The Horse Forum banner

Can someone help me understand the life cycle of beef cattle?

2205 Views 45 Replies 17 Participants Last post by  Dreamcatcher Arabians
I don't know why, but recently I've started wondering. Most of my knowledge of the life cycle of beef cattle comes from Hank the Cowdog, which might make some of you laugh but he actually does explain things clearly sometimes.

So, here is what I think I know.
  • Someone has a herd of cows and a bull. The bull impregnates the cows.
  • Calves are born. When they are ready, the male cattle are castrated and are now steers.
  • The steers (and maybe some of the cows?) are raised on pasture.
  • At a certain point (a year? Nine months?) these cattle are taken to an auction.
  • The person who buys them at the auction is the owner of a feedlot (???). He takes the cattle to the feedlot and feeds them until they make weight.
  • Then he takes them to another auction? Or somehow sells them to the actual processor? Maybe the processor just has a contract with the feed lot guy to provide X many head every so often, and the processor just picks them straight up from the feed lot?
  • Is the processor the same as the company that sells the meat? Like, I don't even know who sells beef products, but let's say it was Jim Bob's beef sausage company. Is Jim Bob the one who slaughters the cattle? Or is the processor yet another separate link, and the processor sells the beef parts to Jim Bob once he's slaughtered them, and then Jim Bob takes them to his factory and makes the sausage?

How far off am I? Are there really this many different people and steps involved? Logically, given the way our food system works, I can believe it, but on the other hand it seems kind of silly to have one animal go through this many owners.
  • Like
Reactions: Knave and boots
1 - 20 of 46 Posts

· Premium Member
Joined
·
8,229 Posts
I can give you a clear picture of the first steps, but that’s where Hank lives too.

So, we have cows and bulls. You need a bull per a certain number of cattle. They live on the ranch during the winter months, and they are driven out to the mountains come springtime. The bulls are turned out a little later. Heifers (cows that haven’t calved yet) are kept in at the farm, the heifer bulls turned out earlier than the other bulls. They calve in February. The cows calve at the end of March and April.

So, a schedule would look like this-

February- calves start being born (at the ranch)

March- the beginning of branding season. Calves get their shots, castrated, earmarked, tagged and branded.

April- still branding, and cows and calves begin being turned out.

May- last cows and calves that go on the mountain turned out, and heifer bulls brought to the farm.

June- heifers turned out on the mountain, and the cows and calves in a different allotment turned out. Bulls turned out.

July-September- everything enjoys themselves on the mountain, occasionally a group needs pushed up.

October- We begin weaning calves off the mountain and bringing bulls home.

November- all calves have been weaned, and now we gather cows and drive them back to the ranch, and one group to the farm.

December- the farm group is driven back to the ranch.

January- everything lives happy at the ranch. Calves are usually sold.

So, from there they leave with the buyers. Those buyers feeds them on feedlots, or sometime keep heifers as replacements. The kept heifers (ours have been sorted before sale for what we keep) will go on to live a very similar life. The steers after being fed out by that buyer, I assume are sold and turned into your beef. I don’t know that end of it well myself. I have a brother-in-law who has a feedlot, but I’ve never thought to ask where he sells to.
 

· Premium Member
Joined
·
8,229 Posts
Also there are a lot of little other jobs I didn’t include, like vaccinations for cattle and late brandings in fall and this sort of thing. Worming…

I would say an overall picture would be a cow raising calves, hopefully fat and happy, who is fed hay over the cold months and ranging around the mountain with her calf in the warm months. The life of a cow is a happy one, in my opinion.

I think then the calves who will be meat are kept happy with their buddies eating all of the food. Then they are big and ready to be butchered, and at least here, they don’t know it’s coming and so their last day is a good one too.
 

· Premium Member
Joined
·
8,229 Posts
Also, Hank the Cowdog is spectacular! I love those books so much!! My littlest read them all to us out loud over her small years. They make me laugh and think a lot about what the dogs are thinking.
 
