The livestock industry in Kansas has long been one of the important aspects of the state's agricultural economy. Cattle drives, packinghouses, and large ranches are a significant part of this picture. The state ranked third in the nation in cattle population by 1890, a position it held for several decades. Although this phase of the industry has been given a great deal of attention, raising and caring for various kinds of animals has long been a vital part of the general farm industry. In fact, mixed farming (grain-livestock) has always been the predominant form of agriculture in the state. Cows, chickens, hogs, and, of course, horses and mules have their own special place in the history of the family farm.
Joseph McCoy and others led the way in making several Kansas towns railroad shipping points for Texas cattle drives during the years following the Civil War. In 1867 Abilene became the state's first major cattle town.
Thousands of head of cattle were shipped on trains from railheads in Kansas to packing plants in Kansas City, Chicago, and other cities to the east. Between 1867 and 1885, towns like Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Newton, Caldwell, and Dodge City became famous for their place in this industry.
"The Great Blizzard" of January 1886 hastened the transformation of the cattle industry in Kansas. Cattle, which reportedly drifted for hundreds of miles during the storm, died by the tens of thousands. The losses on some ranches in the hardest hit areas were as high as 80 percent. In the wake of this great disaster, many ranchers decided that the open range system would no longer work in Kansas.
With the closing of the open range, Kansas cattlemen began to place greater emphasis on the breeding of better stock. Shorthorns and Herefords were popular in the 1890s. One rancher to work for better stock was Frank Rockefeller, the brother of John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil. He owned a Kiowa County cattle ranch of over 12,000 acres and his operation specialized in purebred Herefords. In addition to the large scale ranchers, medium sized and small farmers throughout the state contributed to the growth of the beef cattle industry.
In the 20th century, feedlot operations became an important part of the cattle industry. Young cows were purchased and raised until they reached their ideal "sale" weight. They were then sold to meat packers in Kansas and other states. In recent years, these large feedlot operations have been asked to address various environmental issues.
Hogs were also a very important part of the overall livestock industry in Kansas. In 1885, the state's hog population reached 3 million head. This meant that there were more than two pigs for every person in the state. For many years, butchering hogs in the fall of the year was an important farm activity. It often became a community or neighborhood project.
Although the cattle boom attracted the most attention, sheep were an important part of the Kansas livestock industry during the 1870s and 1880s. Stock sheep numbers reached an all time high of 1,270,000 head in 1884.
Dairying was also important. Larger, more specialized dairy farms would become common later, but, during the early years, virtually every farm had at least one milk cow. Farm women often supplemented the family income by selling extra butter to local merchants. In 1884, nearly 24 million pounds of butter were produced. Before the end of the decade, there were over 650,000 milk cows on Kansas farms.
Work animals made up a vital segment of the livestock population on all farms well into the 20th century. Although oxen were fairly common in the 19th century, horses and mules were the primary source of power.
Poultry products were also important to the Kansas farm economy. In 1903, nearly 6.5 million dollars worth of poultry and eggs were sold by producers throughout the state.
Resources on livestock.
Kansas Heritage, our popular history magazine
- "Comes A Horseman - The Farmers," Autumn 2003
Kansas History, our scholarly journal
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 1969
Date Modified: August 2016
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.