South Dakota is home to Real Beef

South Dakota is home to real beef!

While 81-year-old Clara Peller couldn’t quite find the beef in the 1984 classic TV commercial for fast-food burger chain Wendy’s, it’s very easy to find plenty of real beef right here in our state. We proudly raise it and serve it from West River to East River.


Beef cattle are raised on about half of our state’s nearly 30,000 farms and ranches, with a total of 4 million head of cattle raised here in 2019. That’s 4.5 times more head of cattle than humans who call South Dakota home! The next closest state is Nebraska with 3.4 cattle per person.

The cattle industry starts with cows and calves, usually grazing on native grassland or pasture. During winter, they are often fed a mixed ration that includes hay and corn silage. Stocker or backgrounding operations raise young animals for herd replacement or for finishing at feedlots.

DYK: Most herds in South Dakota are between 100 and 500 cattle.


You probably know that corn makes ethanol, a renewable, environmentally friendly fuel blend for our vehicles. Corn also becomes feed for livestock.

Out of the 729 million bushels of corn grown in South Dakota in 2020, 569 million bushels are used right here in the state. The majority (64%) is processed at one of 16 biorefineries in the state. Each bushel can become 2.9 gallons of ethanol.

A co-product of the dry mill ethanol process also turns each bushel into 15.2 pounds of Dried Distillers Grains with Solubles (or DDGS), a high-protein source for livestock feed. Last year, our state's farms and ranches fed 110 million bushels to livestock, including cattle, hogs, dairy cows, and poultry.


As cattle grow and gain more weight, they are often “finished” on a high-energy, protein-rich feed ration that includes corn in some manner.

It’s this step that is credited for giving corn-fed beef its marbling for incredible flavor and tender texture as a quality protein source.


While the media tends to show the iconic images of the Wild West cowboy astride a horse overlooking a wide-open pasture of grazing cows as the sun sets across a movie-star panorama, not all cattle production looks like that…at least not all the time. But we are fortunate in South Dakota to have many family farms and ranches that do look that picturesque.

Ranchers provide quality care for their animals because 98% of all South Dakota farms and ranches are family operations with most operating for more than 25 years and plan to pass on the business to the next generation.

The Moes Family Feedlot north of Watertown is a prime example of South Dakota beef production. Started in 1987, their efforts over the past three decades earned them the prestigious Environmental Stewardship Award in 2018 from the National Cattleman's Beef Association.

"When we do all this, we’re thinking of the next generation. We want to make this land as good—or better—than when we got it for them. So by making it as good or better for them they can keep growing and expanding, and keep this symbiotic relationship with the livestock and the wildlife."

Bryan Moes Moes Family Feedlot of Florence (north of Watertown), SD


Most of us have heard the slogan “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” because of the famous voiceover work by actors Matthew McConaughey and Sam Elliott on TV and radio spots promoting lean beef as funded by the Beef Checkoff Program.

Along with the familiar “Hoe-Down” music (hear it below) by Aaron Copland from the ballet Rodeo, that slogan has been used quite successfully since 1992.


With May being Beef, Barbecue and Hamburger Month, we are proud to be part of the beef industry here in South Dakota.

Because this is such a “meaty” topic, we will be highlighting it twice this month at! This blog post gives an overview of the cattle industry because this is really where it all starts.

Later in the month, we will feature the beef most of us appreciate…the kind you eat! Whether it’s in the form of a steak, hamburger, roast, ribs, you name it.

We will share recipes and include local sources to purchase meat raised right here in the state, directly from the butcher and cattle rancher!


May is also World Trade Month which is an important part of the beef industry. Overseas markets demand America’s corn-fed beef for its high-quality taste and texture.

According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), 14.1% of U.S. beef is exported across the globe. Japan is our top customer, as we provided almost 47% of all their imported beef.

U.S. beef has had a record year in Taiwan and dominates its chilled beef market with a 76% share. Other customers include Mexico, Canada, Korea, China/Hong Kong, Africa and Central America. Over the past five years, beef and pork exports have grown by 28%.

Back to Farming & Food Archive