  • Like
Reactions: ACinATX

· Super Moderator
Joined
·
17,182 Posts
Here - Bull in with cows year round. Cows calve and at the appropriate time bull calves are tagged, banded, and anything else needing done gets done. They spend 15 to 18 months on pasture. Grass fed are older than grass fed/grain finished and grain fed along with pasture are quickest to be ready. 800 to 1000 pound weight with the market here. Individuals sell to one local buyer/market (there are two in our county) that then takes everyone's beef to the processor on a set schedule as you have to have a reserved date for processing. The meat is sold by the buyer either by the cow or section of cow or in individual pieces or ground at their sales locations - usually the farmer's markets. Individuals also sell by the cow and arrange for processing. It just depends.
 

· Super Moderator
Joined
·
18,549 Posts
My knowledge is limited and only from watching not having cattle ourselves.

Bulls seem to be put with the cows for several weeks/months so all are serviced, not to over-work the bull either the herd of females is of a certain size.
Breeding and delivering because we are so mild a climate is not such a weather controlled climate to be working in.
Ranchers here often rotate their bull with that from a neighboring ranch, so the bloodline not get to close of inbreeding happen...
Cows calve, babies stay on the mother for several months then are weaned by which time they often are fully able to live by grazing alone...
Weaned babies some are kept but many are sent to auction where they get sold to another and fresh stock is bought to enrich the population of the ranches stock.
Here it seems many graze/feed to a certain size then to auction they go and the next rancher buys who take them to the next larger size, rinse and repeat till they fully weight out around 3500 pounds on walking hoof....a very large animal!!

Here the slaughter house assigns a time for the cattle hauling truck to arrive, unload and start the process with the animals as little stressed, standing in blistering sun as possible.
Pregnant cows....the babies unknown they try to save but often it is found a pregnancy after the deed of death has occurred and time is of great importance to save a young life.. My friend use to work in the plant and he brought home several babies and raised them to eventually have them become food for the table.
Nothing, and mean nothing is wasted from a cow going to slaughter...everything is used, everything.
Now that is for beef cattle...

We also have dairy cows....beautiful Holstein, Guernsey is what the dairy has by color identification.
No live cover is done....only AI....
Each cow is ear tagged and matched to give the best milk producing cows and hoping for all dropped babies to be females....the males born pretty sure are sold to who wants them to raise and enter the food chain in time.

Here cows are grass fed beef, with rolls of hay put out when the grass is not nutritious as they need to grow continuously.
I know the dairy cows are daily fed cow food dumped into huge troughs by a very large bucket-loader tractor, enough food in that bucket to put in about a dozen feeder troughs for a herd....we have last I knew over 2,400 dairy cows behind us...
I love the sound of the cows mooing to each other in the mornings...
Can do without the smell as they pile up the feces ripe in stench from where the cows congregate around the hay feeders and feed troughs...cows are not good at housekeeping chores...
Ohhh...I know the diary has huge ponds the cows can wade in to cool off on unbearable hot days...I see many of the cattle ranches are also doing that too so cooling the livestock on oppressive days must help the cattle to keep weight on better and for the dairy up the production amounts given.

From a bystanders observations is what the above is....;)
🐴...
 

· Premium Member
Retired breeder
Joined
·
2,971 Posts
I was fairly small time, 40 to 50 head.

I used to put the bulls out around April, but then found even if I left them out, I still was calving about the same time every year, so got where I just left them out.
I was pretty vigilant during calving time. But by watching the birth weight of my bulls, I had my calving troubles down to a rareity. That was nice. Still, I rode a lot keeping tabs on heifers calving that first time.

Then come the first weekend in Sept. I would gather all in, sort out the calves, and to the sale they went. I would take my choice of heifers to keep back, and then cull some old cows out at the same time.

Once the calves are gone, and my bank account happy, it was time to get colts in for halter breaking and learning to tie, all that good stuff.

There is a reason dairy cattle are AI'ed, cause dairy bred bulls can be hard to handle.

The life of a beef cow is far better than the life of a dairy cow. Beef cattle are out on pasture, dairy cattle are dry lotted, and rare they ever see grass.
there are many other things that go on that are not good with dairy cattle, but this is not the place to get into it.
 

· Premium Member
Joined
·
8,229 Posts
@Zimalia22 I am always sad to see the dairy culls at the auction. One this last week I thought was dead, and she was close, but she laid there while I pet on her.

I’m worried about my milk cow. Mama only cycled once after the twins. That was in October, so I decided to keep her in an extra year, and breed her around now. She has yet to cycle again. She’s obese, so that isn’t the problem, but I worry that the twins ruined her reproductive tract. It feels different with a dairy cow. I convinced my father to allow me to run her with the heifers come fall. I have bred one of the twins. I don’t want to cull Mama. She is only 5 this year, and has raised me 10 calves. I guess sometimes twins effect a cow like a horse…

ETA- of course I’ll have to cull her if running with the heifers doesn’t start her cycling again. I’m hoping their hormones will bring hers back. It’s a wild shot, and maybe she’ll lose a little weight and that will cure it, but I feel she deserves the chance.
 

· Premium Member
Retired breeder
Joined
·
2,971 Posts
When I was a relief driver on a bull wagon, I hated hauling cull dairy cattle. Some are brought in 2 or 3 days prior to the sale, and not milked in all that time. Their teats are on the ground, they are stepping on them. Its really a sad situation. They are all going for hamburger. What you eat at McDonald's used to be in a dairy string.
Some of those culls are only 3 year old cattle. They have been pumped up to continue producing milk longer, and fed hot feeds, they are burned up by 3 or 4.
Dairy cattle don't have a long life span.
 
  • Sad
Reactions: Knave

· Super Moderator
Joined
·
18,549 Posts
There is a reason dairy cattle are AI'ed, cause dairy bred bulls can be hard to handle.

The life of a beef cow is far better than the life of a dairy cow. Beef cattle are out on pasture, dairy cattle are dry lotted, and rare they ever see grass.

Dairy cattle don't have a long life span.
No cow, whether beef or dairy today has a long life span...if you not produce enough you're gone.
No idea of how rank a dairy bull would be, the cows come right to me and slobber all over me in being affectionate wanting scratches...
My impression why AI is done is so the farm controls the risk to the animal as again, only from a observers viewpoint these cows are each worth a fortune...the owner is not going to risk any injury to their cash machine from a rough bull.

As for drylotted....not by me.
The cows by me are out on lush grass fields and they get rotated with good pasture management.

They do follow the leader to the milk barn everyday, several times a day....
Then follow the leader to either return to that field or off to a different field....usually led by one of the dairy workers to make sure each animal is OK and accounted for.
I have often seen them driving the fields at night looking for a missing cow who is due to calve....or just not come in in their rotation. When found she is walked in to the barn if possible, often so heavy with a overextended milk udder she can barely walk.
I also have seen the vet their to take care of a issue in the fields..
They do take the babies from mom quickly, but bottle-feed on the nursery farm so the animals are not neglected, ever!
Mom needs to get back to the production line ASAP.
Seen where the newly delivered calf is allowed to nurse once or twice so the very important colostrum is gotten to protect the baby, then the evil baby carraige comes and makes momma cow really mad...not a job I would want driving that machine separating momma from her baby, no thanks to that!
I know if a cow is ill and needs antibiotics she is pulled from milking duty while on the drug to not taint the load of milk....the milk is safe to use just not wanted in the processing plant, so that is the milk used to feed the now orphan babies their bottles..
The nursery I saw one day had about 150 babies all in different ages being fed...talk about a assembly line....get to the end and time to start again.
Round the clock 24/7 this place works, no holidays or weekends closed...in terrible weather the cows still need to be taken care of...sound just like us dedicated to our horses & their welfare.
I don't want to know the horrors of dairy cows, please. I, would like my naive to remain in place a bit longer on the pretty cows who I see daily.
There are horrors in any agricultural animal business, its part of business and making a profit.:cautious:
🐴... jmo...
 

