Have you ever visited a cattle ranch? A feed yard? Did you know that ALL beef cattle spend about half their life with their mothers, eating grass? Get a better understanding of how beef is raised through the stories of a few of the roughly 9,000 family farmers and ranchers who raise beef here in Washington.
Well, it's actually not that simple. Raising beef is a complex process that, thanks to modern farming practices, is segmented in to specializations. Learn a little but about each segment and why being the experts in their area helps the whole industry to consistently supply high quality, safe beef to the growing local and global community of beef lovers.
The journey of raising beef is among the most complex of any food. This is due in part to the changing nutritional needs throughout their lifetime. Beef cattle 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.
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 grass pastures. Often this land is not suitable for producing other food crops.
A rancher will tell you that raising beef cattle is equal parts caring for their cattle and caring for the grass they rely upon to graze those cattle. Many cow/calf farms are ranches are multi-generation and the investment in the family business runs deeper than just the roots of the grass that grows there. Maintaining pasture, rangeland and forage health is just as important to these ranchers as making genetic choices, supplements for expectant mama cows and monitoring calving season.
Calves are weaned from their mother’s milk at 6 to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves continue to graze on grass pastures and may begin receiving a small amount of supplemental plant based feed such as local grains or commodities like apples.
This is the first step away from home for these cattle, and much like the first day of school, they're exposed to new animals, a new space, new everything. Because of all this change crucial attention is paid to their health and diet to help them thrive during this next step.
Beef cattle may change farms several times, depending on the resources and decisions of individual farmers and ranchers. Typically, after weaning or time at a backgrounding ranch, a feedyard is where most cattle in the U.S. will spend the last few months of growth.
The 4-6 months cattle spend at the feedyard is focused entirely on providing each animal with their optimal conditions to thrive. 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 (in Washington we use by products from other agricultural businesses, like potato skins, apple peels, even the grapes left over after making wine!). Veterinarians, nutritionists and pen riders work together to provide individual care for each animal.
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).
Renowned animal care expert Dr. Temple Grandin has said, "I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."
AMEN! Ranchers, feeders, and beef companies couldn't agree more. Which is why Dr. Grandin has consulted on the design and improvements to beef packing plants and employee training across the country. Animal, worker, and food safety is the core mission at this stage. Consultation with experts, ongoing investments in safety research, and the focus on providing people safe, high-quality food at the end of the day is what you'd see "if slaughterhouses had glass walls." This isn't everyone's favorite step in the process to think about, but the benefits to having modern packing plants in Washington state are significant. From cattle having to spend less time in trucks, to thousands of farmers and ranchers having local marketing opportunities, to the hundreds of jobs created in their local communities, these businesses are vital to Washington's economy.