By Hannah Becker on June 20, 2017
Modern beef production involves trained professionals, such as ruminant nutritionists and large animal veterinarians, to turn an 80-pound calf into a 1,200-pound steer. Whether it’s a family farm in the Flint Hills or a professional finishing outfit in Amarillo, diligent husbandry practices and expert-driven production strategies are essential components of today’s beef industry.
Here’s an overview of what’s required from producers throughout the lifecycle of cattle:
Most cattle get their start on family farms, where they are born in the field during either the spring or fall calving season. The majority of calves are delivered without assistance and rely on their mother for early nutrition. Living in a herd of other cow-calf pairs for six to eight months, calves are closely monitored by farmers to ensure they develop into healthy cattle. Farmers provide their cow-calf herd with quality food, clean water and a safe place to live where they do not have to worry about predators or scarce resources.
When calves reach around 400 to 700 pounds (typically around six to eight months old), they are moved into smaller herds with other weanlings so their mothers can recuperate from birthing and nursing a quickly growing calf. You may be familiar with these herds of weanlings – one often sees them frolicking and playing in green summer pastures this time of year. Thanks to the attentive care of their mother and farmer, weanlings have successfully shifted from an all-milk diet to a concentrate and forage-based diet that will help them grow big and strong. Weanlings are separated into two groups – those designated for breeding and those designated for production.
Weanlings that are selected for production purposes are moved into the backgrounding phase. They are typically moved to professional backgrounding operations, where they spend a few months living with other young cattle and are slowly adjusted to eating more grain-based foods, also known as “concentrates.” Backgrounding’s diet change allows cattle to turn ingested foods into lean protein in a more efficient manner than experienced when grazing. During the backgrounding phase, cattle are closely monitored by livestock professionals to ensure continued health and productivity.
Around one year of age, cattle are transitioned from the backgrounding pens into a feedyard (also called a “feedlot”), where their diet slowly shifts from a forage-based diet with concentrate supplementation, into a more concentrated-based diet. During the finishing phase, cattle are housed in a sizable pen with a group of similar aged and sized cattle. They are provided a vigorous diet of high-quality feeds and forage, along with clean water and sizable shelter for several months. During this time, cattle mature, or “finish out”, at 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and are moved into the processing stage of production, where food product harvesting takes place under the supervision of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector.
American-raised beef products are shipped all over the world, with the most recent import request coming from China. To meet global demands for their high-quality beef products, today’s beef industry remains a tightly regulated force that continues to prioritize both animal health and food safety. It requires a lot of skillful effort to ensure a small calf develops into a sizable finished steer or heifer. Farmers, government inspectors and veterinary personnel are just a few of the agriculture professionals required to help cattle develop properly.