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.

Antibiotic Stewardship is Not New to Cattle Ranchers

There has been a great deal of discussion lately about how antibiotics are used in raising livestock. The reality is that farmers and ranchers take antibiotic use in livestock very seriously and continuously evaluate the way they use antibiotics based on the best possible science.

In fact, for nearly 30 years, there have been quality assurance programs in place to help make sure farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the way they raise beef, including the way they use antibiotics, in order to protect human health, as well as animal health. This is often referred to as “antibiotic stewardship.”

Quality assurance throughout the beef community
A foundation for antibiotic stewardship in the beef community is the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program. Started in the 1980’s, BQA is a nationally-coordinated, voluntary, program that provides guidelines for raising beef.  The BQA program is guided by an Advisory Board composed of veterinarians, animal scientists, meat scientists, state BQA coordinators, cattlemen and dairymen from across the United States.

 Antibiotic stewardship and BQA go hand in handAbxLabelReading_FAB_sm
A significant part of the BQA program involves antibiotic stewardship training about the appropriate use and administration of pharmaceutical products including following withdrawal times, the prevention of environmental contamination, the need for good record keeping, and the importance of a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. In fact, one of the guidelines put forth in the BQA program, A Beef Producer’s Guide for the Judicious Use of Antimicrobials in Cattle highlights 14 use guidelines for antibiotics, including:

  • Avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine
  • Use a narrow spectrum of antimicrobials whenever possible
  • Treat the fewest number of animals possible
  • Antibiotics used should be limited to treat, prevent or control disease

Antibiotics are just one tool
The BQA program also teaches that antibiotics are just one tool to ensure healthy animals and there are many others, including good management practices, vaccines, cattlenutrition programs, veterinary care, proper housing and low-stress handling that are critical components to ensuring healthy animals as well. If cattle become ill, it is critical to identify the right illness for proper treatment and producers may consult a veterinarian for assistance in diagnosis of the illness. If an antibiotic is needed to treat the illness, the right antibiotic is administered for the right amount of time by following the FDA-approved label instructions, Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines and veterinary guidance.

Continuously improving
Today, Beef Quality Assurance influences management practices of more than 80-90 percent of U.S. cattle and farmers and ranchers work hard every day to continue to increase the number of producers who are BQA certified. The beef community continues to invest in research to better understand how to effectively and appropriately use antibiotics to best protect animal and public health. For example, the beef community has organized a research advisory group composed of a wide range of university researchers within the agricultural community to direct the planning for future antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance research activities.

Do livestock feed additives, like beta-agonists, cause animal welfare problems?

Myth: The beef community uses animal feed additives for cattle, such as beta-agonists, without regard to animal welfare.

The Facts:  We understand how people may have questions about animal welfare, particularly with recent media coverage about the use of Zilmax, an animal feed ingredient. Like consumers, the beef community wants to do everything possible to assure animal welfare and determine the causes of recent reports of cattle lameness and other animal welfare questions. Lameness in cattle may occur for a variety of reasons, so it is important to conduct research to determine if there is any connection to use of beta-agonists.

The entire beef community—from the manufacturers of beta-agonists to the farmers and ranchers to the feedlots to the meatpacking plants—has a shared responsibility and commitment to animal welfare. Throughout the entire beef lifecycle, we are working together to address this issue by taking additional actions such as convening animal health experts in order to continue to ensure the highest level of care and humane handling for cattle raised in the United States.

  • What are beta-agonists? Beta-agonists, such as Zilmax and Optaflexx, are feed additives that, when added to feed in small amounts at a specific time in their lives, help cattle make the most of the food they eat resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. All animal health products, including beta-agonists, are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to use in animals to ensure there are no adverse impacts on animal health. Products in this class generate different responses due to differences in their chemical structure, receptor site activity and the tissues they act on.

What happens across the beef lifecycle to ensure optimum care?

  • Animal health companies: The animal health companies that make products, such as beta-agonists, have a strong commitment to animal welfare. These companies conduct numerous animal welfare studies and educational initiatives prior to any product being approved by the FDA. Products are continually monitored after they are introduced into the marketplace through additional studies, monitoring use in real world situations and more to help ensure the products are working safely and effectively. In response to recent questions, the manufacturer of Zilmax recently announced that they will be conducting additional animal welfare studies as well as convening an animal health advisory board to address some of the questions being raised. They have also recently made the decision to temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada, in order to do additional research and audits.
  • Cow-calf farmers and ranchers: Created by farmers and ranchers in 1987 and veterinarian endorsed, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program includes research, training and certification that help farmers and ranchers provide the best care to their cattle. From feeding and nutrition, to transportation and cattle handling, BQA incorporates a variety of best practices to ensure proper cattle care.
  • Feedlots: The handling and care of more than 90 percent of cattle in feedlots today are influenced by the BQA program.
    • In feedlots across the country, professional cowboys called “pen riders” ride horseback among their cattle daily to observe the health of every animal and to make sure they are getting the care they need. If there is a concern, a veterinarian or nutritionist is consulted.
    • Feedlot managers also work closely with their veterinarians to ensure responsible use of products, such as antibiotics or beta-agonists. The decision to use any product, including feed additives like beta-agonists, is an individual one that every farmer/rancher/feedlot manager makes in consultation with their veterinarian and animal nutritionist.
  • Meatpacking plants: The federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 dictates strict animal handling and slaughter standards for packing plants at all times. When cattle arrive at the packing plant, they are evaluated for physical conditions that might be a concern and make them unfit for human consumption (animals that might have extreme lethargy, might not be able to walk normally, etc.).  If the inspector observes anything of concern, the animal is held separately until it can be examined to determine if it can be processed for food, or if it should be humanely euthanized and not allowed to not enter the food supply.
    • Most packing plants do their own animal welfare audits, an audit program developed by Dr. Temple Grandin.  Many have remote cameras installed on-site.  Many also are audited at least annual, and commonly more often, by third-party audit firms. Regular auditing helps plants identify issues early and maintain a high standard of welfare.

Ultimately, animal welfare is a top priority for everyone within the beef community, and the entire supply chain is committed to meeting consumer expectations for high-quality beef with animal care at its core.

Hear from feedlot owner, Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Nebraska, about the importance of animal welfare and using beta-agonists on her operation.

Also, hear from Richard Raymond, M.D., former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture about beta-agonists, food safety and beef.

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