The Beef Lifecycle: From Farm to Fork

The beef lifecycle is perhaps one of the most unique and complex lifecycles of any food. It takes anywhere from 2-3 years to bring beef from farm to fork. The beef community is not vertically integrated, meaning that an animal will change owners or caretakers an average of 2-3 times during its lifetime. Each caretaker along the way specializes in a key area of a cow’s life, providing the proper care, nutrition and animal health plans that the animal needs at that specific point in its life.

The farmers and ranchers at each stage of the beef lifecycle utilize diverse resources available in their geographic area, such as local feedstuffs, land that can’t be used to raise crops, or grass that might grow all year around. The entire beef community focuses on proper animal care, such as Beef Quality Assurance, in order to raise high-quality beef for millions of people around the world to enjoy.

In short, it takes abroad community of dedicated people working together to bring beef from farm to fork. The beef community is made up of cow-calf ranches, stockers & backgrounders, livestock auction markets, feedyards (feedlots) and packing plants  See the beef lifecycle infographic below for a visual snapshot of how beef goes from farm to fork.

Below is a brief overview of the beef lifecycle:

  1. Cow-Calf Farm or Ranch – Raising beef begins with ranchers who maintain a breeding herd of mama cows that give birth to calves once a year. When a calf is born, it weighs about 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze on grass pastures.
  2. Weaning –Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at about six to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves continue to graze on grass pastures. About 1/3 of the female cows will stay on the farm to continue to grow and to become new mama cows the following year.
  3. Stockers and Backgrounders – After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing on grass and pastures during the stocker and backgrounder phase.
  4. Livestock Auction Markets – After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cattle are sold at livestock auction markets.
  5. Feedyard – Mature cattle are often moved to feedyards (also called feedlots). Here cattle typically spend four to six months, during which time they have constant access to water and room to move around. They are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet made up of roughage (such as hay, grass and fiber), grain (such as corn, wheat and soybean meal) and local renewable feed sources, such as the tops of sugar beet plants, potato peelings or even citrus pulp. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal. Feedlots can range in size, shape and geographic location.
  6. Packing Plant – Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a packing plant (also called a processing facility). United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation of safety, animal welfare and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants establishments. If animals are sick or have an injury the USDA inspector will deem the animal unfit for human consumption, and the animal will not enter the food supply.
  7. Food Service and Retail – Beef is shipped and sold in the United States and abroad. In the retail and food service (restaurant) channels, operators take steps to provide consumers with the safest, most wholesome and nutritious products possible. For delicious recipes for beef, including tips on cooking steak and making the perfect hamburger, visit

It takes a dedicated community of people to bring beef from farm to fork, but the result is wholesome, delicious and high-quality beef that people can feel good about. Learn more about each segment of the beef lifecycle by clicking on the above links or by visiting farmer and rancher blogs, such as:


  1. People eat meat because they have not entered a slaughterhouse. When they do, the become vegetarians instantly. These are the final days of the ag-gag law that prohibits taking video footage of horrors these criminals inflict on innocent criatures.

    • FactsAboutBeef says:

      Yolanda – here is a video about what happens at slaughterhouses, if you are interested. This was produced with the help of Temple Grandin, who is a world-renowned animal behaviorist and a leading advocate for improved animal welfare. Thanks for reading.

  2. I am a grain/beef farmer and have a corn maze in the fall. I would like to educate people about beef facts and like the Beef lifecycle poster, how can I get one of these to display.

  3. Excellent article. I absolutely love this website.
    Keep it up!

  4. Something bugs me about animals being treated as commodities.
    Watch on line:
    a- The Auction Block
    b- Animal cruelty at livestock auctions
    c- Watch: hidden camera video exposes shocking animal abuse at livestock markets.
    Also, why cattle needs to be branded? In this new Era, it is about time for ranchers to come up with a humane way to identify them. Let a hot iron hit your body and scream hard!!

    • No you need to relies that you are just a tiny speck in the world and that others like meat I see your point I was a vegatarian for a year but don’t be mean to others and this website because you disagree with them

      • I don’t buy they saying that when the cows are hanging (“supposedly stunned) they move the legs because of the spinal reflexes, if they are properly stunned they would not be moving at all. Branding is what bugs me the most. Nobody has found out how long the animal suffers after being branded, probably days. I cried for days watching how a cow was branded in the cheeks, the screaming was the saddest sound I have ever heard, I know it had to be excruciating pain. Come on, this method should be banned and replaced for another more humane. It is routine for ranchers, this is a lot of suffering and needs to stop.

      • Hi Yolanda – according to Dr. Temple Grandin, world renowned animal behaviorist and one of the leading animal physiologists, an animal that has been properly stunned will still have legs that may kick, although the neck should be loose. A normal spasm can occur to cause some neck flexing but the neck should relax back down within 20 seconds. The observations you have seen in videos of animals with leg twitches are normal and expected for this type of stunning. If you’d like to read more about humane animal stunning and slaughter, you can view several resources on Dr. Grandin’s site
        According to Beef Quality Assurance, cattle should never be branded on the face or jaw, so it’s highly unfortunate that the farmer or rancher chose to brand in that fashion, but please be assured that is by far the minority and not the majority. Branding should be done on the hip, either with hot iron branding or freeze branding. A rancher should always be trained in the branding procedure and should be able to recognize complications. Branding, while potentially painful in the short-term, is required by law in some states and is a highly valuable form of animal identification that farmers and ranchers employ. If you have more questions about branding, feel free to visit


  1. […] there is much more to the world of beef than many people realize. There are many stages of the beef lifecycle, but today we are highlighting one specifically – livestock auction […]

  2. […] The majority of livestock are sold at auction. Today, it is not uncommon for weaned calves to be sold online. However, there are still hundreds of sale barns all over the United States that hold live auctions on a weekly basis. The Marana Stockyards, located just outside of Tucson, is an example of one such sale barn. For more information on the complete beef lifecycle, visit […]

  3. […] The Beef Lifecycle: From Farm to Fork […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: