Raising Cattle on Grass
- The beef lifecycle begins on cow-calf farms and ranches where cows are bred and give birth to a calf each year. These are family farms and ranches like those you may see along highways and country roads. For the first few months of life, calves drink their mother’s milk and spend time grazing on grass pastures.
- Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk when they are about eight months old and weigh approximately 500 pounds. Calves then move onto pastures where they eat grass and forages that provide protein and energy they need to grow.
- Many calves are purchased at livestock auction markets by farmers and ranchers called stockers and backgrounders. Some of the calves, including about one-in-three female calves, are kept on the farm or ranch as breeding animals.
- Stockers and backgrounders graze cattle on many different kinds of pasture all across the United States. Like cow-calf operations, these are mostly family-owned ranches and farms where cattle graze on pasture or start receiving grain to supplement their diets. These cattle gain weight as they convert forage and grain into muscle and fat.
- Some cattle remain on pasture for their entire lives prior to slaughter. The meat from these cattle is referred to as “grass-fed” or “grass-finished” beef, although technically speaking, all beef is “grass-fed,” since nearly all cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture.
- There are vast benefits to raising cattle on grass. Because 85 percent of U.S. grazing lands are unsuitable for growing crops, raising cattle on grasslands allows farmers and ranchers to more than double the amount of land that can be used to raise food. This also allows us to raise cattle in all 50 states and provides habitat for 75 percent of America’s wildlife.
- The unique digestive system of cattle allows them to process grass and other plant sources of protein our human digestive systems cannot process, and turn it into a high quality source of protein we can enjoy.
- The combination of raising cattle on grass and finishing them on grain allows us to produce a year-round supply of beef at an affordable price with less land, water, feed and fuel.
Life in the Feedyard
- At around one year of age, the majority of cattle in the United States are transferred to feedyards where they receive a carefully balanced, nutritious diet and individual attention for an average of 120 to 180 days prior to slaughter. Adding grain to their diet provides much-needed energy for muscle growth, resulting in more meat per animal. This allows the cow/calf farm or ranch to raise a new crop of calves every year and prevent overgrazing of pastures.
- Feedyards look different than cow-calf and backgrounding operations because cattle do not graze on pasture. Rather, they typically are separated into herds of 100 animals and live in pens that allow about 125 to 250 square feet of room per animal – plenty of room to move around, groom themselves, and socialize with other cattle.
- Cattle in a feedyard have constant access to water and are free to graze at feedbunks which contain plant material called forage which includes grasses similar to what they would have eaten while grazing on pasture, whole corn plant silage and hay, as well as grains like corn and wheat. The addition of grain to their diet provides additional energy they need to thrive and grow.
- Beef cattle, like other ruminants, possess a digestive system that includes a multi-compartment stomach that can digest fibrous materials such as grass, corn stalks, cottonseeds, alfalfa, grass hays, potato chips, soybean hulls, citrus pulp and other products that are considered waste products.
- When cattle arrive in the feedyard, they are fed a receiving diet that is very high in forages, which helps the cattle’s stomach transition from a primarily grass diet to a diet that contains higher grain content.
- While cattle may consume larger amounts of grain in the later stages of finishing, they are still receiving several pounds per day of forages such as grass hay, silage or alfalfa; all of which provide ample amounts of roughage in the diet.
- About 95 percent of all beef raised in the United States is finished in a feedyard. The amount of time required for cattle to reach optimum market weight is shorter in the feedyard than cattle raised exclusively on grass. Cattle in feedyards typically reach market weight around 6-12 months faster.
From Cattle to Beef
- Both grass-finished and grain-finished beef cattle are slaughtered in modern processing facilities or packing plants where skilled workers break down beef carcasses into popular beef cuts.
- Beef farmers and ranchers are aware of the sacrifice that beef animals, and all livestock, make to provide high quality protein to nourish our bodies.
- Humane treatment at slaughter begins when cattle arrive at the slaughter facility, where owners and employees go to extreme lengths to ensure that cattle receive high quality care during euthanasia.
- When beef leaves the packing plant, it is in the form of large sections like the chuck, rib and loin.
- Beef carcasses can be assigned a quality grade (prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter and canner) that relates to several factors including intramuscular fat or marbling, skeletal bone maturity, texture and appearance of the lean muscle and serves as an indicator of the tenderness, juiciness and flavor potential of the cuts from that carcass.
Next Chapter: Animal Care