Idaho Beef Industry Showing Marked Recovery

The beef life cycle is one of the most complex of any food, taking anywhere from two to three years to bring beef from farm to fork. This process involves multiple stakeholders, beginning with farmers and ranchers and ending with packing plant workers. Traditionally, the U.S. beef industry has been comprised of three main sectors ‒ cattle production, feedlots and meat processing. The packing sector is the primary driving factor in the beef industry’s vertical supply chain. The packers are the market outlet for the feeding sector and in turn, the feedlots are the primary market outlet for the cow-calf producers.

An overview of Idaho’s beef industry shows the cattle production sector’s total cow-calf inventory has grown slightly faster than the national average. A 2019 January industry snapshot shows Idaho’s cattle inventory stood at 2.5 million cows and calves, raised across 7,400 farm operations. This inventory comprised 504,000 beef cows that had calved and 625,000 milk cows that had calved. About 48% of this inventory was in south central Idaho, which has a competitive cattle production advantage in forage and crop aftermath grazing resources compared with the rest of the state.

Unlike the production sector, Idaho’s feedlot and meatpacking sectors have not experienced a similar upward trend. From 2001 to 2019, the number of cattle on feed declined by about 15%, while the number of cattle slaughtered dropped by 42%. This significant decline was brought about by the closure of the largest packers in the run-up to the 2008-09 global financial crisis. During the past five years, however, these industries have received vast improvements that have recovered capacity by more than 50%.

chart showing beef industry from 2001-2009

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Services


Covered employment within the beef industry has remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2019, despite experiencing some fluctuations beginning around 2005. During this turbulent period, a balanced employment shift occurred within the industry. Employment declines in the processing sector were offset by employment gains in the cattle production and feedlot sectors.

From 2001 to 2019, Idaho’s employment in the beef industry grew by only 0.3%, with cattle production, feedlot and beef processing sectors contributing 25.7%, 13.5% and -38.9% to the growth, respectively. In comparison, the national average employment in the beef industry fell by 0.9% during that same period. Idaho’s cattle production sector has become the largest sector in the beef industry, with about 1,600 jobs ‒ 54% of the total industry ‒ across the state.

chart showing beef industry employment from 2001-2019

Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Average annual wages in the beef industry have increased at a steady rate over the past 19 years, with an annual average increase of about 2.3% per year. The feedlot sector has historically had higher wages than cattle production and beef processing sectors. Although average wages in the beef industry have been rising, they are still below Idaho’s overall average wage. In 2019, average annual wages in the beef industry were estimated at $38,400, while the state’s average wages were $44,300.

chart showing idaho beef industry wages from 2001-2009

Source: Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics



While Idaho’s beef processing industry has experienced severe economic shocks over the past two decades, resetting its total production capacity back by more than 10 years, vast improvements in the past five years have recovered the state’s beef processing productivity by more than 50%. More efforts are still needed to beef up the industry and support the growing demand for beef products across the nation., regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 332-3570 ext. 3820