An Accurate Look At Beef Cattle Life Cycles
There are still so many misconceptions about how beef cattle are raised in the United States. On a recent blog post, a nutritionist and wellness coach wrote that “today, most cattle are raised in large feedlots, where their mobility is limited and diets consist mainly of grain or corn.” Cattle are not raised in feedlots. Cattle are born on farms and live on grass pastures until they are over a year old. They spend around 4-6 months of their lives in feedlots to finish on grain. These grain-fed cattle are then slaughtered at 18-22 months of age. And while corn is often a part of the diet, the cattle are fed a complete ration that provides the roughage that cattle need to maintain healthy rumen function.
I found this graphic and explanation on a typical beef lifecycle at www.explorebeef.org:
1. On cow-calf farms and ranches, cows are bred and give birth to a calf each year.
2. For the first few months of life, calves drink their mother’s milk and spend time grazing on grass pastures.
3. Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk when they are about 8 months old and weigh approximately 500 pounds. Calves then move onto pastures where they eat grass and forages that are indigestible to people.
4. Many calves are purchased at livestock auction markets by farmers and ranchers called stockers and backgrounders. Some of the calves, including about one-in-three female calves, are kept on the cow-calf farm as breeding animals.
5. Stockers and backgrounders graze cattle on many different kinds of pastures all across the United States. These cattle gain weight and, in effect, convert forage and grass into protein.
6. The cattle are then sold or moved to feedyards where they receive a carefully balanced, grain-based diet.
7. Beef cattle are harvested in modern processing facilities or packing plants where skilled workers break down beef carcasses into popular beef cuts.
8. Beef from the packing plant is sent to supermarkets and restaurants worldwide. Approximately 90 percent of the beef raised in the United States (by weight) is consumed in the United States. The remaining 10 percent of beef is exported.
9. Beef provides high quality protein and 10 essential nutrients to diets in the United States and around the globe.
This is just one of the paths cattle can take on the way to becoming beef. There are some producers that retain ownership all the way through the feedlot. What that means is the cow-calf operator will raise calves, wean them and keep them on pasture until they send them to the feedlot. When the animal goes to slaughter, the cow-calf operator receives a part of the profit received from the price the carcass brings. When calves are weaned almost all producers will put them on a starter ration of grain concentrate. This supplements the calf with high energy feed to help them through the stress of weaning off their mother’s milk. It also gives them a head start into their “teenage” development. (We all know how much food teenagers need to maintain their growth and development.) Calves need plenty of nutrition to support their growth and immunity.
On our farm we are mostly raising breeding animals. That means we usually keep heifer calves to be bred at around 15 months (or when they reach a desired weight) so that they are calving at approximately 2 years of age. We also keep our bull calves to raise as herd sires. We will sell or “cull” the low end (those that are least desirable as breeding animals) of both heifers and bull calves to local backgrounders or the stockyards. Those calves will most likely go into beef production. The breeding animals that we retain will continue to be grazed on pasture as long as they are on our farm. The growing animals will also receive a supplemental ration.
Once the animals have reached breeding maturity, they are either sold or put into our herd. We like to keep some heifers for replacement females and we may use one of our young bulls to breed a group of cows. The heifers we sell will go into someone else’s herd to raise calves. We will sell the bulls sometime between their yearling and 2 year old year. We sell the largest portion of them at an invitaitonal bull sale in Florida as 2 year olds.
These are a few examples of what beef cattle life cycles really look like. It does not behoove (get the pun, haha!) producers to raise cattle in confined spaces and feed them straight corn. Instead, cattle are raised in pastures, supplemented with grain and finished in feedlots whose operators work very hard to provide the animals the highest level of welfare along with balanced rations that work best for their digestive systems.
Part of what makes the beef industry so great is how much the farmers and ranchers care about their animals and producing a safe, wholesome product. And the way the industry is set up allows for the producers to respond to what consumers desire. If you want grassfed beef, there are producers who are doing that. If you prefer lean beef, you can have that too. And if you want a heavily marbled, tender prime steak, we know how to make that happen as well. But regardless of how you prefer your beef, you can rest assured that that animal was born and raised in green pastures with all its nutritional and health needs met over its life cycle–whether that be strictly from grass feeding or through supplemental grain or forages.