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.

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.

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:

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