Have you ever wondered how that nice, juicy sirloin or T-Bone gets to your plate? I know that a lot of consumers have! It is hard to understand how our beef gets from pasture to plate, and there is a lot of gray area in the middle! This whole process can take around 3 years from conception of the cow to harvest of the steer. During this time, the calf will change hands approximately 2-3 times, as the beef industry is not vertically integrated like pork and chicken. Below is a description of the typical life cycle of a beef cow.
On the Ranch
Momma cows are bred selectively to bulls, either through A.I. (Artificial Insemination) or through Natural Service. Nine months later, a baby calf is born. If this baby is a bull and isn’t going to be kept for breeding purposes, he will become a steer. If this is a heifer, she may be kept as a replacement female or continue along the same pathway as her male counterparts. These babies are kept with their moms until weaning, which is about 6-8 months of age, and will weigh anywhere between 450-700 pounds. Ranchers take special care to make sure weaning is as low stress for the calf as possible. During this time, they eat grass and drink milk. They are also vaccinated and prepared for the next stage of their life.
|Minnie, with her bull calf, Mickey|
After the calf is weaned from it’s mother, it is sent to the auction barn where it is bought by a backgrounder, or a stocker. This person will take the calf and put it on pasture, where the calf will continue to grow before it is ready to be transferred to the feedyard. This is a very important part of the process. As the name implies, this helps to “background” these cattle for the feedyard by increasing the amount of protein and fat in their ration so that they are ready for the concentrated diet ahead. If we did not include this step, it would be similar to when you are used to eating light meals and then all the sudden have a diet that is rich in fats and carbohydrates – it would upset your stomach a bit!
|Calves on pasture during the backgrounding phase|
To the Feedyard
Cattle again change hands, typically through the auction barn, and start their new life in the feedyard. Here, they are fed a specially formulated ration that is tailored to meet their dietary needs and have access to this feed whenever they please. Feedyard nutritionists evaluate the type of cattle, their weights and what their end goal is before formulating this ration. Did you know, cattle are fed within 10 minutes of the same time everyday!
During this time, cattle have access to water at all times, and have plenty of room to roam about. In fact, there are guidelines for the size of pens and how many cattle can be placed in them! These pens may have mounds of dirt, where cattle can play “king of the hill,” one of their favorite games. Cattle will typically spend 4-6 months here. If you ask me, there isn’t much better of a life than this!
|Cattle at the Feed bunk. A ration includes roughages (hay, silage)and grains (corn, soybean, etc.)|
|Aerial View of a Feedyard. Notice the amount of spacethe cattle have.|
Cattle arrive at the packing plant weighing about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. They are off-loaded carefully so as not to excite or stress the animals. Packing plants are built with very specific guidelines in regards to building structure, location of areas, and footing. Cattle are put into holding pens where they have time to rest and have a drink before entering the plant. USDA inspectors also perform an antemortem inspection at this time to ensure that the cattle are healthy, can move about and are disease free. After this, the cattle are brought up carefully and calmly, where they enter a series of winding pathways with high, solid walls. The shape and structure of these chutes keeps the cattle calm and moving forward of their own accord. (A great video that goes into further depth on the workings of a packing plant can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VMqYYXswono)
Throughout the entire harvest process, packing plant employees take careful measures to ensure the safety of the product. After the cattle are hung on the rail and eviscerated (removal of the intestines), another USDA inspector performs a postmortem inspection to again check for signs of disease. If the cattle are passed, they are stamped with a “U.S. Inspected and Passed” stamp and are free to go on and be further processed.
|USDA Inspected and Passed Stamp|
|Beef Carcasses on the rail|
|USDA inspector performing the postmortem inspection|
Beef is shipped all over the world, in addition to restaurants and grocery stores right here in the U.S. This is where you can pick up your favorite cut and turn it into a tasty meal. Once you have selected your beef, the rest is up to you!
|A large selection of cuts available to you!|