Search Results for: beef life cycle

The Beef Lifecycle Begins on the Cow-Calf Operation

The entire beef community works every day to produce high-quality beef for Americans. So, where does it all begin? The beef lifecycle begins on a cow-calf operation; where farmers and ranchers maintain a herd of mama cows for breeding.

First, cows (mature female cattle) and bulls (intact adult male cattle) are bred to produce calves. During the 9-month gestation period, farmers and ranchers play close attention to mama cows to make sure there are no problems with the pregnancy.

If any issues arise, a farmer, rancher or veterinarian can step in to ensure the health and safety of the mama and baby.

Farmers and ranchers are there every step of the way

Cows receive assistance from farmers and ranchers, and often times a veterinarian, during the birthing process, which is also known as calving. When a calf is born, it weighs between 60-100 pounds depending on its parent’s genetics and how well the mama cow’s body performed nutritionally during gestation. A newborn calf will spend the first few months of life drinking its mother’s milk and grazing on vast grass pastures. Today, cattle are born and raised in almost every state around the country on farms and ranches such as Debbie Lyons-Blythe’s ranch in Kansas or in South Dakota at Jake and Carolyn Geis’ ranch.

This calf is being branded for identification and herd management. Photo courtesy Jennie Hodgen

This calf is being branded for identification and herd management. Photo courtesy Jennie Hodgen

Animal safety is a priority

It is important for farmers and ranchers to be able to identify their cattle for the safety and security of their herd. Some cattle farmers and ranchers may use ear tags, which identify the animal with a number tagged in their ear (sort of like an earring). Before beginning the weaning process, other calves may receive a custom brand either by hot iron or freeze branding, so they are easily identifiable from a distance. The branding process does not cause long-term harm or pain to cattle, and it prevents them from getting lost or stolen. Additionally, some ranchers in western states are required by law to brand their cattle.

Before four months of age, the testicles are often removed from male calves being raised for beef through a process called castration. Castration occurs because bulls display more aggressive behavior and can cause harm to other animals or farmers and ranchers, so removing the testicles improves overall safety for the animal and for the animal caretakers. Removal is quick, low-stress and the calf begins the healing process immediately.

Cattle with horns can cause injury to other cattle they encounter throughout their lifetime. For this reason, horns are removed from calves in a process called dehorning. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that cattle be dehorned at the earliest age possible.

For these procedures and more, education and tools are provided to cattle farmers and ranchers to ensure proper cattle care. Introduced in 1987, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program was developed to ensure proper cattle care through every stage of the beef lifecycle.

The lifecycle continues

At 6-10 months of age, and approximately 500 pounds, calves are ready to begin weaning. Weaning is the process by which calves are moved away from their mothers in order to graze on grass pastures, where they eat grass and forages that are indigestible to humans. The weaning process allows calves to become independent of their mother’s milk so they may continue to grow and thrive on the pasture.

After weaning is complete, the beef lifecycle continues. Many calves are purchased at livestock auction markets by farmers and ranchers called stockers and backgrounders. However, some calves (about one in three female calves) are kept on the cow-calf operation as breeding animals or “mama cows to-be,” and the lifecycle begins again.

In every stage of the beef lifecycle , farmers and ranchers are dedicated to the health and safety of their animals at the cow-calf operation. Cow-calf operations are just the beginning of how the beef community comes together to bring beef from farm to fork.

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 beefitswhatfordinner.com.

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:

The Beef Lifecycle

Would Removing Beef from the Diet Actually Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Ashley Broocks, Emily Andreini, Megan Rolf, Ph.D., and Sara Place, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University

This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the US Department of Agriculture. 

Many people have suggested that removing beef from the human diet could significantly lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In reality, completely removing beef from the diet would likely not result in huge declines in GHG emissions and would have negative implications for the sustainability of the U.S. food system.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beef cattle production was responsible for 1.9 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2013. Comparing food production (essential for human life) to transportation and electricity (non-essential for human survival, but important to our modern lifestyles) is problematic. Electricity and transportation produce much of the GHG emissions in the United States, but most people do not call for the elimination of electricity or transportation. Instead, efforts are made to lower the GHG emissions produced to provide the same energy and transportation services (e.g. switching to renewable energy sources for electricity generation).

U.S> EPS GHG Emissions Inventory for 2013

Studying the different ways resources like feed, water and land can be used more efficiently throughout the beef lifecycle to reduce GHG emissions per pound of beef would provide the means to maintain the same level of food production while reducing GHG emissions. Beef production has made impressive advances to meet the protein demands of a growing population while reducing the amount of natural resources required. For example, due to improved genetics, animal nutrition, management, and the use of growth promoting technologies, the U.S. beef community has decreased its GHG emissions per pound of beef 9-16 percent from the 1970s to today.

Another key component of reducing GHG emissions from the beef system is the role of the consumer. Over 20 percent of edible beef is wasted at grocery stores, restaurants and in the home. As with other foods, the amount of non-renewable resources used and the environmental impacts that went into producing the portions of beef that are being sent to a landfill are often overlooked. Consumers could improve beef sustainability by 10 percent if beef waste were reduced by half.

