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The cattle industry is one of the world’s most important agricultural enterprises. According to the United Nations, there were over 1.37 billion cattle worldwide in 2004. On a percentage basis, approximately 35 percent of these animals were in Asia, 23 percent in South America, 17 percent in Africa, 12 percent in North America, 10 percent in Europe, and 3 percent in Australia and Oceania. While this distribution is slanted toward Asia and South America, the livestock systems and uses of cattle vary substantially by location. For example, cattle often have dual purposes, particularly in Asia, where cattle are often used principally for traction and secondarily for meat and milk. In North and South America, however, cattle are used principally for meat and milk products.
According to William Lesser, a professor at Cornell University, cattle have been domesticated for several thousand years. He suggests that domesticated livestock provided early societies with four important functions: (1) a supply of high-quality protein, (2) the ability to store foodstuffs not directly consumable by humans, (3) hides for clothing and shoes, and (4) motive (traction) power (Lesser 1993, p. 31).
Lesser indicates that prior to the Industrial Revolution, cattle systems were relatively primitive. Cattle were kept without shelter, for example, and they had to forage for themselves. However, with the rise of the modern city during the Industrial Revolution, the cattle industry evolved from being a very local industry—where cattle generally provided traction, meat, leather, and livestock products for individual families—to an industry organized to produce cattle products that were transported from rural areas to urban centers.
Cattle primarily consume various types of forage, or fodder, and livestock systems have evolved in order for cattle and other livestock to harvest forages and convert the energy contained in forages into protein. This protein is then consumed by humans primarily in the form of milk and meat. Leather produced from cattle hides is also an important material used in making shoes, other clothing items, and clothing accessories.
In the United States, the evolution of the cattle industry may be best illustrated by the large cattle drives of the 1880s, where cattle were trailed (walked) from the south-central United States to rail centers such as Dodge City, Kansas. The cattle were then transported by rail to urban centers like Chicago, where they were slaughtered and processed. The beef was then shipped to urban consumers. The era of the cattle drive was the heyday of the American cowboy. Cowboys were necessary to control the cattle herds as they moved northward. This period of American history has been romanticized, as has the role of the cowboy as an independent free spirit who battles the elements to care for the cattle under his care. Today, of course, anyone who cares for cattle could be considered a cowboy, but the American cowboy remains an icon of the American West. The South American gaucho has also been romanticized in a similar fashion. Both the American cowboy and the gaucho are known for their distinctive clothing, equipment (such as a lariat), and their horsemanship.
Important technologies for shipping cattle carcasses and marketing cattle products were developed in the late 1800s by companies such as Cudahy, Wilson, and Swift. According to Lesser, this led to the rise of modern meatpacking, which was originally conceived on the same principles as the automobile industry. Henry Ford developed the idea of the modern assembly plant at the beginning of the twentieth century. Modern meatpacking plants have used the idea of product assembly in reverse, for they are essentially large disassembly plants. In meatpacking plants, cattle are slaughtered and their carcasses are disassembled and protected by plastic wrapping. The parts are then reassembled with like parts, referred to as “cuts,” before being placed in a cardboard box for shipment. One of the most important innovations in meatpacking during the last decades of the twentieth century was the development of this boxing operation, which has largely replaced the traditional method of shipping whole cattle carcasses to butcher shops and retail outlets. Today, boxed beef is usually shipped directly to retailers, who are then required to provide only a minimal amount of additional preparation before the beef can be served or sold to the final consumer.
International trade in cattle and beef is now dominated by a few large exporting and importing countries. The United States is the world’s largest beef and veal producer, though it holds a relatively small portion of the total international beef market. Other large beef-exporting countries include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Canada, and Australia. Large beef-importing countries include Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. As the international trade in beef has increased, animal disease control and food safety have received increased attention. For example, concerns related to standardizing trade issues affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) and foot-andmouth disease have become important issues in the international beef trade. Concerns regarding input use, such as growth-enhancing hormones, and the tracking of animals and meat have also resulted in trade frictions, especially between the United States and the European Union.
Systems for producing beef in the developed world are differentiated primarily by the types of feeds used during the final stages of growing the animal prior to slaughter. This final feeding stage is referred to as “finishing.” In locations with abundant forage resources, cattle are primarily finished by grazing the animals. For instance, grass-fed beef is the primary type of beef produced in Argentina, Brazil, and Australia. In locations with abundant grain supplies, cattle are typically finished by feeding them grains. Grain-fed beef is common in North America, especially the United States and Canada.
The modern beef industry in the developed world faces a number of significant challenges. Some of these are related to the relatively small number of large firms involved in meatpacking and food retailing, which leads to fears on the part of farmers and consumers that these firms may have too much influence on prices and the variety and types of beef products that are available.
Other challenges involve building better connectivity and coordination in the marketing channel between the processes used to produce beef and the characteristics desired by consumers. For example, some consumers perceive that there are significant inconsistencies in the tenderness and flavor of beef, both of which are desirable characteristics, from one eating experience to the next. A growing number of consumers in developing countries are also demanding more information about the types of inputs and processes used to produce beef. This has led to more information being provided to consumers about beef products through labeling and certifications. For example, certifications such as “organic,” assurances about the beef being produced under “natural” conditions, and assurances about the traceability of the beef are becoming more common. Traceability is defined as being able to track the beef product backward through all handlers and processors in the marketing chain to the original farm where the animal was born.
- Lesser, William. 1993. Marketing Livestock and Meat. Binghamton, NY: Food Products Press.
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. 2005. Statistical Yearbook. New York: United Nations Publications.
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