Raising cattle for beef production is a family tradition

Raising Cattle

The Stages of Beef Production

Beef production represents the largest single segment of American agriculture. In fact, USDA says more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (35%) than any other type.

Raising cattle involves numerous farms and operations, each serving a unique role in the process. At each stage, America’s farmers and ranchers strive to provide safe, high-quality beef for consumers while following best practices for raising cattle humanely.

1. Cow-Calf Operation – Beef production begins with ranchers who maintain a breeding herd of cows that nurture calves every year. When a calf is born, it weighs 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze grass in pasture.

2. Weaning – Beef calves are weaned at six to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves are now grass-fed in pasture.

3. Stockers and Backgrounders – After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing during the stocker and backgrounder phase.

4. Livestock Auction Markets – After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cows are sold at livestock auction markets. About 1/3 of cows stay on the farm for breeding purposes.

5. Feedyard – The next step in beef production is when mature calves are moved to feedyards (also called feedlots). Here, they typically spend four to six months, during which time they have constant access to water, room to move around, and are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal.

6. Packing Plant – Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a processing facility. USDA inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation of safety, animal welfare, and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants establishments.

7. Food Service and Retail – The final step in beef production is when beef is shipped and sold in the United States and abroad. In the retail and food service channels, operators take steps to provide consumers with the most safe, wholesome and nutritious products possible. For delicious recipes for beef, including tips on cooking steak and making the perfect hamburger, visit BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com.

Proper animal care is the responsibility of everyone in the beef production chain. Beef ranchers recognize that ensuring animal well-being is the right thing to do and critical to their operation’s success. For more information, visit the Beef Quality Assurance website.

Interesting Fact:

90% of all beef raised in the United States is sold in America, while 10% is exported.

Click to download a printer-friendly PDF of the Beef Lifecycle


Cow-calf operation

The beef cattle lifecycle begins on a cow-calf farm or ranch where cows are bred and give birth to a calf every year. These are farms and ranches like those you may see along highways and country roads. For the first few months of life, calves consume their mother’s milk and spend time grazing on grass pastures. 

Learn about the families who own cow-calf operations >>


Once calves reach about 7-8 months of age and weigh approximately 500-600 pounds, they are weaned from their mother’s milk and moved onto pastures to eat grass and forages that are indigestible to people.

Learn about how care is given to calves and cattle >>

Livestock auction markets

Approximately one-third of female calves, called heifers, stay on the cow-calf farm or ranch as breeding animals – in other words, they’ll give birth to calves in future years. Meanwhile, most of the remaining two-thirds are sold at venues, such as livestock auction markets.

Learn about livestock auction markets and how they operate >>

Stockers and backgrounders

During the stocker and backgrounder phase, cattle spend about 3-9 months grazing on many different kinds of pasture all across the United States to gain weight and, in effect, convert forage and grass into protein products for people.

Learn about stockers and backgrounders near you >>


These more mature calves are then sold or moved to feedyards (also called feedlots or confined animal feeding operations), where they typically spend 4-6 months, during which time they have constant access to water, room to move around and are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal every day.

An in-depth look at feedyards >>


Packing plant

At about 18-22 months or 1,200-1,400 lbs, "finished" beef cattle are sent to packers and processors where the cattle are humanely harvested and the resulting meat becomes beef products such as steaks, roasts and ground beef.

Learn about beef safety in packing plants >>


Approximately 90 percent of the U.S. beef produced (by weight) is consumed in the United States and about 10 percent is exported to international customers.

Learn about quality control during transportation of cattle >>

Foodservice and retail

Whether beef is sold in the United States or abroad, it is sent to foodservice establishments, such as restaurants, or to retailers, such as supermarkets, for families and individuals to purchase.

In the retail and foodservice channels, operators take steps to provide consumers safe, wholesome and nutritious products. Cattle farmers and ranchers have responded to consumer demands by adapting production practices to offer a variety of beef choices.

Learn more about the variety of beef choices available>>


One powerful protein

Beef is at the center of millions of meals each year. Ninety-six percent of Americans include beef in their diet.

Visit "Beef. It's What's For Dinner." for recipes and cooking tips. >>

More information

Cow Chow: Exploring what cattle eat
On the Ranch

Beef Market At A Glance
The Cattle Industry, Who We Are
The Efficiency of American Agriculture
Modern Beef Production
Growth Promotant Use in Cattle Production 
Growth Promotant Approval Process
Antibiotic Use in Cattle Production
Antibiotic Approval Process
Common Potential Concerns About Today’s Beef Production
Beef Choices 


© 2017 Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
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