Fragmentation is both the blessing and curse of the U.S. beef cattle industry.

The equity required for production – land, feed, cattle, etc. – is so steep per head that the odds of any single entity ever owning a significant percentage of the industry, as is the case in pork and poultry, is remote at best.

In other words, while different segments enjoy comparative advantages at different points of the supply cycle – such as cow-calf producers currently – no single sector and no single player within a sector can drive the market.

Plus, there are 765,000 operations with beef cattle, according to the 2007 USDA Agriculture Census (the most recent available), across the U.S., which also spreads production risk.

With that said, calf production is concentrated in fewer, larger herds. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), only 9% of beef cattle operations have herds of 100 cows or more, representing 51% of the total U.S. beef cow inventory.

“Most of these were small, part-time operations. About a third of farms that raise beef animals had a beef cow inventory of less than 10 cows, more than half had fewer than 20 cows, and nearly 80% had fewer than 50 cows,” say William D. McBride and Kenneth Mathews, Jr. They authored “The Diverse Structure and Organization of U.S. Beef Cow-Calf Farms,” an ERS study published last year.

As of Jan. 1, 2012, there were 29.9 million beef cows in the U.S., 3% fewer than the year before and the fewest since 1962. The total cowherd (dairy and beef) on Jan. 1 was 90.8 million head, 2% less than the prior year and the smallest total cowherd since 1952.