Beef cattle life stages

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).

pregnant beef cow

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.

calf playing

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.”

grain fed calves

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.

finished calves

Is this what you thought the life of beef cattle was like? What surprised you?


9 responses to “Beef cattle life stages

  1. My great uncle had a farm, it was not a specific type per say, he was into a little bit of everything. He always had a few beef cattle wandering around (as well as dairy). At the time, I never understood why he only had a couple, at that point in my life, I thought usually if you raise cattle you do so on a larger basis. He explained to me he had arrangements with other farmers in the area. He took a couple of the beef cattle, let them graze on his land, then when of size they had arrangements with a local butcher. And then all three would share the results (in some predetermined ratio). When I was a kid and helping out that year, it was neat to see how they all traded services to help each other out rather then relying on monetary transactions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there was plenty of money transferring hands at some point for the stuff my uncle grew/farmed, but what struck me as neat was the fact a lot of local farmers (around him) would often help each other out and trade services, etc rather then charging each other money.

    It would be interesting for me (maybe in future posts) if you could touch upon this idea, or if it was unique to the area/time of my uncle.

    As always, thanks for the information !!

    • Todd – I don’t think this is a unique idea. There has been a big movement back to bartering in recent years, especially in light of the recession. You can even find places online like: which help you find ways to do it.

      I also do a little bartering myself. As a web developer I have been known to do work in trade for other local businesses. For example, I built a website for a local vet, and was paid with credit at the office. It definitely came in handy when I needed to get my cat fixed. I also have done this with my neighbor who raises chickens and cattle. We occasionally feed for him when he is out of town, and he usually pays us in eggs.

    • Todd – Andrea is right, this kind of thing happens quite a bit, and everyone does it a little differently. We do some barter work with the farmer who has the feedlot in the last photo in this post. We borrow his hay equipment and some of his time to run the equipment to cut and bale the hay for our cows, and in return do some of the veterinary work for his cattle at a reduced cost or free (depending on the service). Everyone is going to have a slightly different arrangement, depending on what services or products they have to offer. Farming has always been a cooperative job, and I suspect you could find more examples of bartering in this area than in many others. I’ll keep an eye out, and see if I can highlight some as I come across them.

  2. I would love to see more of an elaboration on the types of facilities that house these cattle. Obviously, I know what a pasture it, but “Feed Lot” is still a bit vague to me. It would be great to see some photos, or diagrams of how these are set up.

    • Andrea, you’re one step ahead of me. I do plan on getting into more detail about the different types of farms, but wanted to lay a little background information first. Stay tuned!

      • I’d love to see you also include veal in your discussion of beef animals, which I believe often comes from the calves of Dairy Cattle.

  3. Will do, Andrea. I’m not sure where it will fit in, but veal is on my list. 🙂

  4. Hi Dr. Feutz,

    From my understanding, dairy calves are removed from their mother within a day or two. This is apparently to ensure the survival of a calf. For beef cattle, is there a high mortality rate for calves who stay with their mother? How do you ensure the calf gets enough milk and grass whilst amongst the herd?

    Thanks for the info,


    • Anthony – You are correct, dairy calves are removed from their mothers within a few hours after they are born. This is not to ensure the survival of the calf, but to allow us to use the cow’s milk to feed people. It can be a challenge to be sure that beef calves are getting enough milk from their mothers, since they are out with the rest of the herd. Farmers will monitor their cows and calves every day, and watch their behavior. A calf who is not getting enough to eat will be constantly trying to nurse, may try to nurse from cows that are not it’s mother, and after 1-2 days without enough (sometimes even sooner) to eat it will look very tired and weak. Farmers watch their calves very closely, and if they suspect that one is not getting enough to eat they will supplement with milk replacer. I hope that helped. This website has moved, and you can find more recent information at