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The Beef Lifecycle Begins on the Cow-Calf Operation

Author: Kristy

The entire beef community works every day to produce high-quality beef for Americans. So, where does it all begin? The beef lifecycle begins on a cow-calf operation; where farmers and ranchers maintain a herd of mama cows for breeding.

First, cows (mature female cattle) and bulls (intact adult male cattle) are bred to produce calves. During the 9-month gestation period, farmers and ranchers play close attention to mama cows to make sure there are no problems with the pregnancy.

If any issues arise, a farmer, rancher or veterinarian can step in to ensure the health and safety of the mama and baby.

Farmers and ranchers are there every step of the way

Cows receive assistance from farmers and ranchers, and often times a veterinarian, during the birthing process, which is also known as calving. When a calf is born, it weighs between 60-100 pounds depending on its parent’s genetics and how well the mama cow’s body performed nutritionally during gestation. A newborn calf will spend the first few months of life drinking its mother’s milk and grazing on vast grass pastures. Today, cattle are born and raised in almost every state around the country on farms and ranches such as Debbie Lyons-Blythe’s ranch in Kansas or in South Dakota at Jake and Carolyn Geis’ ranch.

This calf is being branded for identification and herd management. Photo courtesy Jennie Hodgen

Animal safety is a priority

It is important for farmers and ranchers to be able to identify their cattle for the safety and security of their herd. Some cattle farmers and ranchers may use ear tags, which identify the animal with a number tagged in their ear (sort of like an earring). Before beginning the weaning process, other calves may receive acustom brand either by hot iron or freeze branding, so they are easily identifiable from a distance. The branding process does not cause long-term harm or pain to cattle, and it prevents them from getting lost or stolen. Additionally, some ranchers in western states are required by law to brand their cattle.

Before four months of age, the testicles are often removed from male calves being raised for beef through a process called castration. Castration occurs because bulls display more aggressive behavior and can cause harm to other animals or farmers and ranchers, so removing the testicles improves overall safety for the animal and for the animal caretakers. Removal is quick, low-stress and the calf begins the healing process immediately.

Cattle with horns can cause injury to other cattle they encounter throughout their lifetime. For this reason, horns are removed from calves in a process called dehorning. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that cattle be dehorned at the earliest age possible.

For these procedures and more, education and tools are provided to cattle farmers and ranchers to ensure proper cattle care. Introduced in 1987, the Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program was developed to ensure proper cattle care through every stage of the beef lifecycle.

The lifecycle continues

At 6-10 months of age, and approximately 500 pounds, calves are ready to begin weaning. Weaning is the process by which calves are moved away from their mothers in order to graze on grass pastures, where they eat grass and forages that are indigestible to humans. The weaning process allows calves to become independent of their mother’s milk so they may continue to grow and thrive on the pasture.

After weaning is complete, the beef lifecycle continues. Many calves are purchased at livestock auction markets by farmers and ranchers called stockers and backgrounders. However, some calves (about one in three female calves) are kept on the cow-calf operation as breeding animals or “mama cows to-be,” and the lifecycle begins again.

In every stage of the beef lifecycle , farmers and ranchers are dedicated to the health and safety of their animals at the cow-calf operation. Cow-calf operations are just the beginning of how the beef community comes together to bring beef from farm to fork.

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