Colorado’s beef industry traces its roots back to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when cowboys drove cattle across the plains in some of the most iconic imagery of the American West. However, the state’s modern beef industry did not begin until after World War I, when stock raisers began adopting feedlots and other industrial methods. By the 1960s, these changes had given way to a beef-processing industry centered on the Great Plains of northeast Colorado, a historically important ranching region. Today, beef and beef processing represent a multi-billion-dollar industry in Colorado.
After the American Civil War, the Chisolm, Western, and Lonestar cattle trails brought cattle from Kansas into eastern Colorado. The violent removal of Indigenous people during the 1860s allowed large ranchers such as John Wesley Iliff to graze their cattle on the wide-open prairies. This practice had its price, however. By the mid-1880s, the prairie grasses were denuded by large herds and harsh droughts. The brutal winter of 1886–87, known as the Great Die Up, killed off thousands of cattle on the prairie; almost a quarter of the large herds was lost. This event started a shift that led to the enclosure of cattle ranches and to feedlots after World War I.
The 1916 Grazing Homestead Act and the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act helped to privatize and support cattle-ranching interests, some would claim at the expense of farmers. Technical advancements such as refrigerated rail cars also opened markets for Western ranchers to sell their beef from coast to coast. Improvements in irrigation, such as the 1947 invention of the center-pivot irrigation system, allowed year-round food production for herds, which supported more stationary ranches. The increased availability and lower price of beef in turn changed the American diet as well as the beef-processing industry. Consumption of beef increased exponentially in the next twenty years. In Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, production of dressed beef increased threefold between 1950 and 1987.
Between 1950 and 1964, the number of cattle feedlots increased from approximately 1,400 to almost 20,000 in Colorado. Cattle feeders in northeast Colorado were dissatisfied with the cattle markets in Denver and inconvenienced by the need to ship their cattle 120 miles for less-than-desirable prices. To better support local feeders, beef-processing facilities opened in Greeley, Fort Morgan and Sterling.
In Greeley the Monfort family is synonymous with beef. Between the end of World War I and the 1970s, company founder Warren Monfort built a vast beef empire that began with large feedlots and ended with an innovative, streamlined meatpacking process. The wealthy rancher partnered with and eventually bought out Capital Packing to open a large packaging facility for which his herds were the primary supplier. In 1969 Capital Packing processed more than 300,000 cattle and grossed more than $150 million.
Sterling’s beef-processing facility, known as Sterling Colorado Beef Company, opened in January 1966. Operated by four cattle-feeding firms, it promised a $20 million market for local cattle and an estimated $450,000 payroll. By April it processed approximately 500 head of cattle a day with a workforce of more than 100. Ten years later, the Sterling Colorado Beef Company reorganized and became a producers’ cooperative. The goal was to support a better market for the large cattle feeders in northeastern Colorado. The co-op consisted of 185 feeders and six outside investors, providing a much-needed infusion of capital for the facility.
The Fort Morgan Dressed Beef facility opened in 1966. Construction took longer than initially planned, but the $650,000 facility began operation in May. The factory was equipped to process approximately 2,400 cattle per week. Before it opened, management offered tours for the public, and large crowds arrived to view the completed facility. Management promised that sixty employees would eventually work at the facility.
However, plagued by financial difficulties, the factory went bankrupt within a year and was sold to American Beef Packers. This Iowa-based company turned the factory around and funded a half-million-dollar expansion project. By 1968 the factory could process 1,500 cattle per day and employed 200 locals on a payroll of more than $2 million. The factory committed to serving local feeders, and more than 50 percent of the cattle it processed were from ranches within eighty miles.
An economic downturn in the 1970s presented challenges for the beef industry, and the factory suffered. Beef consumption in the United States began a long, slow decline. Disputes with the city of Fort Morgan over odor and sewage also caused problems. Following a truck strike and an attempt to reorganize the company, American Beef Packers declared bankruptcy in 1975.
In 1976 the factory reopened under the Morgan County Beef Company, a local consortium of feeders. This group owned the factory for the next three years. Under its leadership the workforce expanded, as the factory eventually employed 375 workers on a payroll of $4 million. By 1979 Morgan County Beef Company merged with the Sterling Colorado Beef Company. In 1980 the enlarged Sterling Beef Company announced an expansion of the Fort Morgan factory, including a new bone-breaking facility. It opened two years later at a cost of approximately $6 million.
1980s and 1990s
The next two decades were difficult ones for the beef industry. Pork and chicken producers ran an effective marketing campaign touting the health benefits of eating their products, causing a drop in demand for beef. The epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease,” in the early 1990s also contributed to the downturn in beef consumption. To address this decline, ranchers began to emphasize the quality of their product to consumers, specifically by marketing “grass-fed” beef products, which required only a simple shift in food sources at feedlots. Colorado’s processing facilities also offered different cuts of beef that were easier to cook in the hope of increasing consumption.
Northeastern Colorado’s beef processors weathered this turbulent period in different ways. In Sterling, the Sterling Colorado Beef Company factory processed thousands of cattle in the late twentieth century, but the cooperative was not without its problems. Despite an 8,400-square-foot expansion of the factory in 1993, demand for beef outpaced the supply of cows in the Sterling area, which led the Excel Beef Company to close the facility in 1997.
In Greeley, the Capital Packing facility endured ups and downs before being purchased by ConAgra foods in 1987. During a large-scale reorganization of the company, ConAgra sold its beef division to Swift & Co. in 2002. The facility, now owned by JBS USA, is currently the largest employer in Weld County.
In Fort Morgan, Excel, a subsidiary of the Cargill company, purchased the beef factory in 1987 and made it into one of the largest employers in Morgan County. With more than 2,000 employees, the Fort Morgan plant has one of the largest beef-processing workforces in the country. During the 1990s, Temple Grandin, a nationally known advocate for humane treatment of cattle, helped to redesign the plant’s holding pens.
The success of the JBS facility in Greeley and the Cargill plant in Fort Morgan has attracted immigrants and changed the social landscape in those towns. In the early 2000s, Cargill was the largest employer of Latino workers in Morgan County. After Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) targeted Latino workers in Greeley, refugee-focused US immigration policy brought an increasing number of Somali refugees to the area. The shifting workforce added new dynamics to the usual worker-employer tensions. In the 2010s, Cargill had to settle a discrimination suit after Muslim employees were fired over prayer breaks, while JBS experienced strikes over health care and, in 2020, a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the plant.
In 2019 beef was Colorado’s top agricultural export, amounting to approximately $4 billion (10 percent of the state’s agricultural exports). Consumer preferences now favor grass-fed beef and transparency in how animals get from ranch to factory to plate. Consumers also express concerns about the environmental impact of cattle ranching, specifically the large-scale emission of methane, a greenhouse gas. The industry recognizes the need to make its practices more sustainable, and emphasizes that grass-fed beef can improve soil health and carbon capture on grazing lands. Today, beef consumption is rebounding, and production in Colorado has increased over the last four years.