There’s no denying it, there are two main goals of having a herd of beef cattle. The first is to have new calves every year to sell or keep to grow the size of the herd. The second is to raise animals to the right size so they can be sold for their meat. Let’s talk about the life stages these animals go through before they get to your grocery store.
Pregnant cows. We’ve already talked about these ladies a bit. They’re large and in charge. They eat and drink a lot. Their number one job is to have a healthy baby around 9 months after they get pregnant (just like people).
Calves are just darn cute, and there’s no way around it. On a beef cattle farm, the calves will stay with their moms until weaning, around 4-6 months old. On a cow-calf farm, the calves are separated, and then usually sold to a feedlot. We sell our cross-bred calves and our Angus bulls, but keep our Angus heifers to grow the size of our herd.
If a bull calf is going to be castrated, this usually is done at just a few weeks of age. Often, but not always, a veterinarian will perform the castration. Many cattle farmers are trained and capable of performing this procedure on their own animals without veterinary supervision. If a bull calf is going to be raised for meat, it is essential that it is castrated. The hormones that a bull produces as it reaches puberty give a bad taste to the meat. Heifers do not have the same problem, so they do not need to be spayed (in fact, this is almost never done on a cattle farm, except in very strange medical situations).
When a heifer is just over a year old, she has reached puberty and can be bred. Typically, a heifer is bred when she is around 15 months old, which means she will have a baby when she is around 24 months old. By this time, she has grown to full size and is capable of giving birth and taking care of a calf.
Calves that are destined to become beef can be raised in one of two ways, grain-fed or grass-fed. The “conventional” system is grain-fed in a feedlot. This can be done organically or non-organically. The term feedlot has gotten a lot of negative press lately, but it is not all deserved. For the most part, these farms house their calves outside, sometimes on pasture and sometimes on concrete, with plenty of access to hay, water, and grain. The calves are not force-fed, but are allowed to eat just about as much as they want. Remember, the goal here is to grow and put on muscle. These are called “finishing” cattle, and they are fed and taken care of until they reach around 1000-1200 pounds, which is usually around 18 months old. Once they reach their target weight, they are considered “finished.”
Grass-fed cattle are also considered finishing cattle until they reach 1000-1200 pounds. They have free access to grass pasture and hay, but are not fed any grain. This can also be done organically or non-organically. Because they don’t receive the same amount of calories every day as their grain-fed counterparts, they are often closer to three years old before they reach their finished weight.
Once heifers and steers are finished, whether they are grain-fed or grass-fed, they are sent to a slaughter facility to be humanely killed and butchered into the cuts of meat that you find in your grocery store. All slaughter facilities in the United States are under the supervision of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Any methods used to handle and kill the animals must be approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and included in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
Is this what you thought the life of beef cattle was like? What surprised you?