The Beef Lifecycle

The journey of raising beef is among the most complex of any food. Due in part to their changing nutritional needs throughout their lifetime, beef cattle often times will change hands and ownership up to three or four times, over the course of one and a half to three years, as they move through their various life stages.

Across this process, however, one important thing remains constant – and that’s the beef community’s shared commitment to raising cattle in a safe, humane and environmentally sustainable way. Working together, each segment of the beef lifecycle aims to make the best use of vital natural resources like land, water and energy – not just for today, but also for the future. The result is a delicious and nutritious food you can feel good about serving your family and friends.

Let’s explore how beef gets from pasture to plate in Arizona.

Ranch:

Raising beef begins with ranchers who maintain a herd of cows that give birth to calves once a year. When a calf is born, it typically weighs 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze on forages from the rangeland. Ranches in Arizona are typically large in land area because of our dry, arid climate. Ranchers are committed to caring for their animals and the land on which they are raised.

Photo by Roxanne Knight.

Weaning:

Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at 6 to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. This can be done several ways with one option called fence line weaning. This means the cows are on one side of the fence and the mother cows are on the other side. They aren’t able to nurse but can still be closer to the cow, making it a less stressful situation. These calves continue to graze on pastures and may begin receiving a small amount of supplemental plant-based feed for extra energy and protein to help them grow and thrive.

Stocking and Backgrounders:

After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing on grass, forage and other plants with ranchers providing supplemental feed including vitamins and minerals to meet all of their nutritional needs.

Photo courtesy of Willcox Livestock Auction.

Livestock Auction Markets:

After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cattle may be sold at livestock auction markets.

Photo by Anna Aja.

Feedyard:

Mature cattle are often moved to feedyards. Here cattle typically spend 4 to 6 months. They are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet made up of roughage (such as hay and grass), grain (such as corn, wheat and soybean meal) and local renewable feed sources. Veterinarians, nutritionists and pen riders work together to provide individual care for each animal.

Learn more about animal safety and care at the feedyard.

PACKING PLANT:

Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds at 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a packing plant (also called a processing facility). United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors 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.

Arizona beef lifecycle with Arizona rancher, Dean Fish.

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