· Registered
Joined
·
1,621 Posts
We used to run about 90 cows and now I only have 15 cows and a beef steer. This gives us Christmas money and pays our taxes both personal and real estate and if it is a good year a winter trip to Florida. Our typical year is feeding hay untill around the 1st of April then with the emergence of grass the cattle change to pasture eating. Cavling here is March-May for us,The hay is bought and stored for winter in late June or early July , this is usuall is around 60+ or - big bales.The bull is shared with a neighbor and he is used by them first for 60 days then July first we bring him in for 60 days. A bull can usually handle 20 cows if he has a good semen test. We gather the cattle in 2-3 times during the summer at our pens and run them thru the chutes for shots , worming and fly and tick treatment. November is sale time so mid month we seperate cows from calves and get keep the best one for our steer. The rest to the sale barn. they weigh 600-800 lbs at this time and are bought by feed lot buyers. They will feed them until 1200-1300 lbs then sell to the processors for slaughter and butchering. We start feeding hay in December and contiue all winter. I am retired and have been for 16 years and the money is only supplemental to help with our income to enough to live on. When you figure wages I probably make about .75 cents an hour for all the work put in on the farm/ranch so you have to like what you are doing. Oh, by the way an old cow is 11-13 years old none are kept longer than that and I save back our heifers to take their place. Our cows are a limosine/ angus cross that we have worked on for 30+ year to get animals with a maximum weight gain for the least matter intake. Our calves always bring top dollar at the sale barn.
 

· Super Moderator
Joined
·
17,182 Posts
PA, here, and TX where our (X and I) had a composting operation the cows had access to grass. It was part of their daily rotation. They were also fed. Those that AI have access to spun semen which sorts the xx from the xy. Not full proof but it ups the odds of you getting the sex you want.
 

· Registered
Joined
·
10,484 Posts
Around here the farmers tend to raise their beef cattle until they are at slaughter weight. Pasture & feed usually although there was a farm we pass that used to sell grain fed beef so they kept their pasture sprayed to kill all the vegetation. Still it was a pasture sized lot and not a small feedlot pen.

Neighbor across the road buys bottle calves, usually dairy breeds, and then raises them until slaughter. He keeps them in a smaller pen while they are still on the bottle then turns them out on pasture. I don't keep close watch but it seems he keeps them 2-3 years.

Once they reach slaughter weight they are taken to the sale barn or stock yards and I don't know how that all works as I've never been.

Not that there are many dairy farms left but all of them I knew of the cows were out on pasture except at milking time when they were brought in (actually they knew the routine and would come in on their own when it was time) and fed corn while being milked 2 X per day.
 

· Registered
Joined
·
8,099 Posts
Discussion Starter · #16 ·
Those that AI have access to spun semen which sorts the xx from the xy. Not full proof but it ups the odds of you getting the sex you want.
Wow! I had no idea that was a thing! Any idea that's available for goats? I keep going back and forth about getting a couple of milk goats for our acreage but I don't know what I'd do with the males if they had male offspring. I would feel bad eating an animal I had raised, or selling it to be eaten. What can I say, I'm a softie.

My only hope if I got a male would be that it would have a really bad attitude and I wouldn't mind selling it to be eaten. I had a hen like that once. I was about to give her to someone else who said he'd fix her attitude or eat her, and I was fine with that, but a raccoon got her so the problem took care of itself.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Knave

· Registered
Joined
·
8,099 Posts
Discussion Starter · #17 ·
Not that there are many dairy farms left but all of them I knew of the cows were out on pasture except at milking time when they were brought in (actually they knew the routine and would come in on their own when it was time) and fed corn while being milked 2 X per day.
There's a small dairy farm near where we bought our acreage, and I remember driving past there sometimes at milking time and seeing all of the cows lined up politely waiting to be milked. It was really cute. They were on grass full-time, but the grass up there is really rich.

