The cow-calf sector is made up of individuals, organizations and associations of people who are actively engaged in the ownership and management of cattle used to produce beef. For the purpose of this document, the cow-calf sector is inclusive of cow-calf producers (operations that maintain a breeding herd of cows and bulls and produce weaned calves); stockers (operations with grazing or high-roughage diet programs for cattle from the time they are weaned until they are on a finishing ration); and backgrounders (operations with growing programs for cattle from the time they are weaned until they are on a finishing ration).

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of beef, and the cow-calf sector is the largest, most diverse supply chain segment. Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 727,906 beef farms and ranches in the U.S. Of these, 91% are family-owned or individually-operated.

Just like the landscape, cow-calf operations differ across the country, from less than 50 head on a few hundred acres, to thousands spread across hundreds of thousands of acres. Each has unique challenges and management styles, which has provided consumers the broadest amount of choice in the marketplace.

As the world’s largest beef producing country, the U.S. beef industry continuously strives to maintain the high quality of its product, for consumers in the U.S., and across the globe. The cow-calf sector (inclusive of stocker and backgrounding operations) is a very diverse, complex and decentralized sector of the beef supply chain. While this characteristic makes the sector extremely resilient, producers also tend to be fiercely independent. Change can often be slow, and this sector can have a difficult time quickly adjusting to market demands in the absence of economic incentives. U.S. beef exports have continued to grow over time, putting an even greater emphasis on the industry’s sustainability and ability to meet future increases in demand while balancing the protection of its natural resources, the well-being of the animals, and the needs of the people and communities it is comprised of.

Cow-Calf Producer Sustainability Assessment Guides

The following Sustainability Assessment Guides (SAGs) describe and define the metrics for each of the six high-priority sustainability indicators. It also includes resources and tools which will allow individual operators to assess their own operations and identify opportunities for improvement as it relates to the sustainability indicators. Importantly, adoption and use of the methods and tools described in these SAGs is voluntary. The SAGs are primarily intended to assist producers in improving a wide range of outcomes on their operations over time.

Continuous Improvement Process

Industry Improvement

Expanding the number of cow-calf producers in the U.S. who voluntarily adopt these metrics will improve the sustainability of the beef industry through a cumulative effect. Improvement in sustainability outcomes will occur as more producers implement the continuous improvement processes and practices described in this SAG (Figure 3). Producer knowledge and experience will help increase efficiency and effectiveness of implementation. Benchmarking the number of producers across the U.S. who currently implement these metrics will provide the basis for setting goals for expanding adoption rates over the next five years. The USRSB will assess the rate of adoption on a regular basis to track improvements in these metrics.

Producer Improvement

As individual producers adopt the metrics and implement or enhance the plans and programs described in these SAGs, their operations will become more sustainable. Regular reassessments, inherent in the continuous improvement process, allows and encourages producers to improve their operations over time according to the needs and opportunities of the individual operation. Due to the complex interactions with the landscape, climate and market conditions, producers must have the flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. As circumstances change, whether though operational improvements or unplanned setbacks such as drought or fire, priorities and goals may change. Regular self-review and evaluation against the indicators and metrics are important to help managers allocate limited resources appropriately to their operation.

Continuous Improvement Implementation Strategy

As producers apply these metrics and develop and implement the plans and practices described, it may be useful for producers to answer the following questions, to help measure the effectiveness of their efforts, document their progress, and ensure continuous improvement over time. 

View the Continuous Improvement Implementation Strategy 


Select an indicator below to learn more:

Water Resources

Air & Greenhouse Gas

Animal Health & Wellness

Efficiency & Yield

Employee Safety & Well-Being

Land Resources