Last updated on November 15th, 2023 at 08:46 am

In the United States, there are currently 2.1 million farms, of which 1.75 million are classified as “ranches” and the remaining 350,000 are classified as “farms” (USDA, 2019).

Ever want to know the difference between a farm and a ranch? Then read on!

Definition of Farm

A farm is an agricultural establishment that focuses on the production of crops, livestock, or both. It typically involves cultivating the land, raising animals, and managing various farming activities to yield agricultural products for commercial purposes. Farms can vary in size, ranging from small family-owned operations to large-scale commercial enterprises.

Key characteristics of a farm include:

Ownership and Management

Farms are usually owned and operated by individuals, families, or corporations. Ownership often entails the responsibility of making strategic decisions regarding the farm’s operations, such as choosing which crops to grow, which livestock to raise, and how to market the farm’s products. The owner, or farm manager, plays a crucial role in ensuring the success and profitability of the farm.

Types of Farming

Farms can be specialized in different types of farming based on the predominant agricultural activities they engage in. These may include:

Crop Farming: Focuses primarily on cultivating and harvesting crops, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, or tobacco.

Livestock Farming: Centers around raising animals for meat, dairy, wool, or other animal-based products.

Mixed Farming: Combines both crop and livestock production, leveraging a diversified approach to maximize output and mitigate risk.

Organic Farming: Emphasizes environmentally-friendly practices, including the avoidance of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Sustainable Farming: Incorporates sustainable practices that prioritize long-term environmental and social viability.

Size and Scale

The average size of a ranch in the United States is 879 acres, while the average size of a farm is 434 acres (USDA, 2019).

Farms differ in size and scale, which is often influenced by geographic location, available resources, and economic factors.

While there is no strict definition of what constitutes a small or large farm, the classification is often based on aspects like land area, annual revenue, or the number of livestock units. Small farms typically operate on fewer acres and have lower production volumes, while large farms encompass larger land areas and generate higher output.

Definition of a Ranch

A ranch, in the context of agriculture, refers to a large piece of land typically used for livestock production. It is important to note that the term “ranch” has different definitions depending on the region and the agricultural practices carried out.

However, in a general sense, a ranch involves raising animals such as cattle, horses, sheep, or goats for commercial purposes.

Characteristics of a Ranch

Vast Land Area: One key feature that distinguishes a ranch from a farm is its extensive land area. Ranches tend to encompass large areas, often spanning hundreds or even thousands of acres. This ample space is crucial for providing sufficient grazing areas for the livestock to roam freely.

Focus on Livestock: Unlike farms that might focus on cultivating crops, ranches primarily prioritize the breeding, raising, and management of livestock animals like cattle, horses, sheep, or goats. The main goal of a ranch is to sustainably breed and raise animals for various purposes, such as meat production, dairy products, or equine activities.

Livestock Management on a Ranch

Grazing Management: Ranches utilize grazing systems that involve carefully managing the movement of livestock across the land for optimal forage utilization. This process ensures that the animals have access to diverse forage sources while preventing overgrazing in specific areas.

Herd Health and Nutrition: A ranch places great emphasis on the health and well-being of the livestock. Regular veterinary care is sought to monitor the animals’ health, prevent diseases, and provide necessary treatments.

Additionally, ranchers must carefully manage the nutrition of their herds through balanced feeding programs to maintain their overall health and productivity.

Economic Aspects of Ranching

Revenue Streams: Ranching operations generate income through various channels. These include selling livestock for meat, milk, or other animal products, breeding and selling high-quality livestock, providing services such as horseback riding or guided hunting activities, or leasing land for recreational purposes.

Sustainability and Profitability: While running a ranch requires significant investments in land, animals, and infrastructure, successful ranchers strive to maintain both economic viability and environmental sustainability.

They employ sustainable land management practices, optimize resource utilization, and adapt to market demands to ensure the long-term profitability of the ranching enterprise.

History of Farms

Farms have a long and rich history dating back thousands of years.

Understanding the origins and development of farms is crucial to fully grasp the differences between farms and ranches. 

Ancient Agricultural Practices:

In ancient times, early civilizations recognized the importance of cultivating crops and domesticating animals.

They established rudimentary farming systems to ensure a steady supply of food.

One of the oldest known farming communities emerged in the Fertile Crescent, present-day Iraq and Syria, around 10,000 BCE.

These early farmers began growing crops such as wheat, barley, and lentils, setting the foundation for future farming practices.

Shaping of Agricultural Societies:

As agriculture advanced, it played a pivotal role in the development of human civilizations. The ability to grow surplus crops enabled societies to sustain larger populations, leading to the formation of villages and towns.

Agricultural practices became more sophisticated, utilizing irrigation systems, crop rotation, and the use of metal tools, which increased productivity and efficiency.

Transition to Modern Farming:

The Industrial Revolution marked a significant turning point in the history of farms.

Advancements in technology, such as the invention of the seed drill and mechanized farming equipment, revolutionized agricultural productivity.

With the advent of modern transportation and refrigeration, farmers gained access to broader markets, transforming farming from subsistence-based to commercial-scale operations.

Agricultural Policies and Practices:

Throughout history, governments have played a crucial role in shaping farming practices. Agricultural policies, such as subsidies and land reforms, have influenced the size, structure, and management of farms.

These policies have often focused on ensuring food security, supporting rural economies, and promoting sustainable farming practices.

Types of Ranches

Ranches come in various types, each serving different purposes and focusing on specific activities.  Here are the key types of ranches:

Cattle Ranches:

Cattle ranches are perhaps the most common and well-known type of ranch.

These ranches primarily focus on raising and breeding cattle for beef production.

They often span vast areas of land and require specialized infrastructure such as grazing pastures, water sources, and handling facilities.