Not far from where I grew up in north Texas is a small town in a wide flat valley that's famous for dairy cattle. It seemed to me that they alternated grass lots and feed lots, because you'd drive by and see a bunch of cows in a lot and a nice green grass field, and then later you wouldn't see any cows in the feed lot but there would be a bunch in that field.

It was a beautiful place, but we always had to roll up the windows and turn on the inside air driving through there.
 

· Super Moderator
Joined
·
18,549 Posts
Oh yes, cattle can be aromatic and bring those darn biting flies....
Make sure that new house has window screens and a enclosed pre-entry fully screened to stop the annoying buzzing from entering your home.
We have those automatic spraying things that you use in a barn on battery life, no bugs and few mosquitos enter from the backdoor nor pester us through the attached house garage either....just have to remember to change the supply can :rolleyes:

The true meat goats I commonly see here are called Boer goats, they have the red/brown colored head and neck with long floppy ears. There are also Black Bengals... no idea how big the Bengals get but full-grown Boers can be as large as 300 pounds...that is a BIG goat!
Fawn Goat Liver Terrestrial animal Snout
Natural environment Natural landscape Natural material Fawn Grass




But if you are wanting to milk your goats, then you need to have a breeding male cause no baby no milk...they do dry up.
Goats are cute but to me STINK, the males who breed and it doesn't easily get off your hands if you pet the animals as I learned the hard way....:cautious:
So....castrate your young males, have the vet arrive to vaccinate and learn how to do their hooves so they are healthiest moving about...
Control your herd size cause they quickly reproduce and never seem to stop eating, stripping everything in sight...
Goats, rent a herd if you have brambles and need land cleared, they can and do a great job of ground clearing vines, anything they can reach they eat gone..
The screechy/crying sound they make drives me crazy... they announce any movement they see so can also be a good alarm of human visitors. Beggars for food they are....
I would be cautious knowing you have bear in your woods you said and not sure if goat is a meal they would come for or other wild animals to visit and feast on...
Chickens are going to be difficult enough to safeguard if you have them and a safe pen, not free-range can I envision.
As for cows to sustain and thrive on grass alone was told 2 acres minimum here per animal might get us to not needing so much hay to feed....
With the exorbitant costs or foods..."pets" unless things changed economically would be kept in-check if not raised to eat...

I wonder if the barren lot you saw the cows in is where they went to wait for all the herd to finish milking to return to their grazing field....sometimes it could be full then empty of animals.:unsure:
Cows by us have their own herd they travel with...its amazing to suddenly see several herds together, you not realize how many cows are on that farm till you see just a few of the herds near each other.... a sea of black & white bodies.:eek:
🐴
 

· Premium Member
Retired breeder
Joined
·
2,971 Posts
I never saw dairy cattle out on pasture until I went to California. Here in WA they are always dry lotted. I have been all over the western half of the US, and still, the only place I saw dairy cattle out on grass was California. So if they are out near where you are, it's not that common.
 

· Registered
Joined
·
8,099 Posts
Discussion Starter · #20 ·
I never saw dairy cattle out on pasture until I went to California. Here in WA they are always dry lotted. I have been all over the western half of the US, and still, the only place I saw dairy cattle out on grass was California. So if they are out near where you are, it's not that common.
I think it may have been because it was a small herd? Maybe 20 head? Or I wonder if the difference is that you are on the dry side of the state, whereas I'm on the wet side?

Having cattle on grass in California kind of blows my mind. I'd have thought they'd have better use for their scarce water resources than that.
 
1 - 20 of 46 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.
Top