“The cattle industry is important to rural Iowa. Beef cows graze on pastureland on rolling hills and prevent soil erosion. Southern Iowa and northeast Iowa land is more suited to pasture than row crops, so grazing cattle are good economic enterprises,” says Nancy Degner, Iowa Beef Industry Council (IBIC) executive director.

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Freelance Writer
Robyn Scherer-Carlson is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

The beef industry adds a lot to the economic development in the state. “The ag sectors are very important, and especially when you look at cattle specifically. The industry creates a lot of jobs and generates tax revenue.

Iowa is one of the states that maintained strength and had a lower unemployment rate, and that was partly due to ag and cattle, and hog feeding especially,” states Matte Deppe, CEO, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

Mark Guge (left) Mark More (right)

The history of cattle in Iowa is different than in many other states. “In the late ’60s, Iowa led the nation in the production of grain-fed beef. In the ’70s, the cattle-feeding industry moved to the south and west due to the better climate with less rain, mud and harsh weather. We shipped Iowa corn to the feedlots in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, etc., to feed cattle,” Degner says.

She adds, “Cattle feeding became specialized, with larger feedyards with employees devoted to only feeding cattle. Packing plants followed the cattle.”


The difference in the way cattle are fed in Iowa is that those who raise cattle do it as part of a diversified program. “Cattle feeding in Iowa has always been by a farmer-feeder who raises the grain and feeds the cattle, with less time to devote to just livestock,” she says.

There are more than 30,000 farmers in Iowa, and many cattle producers may only own 10 to 15 cattle. This diversified operation setup allows farmers to utilize everything they produce in the most efficient way.

Cattle in a hoop building

“We have a lot of farmer-feeders in Iowa, and they have diversified production. Many of them grow corn and retain ownership of the calves. They market their corn through their cattle depending on the price of corn, or they purchase ethanol byproducts, and make good use of the ruminant production system,” states Doug Bear, director of industry relations, Iowa Beef Industry Council.

He adds, “In general, the cow-calf operators are in the bottom half of the state, all along the Mississippi. We have a lot of hills and more terrain. There is better crop production in the top half. That creates a symbiotic relationship with manure and crop production.”

The ethanol industry has changed the way cattle are fed and has helped to boost the feeding industry in Iowa. “Over the last decade, since we are also a strong important piece of the ethanol industry, you can see an increase in cattle inventory. The byproduct of getting the energy out of the grain to produce ethanol gives us an advantage in feeding over that last decade,” explains Deppe.

Degner adds, “Cattle feeding in Iowa is expanding as we have the climate, soil and natural precipitation to grow grain to feed cattle. Iowa has an advantage to other states in using the co-product, distillers grains, resulting from ethanol production. We are seeing increasing numbers of cattle on feed in Iowa due to drought, increased corn prices, water issues, etc.”

Cattle grazing on pasture

One innovation that came about in Iowa that revolutionized the beef industry was the invention of boxed beef. Iowa Beef Packers, which is now part of Tyson, was established in 1960 by Currier Holman and A.D. Anderson using a $300,000 loan from the Small Business Administration. They built their plant near Dennison, Iowa, and the whole plant was on one floor.

“It certainly changed the beef industry in the U.S. Before, cattle were shipped to markets like Chicago for processing. Sides and quarters were shipped to retailers, grocery stores, etc., where they cut the quarters into retail cuts.

IBP removed the bones from the cuts, sealed the boneless cuts in heavy plastic and put them in a box – thus boxed beef,” Degner says.

She continues, “A semi-trailer of boxes of boneless beef could carry much more beef than a semi with odd-shaped sides and quarters – much more efficient. IBP changed the entire packing industry. You could buy specific cuts of beef, a box of ribeyes, versus the entire carcass when you didn’t need the other cuts.”

Producing quality beef
Cattlemen in Iowa are also very committed to producing the best beef they can. “We have the natural resources as mentioned as well as cattle producers who have historically raised cattle with good genetics and know how to feed them to produce high-quality beef,” says Degner.

The type of cattle that are raised and fed vary. “We have a lot of black-hided cattle. We do know we have a predominant Angus influence, but we have some great producers of other breeds like Herefords and Gelbviehs. We are starting to see some Holsteins being fed as well,” Bear says.

feeding in winter in a hoop building

Producers’ commitment to their product is very evident. “Beef quality assurance is important here, as it’s a testament from producers to consumers. In Iowa, we are three generations removed from the farm, so beef quality assurance is important to consumers as well,” says Bear.

He adds, “It allows us to share our story. Consumers are engaged and want to know how food is produced, and they want to know that we produce sound, safe, healthy wholesome beef.”

Participation in the program has been high. “We have had great participation with Iowa producers. We have so many diversified farmer-feeders, so this last year we have tried to provide more BQA opportunities. We did have the highest number of producers complete their certifications online. Iowa producers are very proud of what they are producing,” states Bear.

Iowa is the fourth-largest cattle feeding state, with 1.23 million head on feed. There are 3.7 million head of cattle in the state, which ranks them seventh in the nation. The cattle industry generates $5.5 billion in economic activity each year.

The way cattle fit into the agricultural landscape in Iowa makes it unique. “Livestock production is sustainable. We harvest the plants, pasture and grain produced on the land, feed them to cattle, which in turn produce natural, organic fertilizer to be applied back to the land to produce more crops and pasture.

From this process, we get high-quality, nutritious protein. Iowa has always been known for the quality of cattle and beef we produce,” states Degner.  end mark

Robyn Scherer is a freelance writer based in Colorado.

PHOTO 1: Mark Guge (left) and Mark More (right), Estherville, Iowa, check cattle in the pasture. The Guge Family Farm, owned and operated by Mark and Norma Guge, were 2008 regional winners of the Environmental Stewardship Award.

PHOTO 2: Cattle in southwest Iowa in a hoop building, which protects cattle from the intense heat and protects the environment from runoff.

PHOTO 3: Cattle grazing on pasture keeps the soil in place on the Triple U Ranch near Correctionville. Owned and operated by the Utesch family (brothers Craig, Brad, and Kirk), the Triple U Ranch won the national Environmental Stewardship Award in 2000.

PHOTO 4: Hoop buildings for cattle provide shelter in the winter as cattle feeder Will Frazee, Emerson, feeds his cattle on Christmas Day. Photos courtesy of Nancy Degner, Iowa Beef Industry Council.