The journey of raising beef is among the most complex of any food. Due in part to their changing nutritional needs throughout their lifetime, beef cattle often times will change hands and ownership up to three or four times, over the course of two to three years, as they move through their various life stages.
Raising beef begins with farmers who maintain a breeding herd of mother cows that give birth to calves once a year. When a calf is born, it weighs about 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze on grass pastures.
Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at about 6 to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves continue to graze on grass pastures. About 1/3 of the female calves will stay on the farm to continue to grow and to become new mother cows the following year.
After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing on grass and pastures with farmers providing supplemental feed, including vitamins and minerals to meet all of their nutritional needs.
After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cattle may be sold at livestock auction markets.
Mature cattle are often moved to feedyards (also called feedlots). Here cattle typically spend four to six months, during which time they have room to move around and eat at feed bunks containing a carefully-balanced diet made up of roughage (such as hay, grass and fiber), grain (such as corn, wheat and soybean meal) and local renewable feed sources (such as the tops of sugar beet plants, potato peelings or even citrus pulp). Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal. Feedlots can range in size, shape and geographic location.
Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds at 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a packing plant (also called a processing facility), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors are stationed in all federally-inspected packing plants and oversee the implantation of safety, animal welfare and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants. If animals are sick or have an injury, the USDA inspector will deem the animal unfit for human consumption and the animal will not enter the food supply.
Beef is shipped and sold in the United States and abroad in the retail and foodservice (restaurant) channels, operators take steps to provide consumers with the safest, most wholesome and nutritious products possible.