When biting into a juicy burger or ordering up an all-beef hot dog, it can be easy to forget the journey that beef took to get to your mouth. In fact, most people don’t even consider how beef arrives on their plate and although the obvious answer would be a farm, there is a lot more to it than that.
There are many stages of the beef lifecycle and the process in which a cow becomes a packaged product involves a surprising number of steps. Let’s take a look at what is involved in this process.
Raising beef begins with a farmer who maintains a breeding herd of cows that give birth to calves once a year. When a calf is born it will usually weigh 60 to 100 pounds and for the first few months of its life, each calf will live off its mothers milk and graze on grass pastures.
When a calf is about 6 to 10 months old it begins to wean off its mothers milk. At this stage the calf weighs approximately 450 to 700 pounds. These calves will continue to graze on grass pastures and in some cases will receive a small amount of supplemental feed for extra energy and protein to help them grow and thrive.
At this stage, the cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing on grass and pastures with ranchers providing supplemental feed which may include vitamins and minerals to meet all of their nutritional needs. It is thought that an optimal backgrounding plan will induce up to 800 pounds of weight gain in your beef calves.
Going, going, sold! That famous lightning-speed speech of an auctioneer is what comes to mind when we think of a cattle auction. The auction market is a major part of the beef lifecycle as it usually represents the first time that cattle change hands. Usually buyers will consider the age, size and breed of the cattle before making a decision to purchase.
Feedyards or feedlots are where mature cattle are sent to, well, eat. Mature cattle will typically spend 4 to 6 months there to graze at feed bunks, roam around and are well looked after by veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen.
Once cattle reach market weight they are sent to a packing plant. This usually occurs when the cattle are 18 to 22 months of age, weighing 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) are employed to ensure the maximum safety animal welfare and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped. Without these independent observers present, the plant cannot legally produce beef.
Finally, the beef is then shipped and sold in the United States and abroad in the retail and food service channels. So if you’ve ever shopped at a supermarket you’ve participated in this phase. When you choose which cut of beef you want for dinner, you’ve contributed to the final leg of the journey.
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