Cattle ranches play a significant role in the food production industry and contribute to the supply of meat products worldwide.

Horse Ranches:

Horse ranches, as the name suggests, specialize in the breeding, training, and care of horses.

These ranches may have various purposes, including recreational activities like horseback riding, equestrian competitions, or horse racing.

Horse ranches often provide boarding and training services for horses and may offer riding lessons and other equine-related services.

Sheep Ranches:

Sheep ranches focus on raising and managing sheep for various purposes.

These ranches may primarily engage in sheep farming for wool production, meat production, or both. Sheep ranching requires specialized knowledge and infrastructure for shearing, lambing, and grazing management.

These ranches may also play a role in maintaining the ecological balance in certain regions through sustainable grazing practices.

Types of Farms

When it comes to farms, there are various classifications based on the type of farming practices and the products they specialize in. 

Crop Farms:

Crop farms are primarily focused on cultivating different types of crops for commercial purposes.

These farms have vast fields dedicated to growing grains, fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products.

Crop farms employ agricultural practices such as irrigation, fertilization, and pest control to ensure optimal crop growth and yield.


Livestock farms, also known as animal farms or ranches, specialize in raising livestock for meat, dairy, wool, or other animal products.

This type of farm can include cattle ranches, poultry farms, pig farms, sheep farms, and so on.

Livestock farmers provide the necessary care and management for the animals, ensuring their health, nutrition, and overall well-being.


Dairy farms focus specifically on milk production.

They usually have a herd of dairy cattle, such as cows or goats, which are bred and raised for milk.

These farms invest in specialized equipment and facilities for milking and processing the milk to prepare various dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream.


Poultry farms specialize in raising domesticated birds for their eggs and meat.

Chickens are the most common birds raised on poultry farms, but farms may also raise ducks, turkeys, and other poultry species.

Poultry farmers provide suitable housing, feeding, and medical care to ensure the wellbeing of the birds and optimize egg production or the growth of meat.

Ranch vs. Farm: Pros and Cons

When it comes to comparing ranches and farms, there are several pros and cons to consider. 

Size and Scope:

Ranches are typically larger in size compared to farms, spanning vast acres of land.

They are often involved in livestock production, such as cattle, horses, or sheep, and may have expansive grazing areas.

Farms, on the other hand, tend to be smaller and more focused on crop cultivation and plant-based agriculture. They may grow a wide range of crops, including grains, fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Livestock vs. Crops:

One major distinction between ranches and farms lies in their primary focus.

Ranches prioritize animal husbandry and livestock production, investing in breeding, raising, and selling animals for meat, dairy, or fiber.

Farms, however, concentrate on cultivating crops for consumption, whether it’s for human consumption or feed for animals.

Intensive vs. Extensive Farming:

 In the United States, ranches account for 81% of all agricultural land, while farms account for 19% (USDA, 2019).

Ranching often involves extensive farming practices, where animals are given larger grazing spaces and are primarily raised outdoors.

This allows the animals to graze freely on the open range and requires vast expanses of land for their upkeep.

Farms, on the other hand, can involve both extensive and intensive farming methods. Intensive farming refers to highly controlled environments, such as greenhouses or aquaponics systems, where crops are cultivated under carefully monitored conditions.

Profitability and Market Dynamics:

Ranching can be a profitable venture due to the high demand for meat and animal products.

However, it requires substantial initial investments for acquiring and maintaining livestock, as well as additional resources for their care and management.

Farming, too, can be financially rewarding, but it is subject to market fluctuations and changing consumer preferences.

Crop yields are influenced by various factors like weather conditions, pests, and disease, which can impact profitability.

Environmental Considerations:

Ranches, due to their large-scale livestock operations, may face concerns related to land degradation, water contamination, and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, sustainable ranching practices that prioritize conservation and responsible land management can mitigate these environmental impacts.

Farms aim to strike a balance between productivity and environmental sustainability.

Emphasis is placed on crop rotation, soil health, water management, and the use of organic or regenerative farming practices

Size Differences

 Ranches are typically much larger in size compared to farms.

Ranches often span vast acreages of land, ranging from hundreds to thousands of acres.

On the other hand, farms tend to be smaller in size and may cover anywhere from a few acres to a couple of hundred acres.

Size plays a significant role in determining the activities and operations carried out on these properties.

The larger land area of ranches allows for different types of activities, such as raising livestock on a larger scale, extensive grazing areas, and the cultivation of forage for the animals.

Factors Influencing Size Differences:

Geographic Location: The size of a ranch or farm can be influenced by the geographical location.

In regions with vast open spaces, such as the American West, ranches tend to occupy more considerable land areas than farms due to the availability of expansive grazing lands.

Economic Factors: Economic considerations, including the market demand for specific agricultural products, can influence the size of ranches and farms.

Ranches may require larger land areas to support profitable livestock operations, while farms focused on specialized crops might not need as much land.

Land Availability: The availability of land also plays a crucial role in determining size differences. In regions with limited available agricultural land, farms may be smaller in size, while ranches located in areas with abundant open land can expand to cover extensive territories.


Farms typically have a diverse range of agricultural purposes, including the cultivation of crops and the rearing of various animals. Livestock farms, crop farms, and specialized farms such as dairy farms and poultry farms are all examples of different types of farms.

On the other hand, ranches primarily focus on raising livestock, with a larger expanse of land compared to farms. 

Cattle ranches, horse ranches, and exotic animal ranches are some of the different types of ranches. Ranching involves managing vast stretches of land where animals can graze and thrive.

The key differences between farms and ranches lie in their agricultural practices, land use, and the predominant types of animals or crops found on each. 

However, there are also commonalities between these two entities. Both farms and ranches contribute significantly to the agricultural industry, require careful management, and rely on the expertise of farmers and ranchers to sustain their operations.