Additionally, cattle have the ability to utilize forages such as grass and hay, and by-products (e.g. distillers grains) that are unfit for human consumption. Cattle can utilize cellulose, one of the world’s most abundant organic molecules, that is indigestible by humans, and can also convert low-quality feeds into high-quality protein from land not suited for cultivation, thereby reducing soil erosion and enhancing soil carbon storage. U.S. beef farmers and ranchers feed their cattle feed sources that are not in direct competition with humans and/or would have gone to waste.

Beef is a valuable asset to the human diet. Along with being a significant source of lean protein, beef provides key nutrients such as iron, zinc and B vitamins. Removing beef from the food chain would result in consumers having to seek alternative protein and micronutrient sources. As with all foods, the production of beef has impacts, but direct emissions from the U.S. beef community are only estimated to be 1.9 percent of the total U.S. GHG emissions.[1]

[1] https://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/ghgemissions/US-GHG-Inventory-2015-Chapter-Executive-Summary.pdf

Animal Welfare is a Top Priority for America’s Beef Producers

Animal welfare is a contentious and passionate issue, but most importantly, a number one priority for the dedicated farmers and ranchers of the United States. The truth is that farmers and ranchers are just like you – they care about providing the highest standards of animal welfare for their livestock and are committed to preventing animal abuse.

Farmers and ranchers are quick to condemn any type of animal abuse. Adam Navinskey, a beef and crop farmer from Kansas, explained, “When I see animal abuse on TV or the Internet, it makes me wonder what is wrong with these people? I don’t understand how someone can consciously abuse an animal and I don’t think any punishment would be severe enough to make up for what they did.”

For all farmers and ranchers, like Adam, there are a host of research-based standards that farmers and ranchers adhere to each day ensure their animals are well cared for. Healthy animals are the key to safe beef.

Many farmers and ranchers complete animal welfare programs which provide them with the tools and education to ensure proper cattle care. For example, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program offers up-to-date, scientifically-proven best management practices. In 2003, the BQA program developed The Cattle Industry’s Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle, making it very clear that “persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.” Feeding and nutrition, health care, handling and transportation are just a few of the areas addressed by the code.

An example of a serpentine ramp to move cattle calmlly, developed by Temple Grandin

An example of a serpentine ramp or “S ramp” developed by Dr. Temple Grandin

In the 1980’s Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and consultant to the livestock industry on animal behavior, invented a now widely used animal handling facility design known as the Serpentine ramp, or “S ramp.” In an effort to improve the handling of animals, this curved, s-shaped ramp allowed reduced stress to livestock by taking advantage of natural cattle behaviors. The S-ramp is just one example of a method that farmers and ranchers use to abide by care and handling codes, to ensure a high standard of animal welfare.

Programs like BQA provide farmers and ranchers with best practices on transporting cattle by avoiding undue stress caused by overcrowding, excess time in transit or improper handling during loading and unloading. While transporting cattle, farmers and ranchers are careful to abide by the code and sometimes they will even hire a livestock specialist to train other employees how to properly handle cattle with quality assured methods.

As animal caretakers, farmers and ranchers are highly concerned about their livestock. Their animals are their livelihood, and they are committed to providing a comfortable, safe environment throughout the beef lifecycle.

Beef and Water Use: Has the Drought had an Impact?

Lately there has been a lot of talk about water and agriculture, specifically related to the California drought. Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.

Over the past several years, severe drought in states such as California, Texas and Oklahoma has reduced the number of beef cattle significantly, resulting in the smallest U.S. cowherd since the 1950s. At the same time, the beef community has been able to raise more beef per animal through improvements in feed efficiency and animal health. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization cites these two areas of improvement as the key to future reductions in use of water and other natural resources.

ChildandWaterTroughCattle, nature’s recyclers

Cattle have a unique four-stomach digestive system called a rumen, which helps them get the nutrients they need from parts of fruit and vegetable plants that humans don’t consume or can’t digest—like carrot tops and almond hulls. These “leftovers” are often mixed into their feed, along with grasses and grains like alfalfa and corn, ultimately resulting in high-quality beef.

Water used in producing beef

Taking into account all water from farm to fork—including water for cattle to drink as well as water used in irrigation of pasture land that cattle may graze on, growing crops (such as the carrot tops and almond hulls) that cattle may eat, harvesting and processing beef, water used for refrigeration units at the grocery store or at a restaurant to keep food cold, for transportation as well as in cooking, and even the water taken into account for food waste—it takes 617 gallons of water per one pound of boneless beef consumed, according to a recent beef industry sustainability lifecycle assessment, funded by the Beef Checkoff.

Keep in mind that water for raising beef is not “used up.” The water cycle we all studied in elementary school still works. Water percolates into aquifers, it runs down streams into lakes and oceans, it evaporates and returns as precipitation, and cattle pastures provide land to filter this water and return it to the ecosystem.

