Beef production represents the largest single segment of American agriculture. In fact, USDA says more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (35%) than any other type. Raising cattle involves numerous farms and operations, each serving a unique role in the process. At each stage, America’s farmers and ranchers strive to provide safe, high-quality beef for consumers while following best practices for raising cattle humanely.
- Cow-Calf Operation – Beef production begins with ranchers who maintain a breeding herd of cows that nurture calves every year. When a calf is born, it weighs 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze grass in pasture.
- Weaning – Beef calves are weaned at six to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves are now grass-fed in pasture.
- Stockers and Backgrounders – After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing during the stocker and backgrounder phase.
- Livestock Auction Markets – After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cows are sold at livestock auction markets. About 1/3 of cows are staying on the farm for breeding purposes.
- Feed-yard – The next step in beef production is when mature calves are moved to feed-yards (also called feedlots). Here, they typically spend four to six months, during which time they have constant access to water, room to move around, and are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal.
- Packing Plant – Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a processing facility. USDA inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation 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 establishments.
- Food Service and Retail – The final step in beef production is when beef is shipped and sold in the United States and abroad. In the retail and food service channels, operators take steps to provide consumers with the most safe, wholesome and nutritious products possible.
Proper animal care is the responsibility of everyone in the beef production chain. Beef ranchers recognize that ensuring animal well-being is the right thing to do and critical to their operation’s success.