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.

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.

The Reality of Water Management & Raising Cattle

Myth:  Water management and raising cattle do not go hand in hand, and it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just one pound of meat.

The Facts: In reality, it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef.  Farmers and ranchers are committed to water conservation and have reduced the amount of water used to raise beef by 12 percent compared to 30 years ago.[1] [Read more…]

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