Sustainability is taken seriously by farmers and ranchers

Everything on Earth requires the use of natural resources like land, energy and water—it’s what we do to be stewards of those resources that is most important. Today, beef is produced using fewer resources than ever before. The largest and most comprehensive lifecycle assessment conducted on a food found that from 2005 to 2011 the beef community achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use and a 10 percent improvement in water quality.

Conservation is never complete; farmers and ranchers will continue to work hard to reduce water use and improve water quality. Preserving farms and ranches for generations to come is a top priority.

How Beef Goes from Pasture to Plate

The beef lifecycle is a complex system that requires a broad community of people working together to create high-quality beef. These people – farmers, ranchers, animal caretakers, veterinarians, nutritionists and those involved in packing/processing — are committed to responsibly raising beef. There are a variety of steps in the lifecycle, and ‘How Beef Goes from Pasture to Plate’ gives a firsthand look into the beef community.

Raising Beef Isn’t Sustainable? It’s More Sustainable Than You Think

Myth: Raising beef isn’t sustainable.

The Facts: To the beef community, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, social diligence and economic opportunity while meeting the growing global demand for beef.  Improving the sustainability of beef is of the utmost importance to the cattlemen and women who are working to ensure the longevity of the industry and are committed to continually improve how beef is responsibly raised. The strides made by one generation will continue to be carried out and improved upon by the next because we recognize that sustainability is a journey, not a destination.

The beef industry completed a first-of-its-kind life cycle assessment (LCA) — certified by NSF International — that provides benchmarks on economic, environmental and social contributions in the United States and a roadmap for the journey toward more sustainable beef.  After two years of data collection and research, the beef community has proven it’s on the right path forward with a 7 percent improvement in environmental and social sustainability from 2005 to 2011.

This research examined the sustainability of the entire beef supply chain from pasture to plate and beyond, also examining the impact of food waste on sustainability.  Innovation and enhancements in management and practices have led to some major improvements in sustainability, such as:

  • 32 percent reduction in occupational illnesses and accidents
  • 10 percent improvement in water quality
  • 7 percent reduction in landfill contributions
  • 3 percent reduction in water use
  • 2 percent reduction in resource consumption and energy use
  • 2 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Cow-calf Operations, Feedlots and Feed Production

From 2005 to 2011, improvements in crop yields, machinery technology, irrigation techniques, fertilizer management, nutrition and animal performance have resulted in lowering the environmental footprint of the beef production process and improving on-farm sustainability. Increased adoption of Beef Quality Assurance protocols and other industry-led animal handling programs have improved our social sustainability. As greater efficiencies in crop production and animal handling become available, on-farm sustainability will continue to improve.

Packing and Case-ready Sectors

Recent advances in the capture of biogas from lagoons and the conversion of that biogas to energy has reduced the environmental fingerprint of the packing sector. By converting a byproduct of the beef harvesting process into a replacement for energy, the packing sector has decreased use of electricity, natural gas and diesel. Additionally, the installation of closed-loop cooling water systems and wastewater recycling has greatly reduced water usage and improved water quality. “Case-ready” products have dramatically reduced their fingerprint with advances in “right-size” packaging, improved water use, increased plant utilization optimization and a reduction in the pre-chain impacts of cardboard manufacturing. Opportunities exist to expand this technology into more packing plants moving forward and to continue optimizing packaging.

What is My Role?

Consumers also have opportunities to contribute to more sustainable beef, and together with the beef community, can make continuous improvements of their own. According to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. In addition to food security issues, food waste has environmental impacts as well, contributing to greenhouse gases from solid waste landfills. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), beef is one of the least wasted commodities, with 20 percent spoiled or not eaten at the consumer level. That still leaves a lot of room for improvement. Consumers can help reduce the environmental fingerprint of the beef industry up to 10 percent by cutting plate waste and spoilage in half and by upgrading to energy-efficient appliances.

Investment in Safety Means Beef is Safer From E.Coli

Myth:  Recent E. coli recalls of beef means beef is less safe today than it used to be.

News about recalls of beef because of E. coli may cause concern that beef is not as safe today as it once was. In reality, improvements by the beef community mean that beef is safer today and chance of foodborne illness related to beef has decreased.

The Facts: The safety of the U.S. beef supply continues to improve due to the commitment of the beef community and oversight from the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The beef community has a long-standing commitment to providing the public with the safest beef possible – a pledge that is backed by research, best practices and public education.

Here are some answers to common questions about recalls of beef due to E. coli: [Read more…]

Cows cause global warming? Incorrect. Beef production accounts for less emissions than you might think.

Myth: Cows cause global warming

Beef and cattle production have been targeted as one of the United States’ biggest producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the numbers say that livestock or cattle contribute as much as 18 percent of our overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The Facts: Beef production and the environment…the truth

Cattle are not the major cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. In fact, their contribution to greenhouse gases is much less than most people think. According to numbers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cattle production is not a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. [Read more…]

%d bloggers like this: