will select and announce the overall winner of the 2022 Startup Challenge by October 1, 2022. The winner will receive a $50,000 cash prize and the opportunity to do a pilot with a Beef Alliance member.

On October 4, the winner – along with the other finalists from both the 2022 and 2021 Startup Challenge competitions – will be invited to join a roundtable discussion with Beef Alliance members and cattle feeding industry allies for a networking opportunity in Fort Collins, Colorado.

To find out more about the Beef Alliance 2022 Startup Challenge and submit your application, visit: beefalliance.com/startupchallenge

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