Pennsylvania is experiencing something of a beef boom.
Between 2012 and 2017, the state’s beef cow herd grew by almost half, to 218,000 cows.
Almost every rural county saw double-digit percentage growth, but some of the largest gains came from natural-gas producing regions that already had a lot of breeding stock.
In Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga and Washington counties, 300 farms added 14,000 cows.
Washington County has the most beef cows in the state — more than 12,000 across 650 farms.
The numbers, released last month in USDA’s Census of Agriculture, lend credence to years of discussion in the cattle industry about farmers using gas drilling royalties to go into beef production, often by leaving the dairy industry.
Jackie Root is one of the farmers who did just that.
After 35 years of dairy farming, she and her husband sold the milking herd in 2009 and replaced it with cow-calf pairs.
“We intended to keep farming,” said Root, of Lawrence-ville, Tioga County.
Farmers in the area often spent most of their careers paying off their farms, only to sell the farm — and therefore their longtime homes — to finance their retirement.
Oil and gas royalties have allowed some farmers to keep their land and keep farming in their later years at a more leisurely pace.
Running beef cattle is less labor intensive than dairy farming — though, Root said, it’s not necessarily more profitable.
That dairy farming has been in decline for some time may have also eased some farmers’ transition to beef, she said.
In some cases, farmers used their royalty money to buy a long-sought vacation cottage or boat, while others invested in farm equipment or maintenance.
As a dairy farmer, Root spent long hours each year maintaining their barbed-wire fences.
“When we sold the dairy and had money, high-tensile fence went up all over the farm,” she said.
While beef breeding has surged since 2012, cattle feeding in Pennsylvania has actually declined 7%.
The state now has 120,000 cattle on feed, which is about half the number of breeding cows.
Lancaster County has the most cattle on feed, about 30,000, but it also lost a whopping 15,000 feeders since the last Ag Census.
Cattle feeding has been squeezed by the county’s success in other agricultural sectors, said Larry Weaver, an Angus breeder from New Holland.
“Our soils are too productive in terms of grains and other specialty crops to grow the beef business in Lancaster County,” Weaver said.
In mountainous western and north-central Pennsylvania, by contrast, the farms are better for pasture than crops. The slopes are steep, and some of the land has been degraded by mining.
Lancaster County’s booming poultry industry has outcompeted cattle farmers for local corn.
And the county’s farms just aren’t big enough to compete with modern feedlots.
Unless a farm is feeding several hundred cattle, “it’s not a real profitable thing anymore,” Weaver said.
A lot of Virginia feeder cattle that would have gone to Lancaster, York or Lebanon counties a few decades ago are now going to the Midwest, he said.
While Pennsylvania’s beef production model is changing, Weaver and Root agree that niche production — local, grass-fed, organic — presents a big marketing opportunity.
“I think that has a prominent effect on the little guy,” Weaver said.
And in fact, most of the state’s beef operations are modest in size. Most have fewer than 50 cows or 100 feeders.
The catch is that producers can’t expect customers to happen across a farm on a back road.
Farmers need to market their beef in more populated areas, Root said.