The Life Cycle of Beef Cattle Production

Stages of Beef Cattle Production

1.   Beginning Stage (Bull + Cow = Calf)

2A. Grass Finished (Middle Stage – Final Stage)

2B. Grain Finished: Backgrounding (Middle Stage)

2C. Grain Finished: Finishing Lot (Final Stage)

  1. Harvest and Processing (End Stage)

Beginning Stage (Bull + Cow = Calf)

Size: Typically in large pastures with 50-100 head of cattle

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: 99%

Diet: Mama Cow’s milk until old enough to eat grass

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Birth Weight – Sell Weight: 150 lbs – 450 lbs

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months

The beginning stage of life for both grass-finished and grain-finished cattle is the same for the first 8-10 months of the animal’s life. All beef cattle eat grass for at least the first half of their lives.

All beef cattle are born to cows. The natural way for a cow to have a calf is unassisted in an open field or pasture. However, if a rancher knows a cow is about to give birth, they will often bring the cow into a barn or shelter for two reasons. The first reason is to protect both the cow and the newborn calf from extreme cold, rain, or snow. Calves are often born in the winter and going from a cozy womb to the freezing cold can result in sickness or death. The second reason is to make it easier for the rancher to help the cow give birth in case there are problems. Often times a rancher will have to “pull” a calf from a cow in order to reduce the pain and sometimes even save the lives of both the animals.

After birth, the calf will be ear-tagged or branded for identification and will nurse off of its mother for the next 6 to 8 months. Eventually the calf will start to graze grass alongside its mother until it is weaned from milk entirely. Up to this point, the lives of all beef cattle are the same. From here they will either become reproducing cows/bulls or they will be fed out for beef consumption.

Life Cycle of a Cow/Bull

Size: Typically in large pastures with 50 to 100 head of cattle

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: 99%

Diet: Grass, Forage, Roughage (Grazing)

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 1,500 – 2,000 lbs

Time in Cycle: 5 – 10 years

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups based on their gender (male bulls, female heifers). Cows are heifers that were bred by bulls and had a baby calf. Cows have a 9 month gestation period and typically have a calf every 12 months. All cows spend their entire lives (Approx. 7-10 years) grazing on grass or forage and mothering baby calves. When they are no longer able to have calves, cows are harvested for beef (see final stage).

Bulls are calves that are not castrated and bred specifically with dominant genetics to produce superior offspring when fully grown. There are typically 2 or 3 older bulls per cowherd of 50. Bulls can sense when cows go into heat and will mate with them at that time. Ranchers also artificially inseminate cows with bull semen when they are in heat to help guarantee the cow will have calf.

2A. Life Cycle of Grass Finished Beef (Middle to Final Stage)

Size: 100 head – 3,000 head

Location: All over USA

Family Owned: Approx. 99%

Diet: Grass, Forage, Roughage (Grazing)

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 450 pounds to market weight

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months – 3 years

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups of bulls and heifers. Some become steps B and C (Bulls and Cows). The others will be castrated (if they are bulls) and will spend the remainder of their days grazing on grass until they are fat enough to harvest.

2B. Life Cycle of Grain Finished Beef (Middle Stage)

Size: Between 500 and 2,000 head

Location: Typically Midwest/Western USA

Family Owned: Approx. 90%

Diet: Grass, Hay, Roughage with increasing amounts of silage and grain

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 450 pounds – 850 pounds

Time in Cycle: 6-8 months – 12-14 months

Once calves on grass pasture are weaned off of their mothers, they are sorted into groups (Large, small, bulls, heifers) and sold to the next producer. Calves are bought and sold all over the country, which provides a very competitive market, resulting in lower costs. A lot of the calves in the east are shipped out to the west where weather, food supply and conditions are better suited to grow them. The calves spend their next year of life at a backgrounding feedlot like ours. When calves arrive at a backgrounding feedlot, they spend the first couple of days recovering from the stress of being sold, traveling up to several hours, and adjusting to a new place. Our new calves are greeted with a bunk full of feed and hay and a smaller pen that opens into shelter from the elements. The smaller pen helps keep them close to their food and water so they know where to find it. We also pitch hay by hand to help them get used to us. Within the next week, calves are typically vaccinated to help prevent them from possible sickness during their stay. The calves are then ear tagged if they were branded or re-ear tagged if they were already tagged.

The next 3-5 months for cattle in a backgrounding feedlot is spent eating. At the beginning of their stay the diet will be primarily grasses and forages with only a hint of grains being introduced. By the end of their stay, cattle will be consuming about 75% forages and 25% grain. Watch the video for more on what we feed our cattle in a backgrounding lot. Each day, cattlemen will survey each animal to determine if they are sick. If cattle happen to get sick in a backgrounding feedlot, they will be administered antibiotics to help them fight the sickness. They will be separated from the rest of the herd until they recover. The risk of sickness is more prevalent in a feedlot compared to on grass, but only a small minority of the animals ever has to deal with sickness.

When the animals have reached the weight of approximately 850 pounds, they are once again sorted by weight and sold to a finishing yard to be fattened for market. Most cattle are not shipped as far in this step as they were in the previous step, resulting in minimal stress on the animal.

2C. Life Cycle of Grain Finished Beef (Final Stage)

Size: 3,000 + head

Location: Midwestern to Western USA

Family Owned: Approx 50%

Diet: Silage, Grain

Sickness Treatment: Antibiotics

Weight: 850 pounds to 1300 pounds

Time in Cycle: 4-6 months

The finishing stage of grain-finished beef usually takes place in large finishing yards in the west. This stage is similar to the middle stage in most everything but diet. Cattle once again recover from transfer, are given a second vaccination, and are given antibiotics if they get sick. The primary differences between finishing yards and backgrounding lots are the size of operation and the diet content. Most finishing yards have a large capacity for thousands of animals.

Slaughter/Harvest of All Beef Cattle (End Stage)

When cattle are at a finished weight (Approx. 1300 pounds) they are taken to a processing plant to be harvested and made into beef as well as many other products. If you would like to learn more about this process, please watch the following video (it is somewhat graphic in nature):

2 thoughts on “The Life Cycle of Beef Cattle Production

  1. Pingback: Welcome to the Peterson Farm Blog! | The Peterson Farm Blog

  2. Pingback: Why Do We Raise Animals for Food and Products? | The Peterson Farm Blog

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