Gordon King, Animal Science, University of Guelph

Beef production provides many contrasts and alternatives. Ranching, often with large sized herds, is common on range-land, savanna or other terrain that is suitable for grazing rather than for cultivation. Usually, the ranchers in western Canada and USA number their cows in the hundreds or thousands. In many other regions, raising beef cattle could be the principal activity for some farmers but more often it is part of a mixed farming enterprise, frequently combined with growing cereal grains or even with off-farm employment. Thus, herds in the eastern or southern parts of north America often have fewer than 20 cows.

The production sequence can be broken down into several stages which, although separate, are usually found in close proximity almost everywhere that beef animals are kept. Also, since capital investment can be relatively low and labor inputs are minimal at most periods throughout the life of beef cattle, they are popular with part-time farmers.

The three main stages in beef production are:

Many farmers specialize in one stage while others combine all three into a single operation.

The Cow-Calf Operation

Cow-calf operations usually follow extensive husbandry, making maximum use of pasture or range grazing combined with minimal investment in buildings or equipment. It may be necessary to provide only wind breaks for cows in the semi-arid regions of central and western Canada or other regions with similar climates. In contrast, pole-barns or some other type of shelters are necessary for protection from wet snow or rain in British Columbia, the Maritimes, Quebec or Ontario.

The traditional mating period for cows and sexually mature replacement heifers is usually in late spring or early summer so that calves arrive the following spring. Under this system cows lactate during the time when natural grazing is available and, with sound pasture management, should require little or no supplemental feeding. Whenever practical, cows should be collected into an area where they can be supervised at calving time. The calves remain with their dams throughout the grazing season and are weaned in late fall. Bulls are placed with the cows for periods of six to twelve or more weeks, commencing in the late spring. Ideally, most of the cows would conceive in the first three or four weeks after introduction of the bull and the remainder during the ensuing weeks or months. Unfortunately, this happens rarely so cows should be checked for pregnancy just after weaning. If pregnancy checking is done, the nonpregnant animals are identified and can be culled. Their removal from the herd at this time is usually cost-effective since they must be feed over the entire winter, mated again the next spring and go through another complete gestation before producing a calf.


Canadian beef production began with the importation of traditional British breeds (Angus, Hereford & Shorthorn) into the regions being settled in the eastern part of the continent (Acadia) and dual-purpose animals brought from France into Lower Canada. Colonization, with accompanying mixed farming, gradually spread westward. Cattle brought from the east combined with others moving north from USA to populate the main ranching regions of southern Alberta and south-western Saskatchewan. The British breeds predominated in purebred herds and were used almost totally for crossbreeding by commercial producers until after 1950. Throughout the 1960's and 1970's, beginning with the Charloais, Limousin and Simmental, a large number of "continental" breeds were introduced for crossbreeding purposes to satisfy consumer preference for leaner beef.

This interest in "exotics" continues so beef farmers now have many genotype choices for use in their breeding programs. The industry still maintains a distinct purebred segment to produce the breeding stock for commercial ranchers and farmers, almost all of whom practice crossbreeding [pdf file viewer required]. New or composite strains evolve continuously but whether the beef producers will ever adopt these "hybrids", the way their pig and poultry counterparts have, remains uncertain.

Information on individual breeds of beef cattle has been compiled by the Animal Science Department at Oklahoma State University.


Most beef cattle are mated by natural service. Under the usual management procedure, bull are turned out to run with the cow herd. Ideally, this would be sometime after the calving period concluded and most of the cows would have calved at least six weeks before. However, in actual practice, the calving season is often prolonged and remating of those cows giving birth to the earliest calves must commences before some of the last females complete gestation. Ranchers and farmers following the traditional spring calving pattern in the northern hemisphere usually begin breeding for their next calf crop in June.

Cow-calf operators should attempt to reduce the duration of the calving period to under six weeks. Whenever practical, calving should be during a period when other activities are minimal. This allows people to focus their attention on the cow herd, providing supervision and assistance as required. Also, calves born earlier and in a compact group should be larger and more uniform in size at weaning. Another advantage is that early and compact calving allows all of the cows sufficient time for uterine recovery and to improve in body condition before the next mating period starts (see links to other information on body condition contained in the following section on Feeding beef cows.)

Although not yet too popular with commercial farmers, beef cattle can be mated using artificial insemination. The application of AI in beef herds requires a considerable commitment by the farmer since animals are not observed regularly the way their dairy counterparts would be. Comprehensive information on AI and its implementation in beef herds is available from several sources.

"Effective Use of Artificial Insemination in Beef Cattle" from Michigan State University.

"Artificial Insemination for Beef Cattle" from Oklahoma State University [pdf viewer required]

Maintenance of mature beef animals represents a considerable expense which can only be recovered if they produce calves. Thus, since the cows job is not done until she weans an offspring, the percentage of calves weaned each year is the most important consideration in evaluating reproductive efficiency. Many conditions might interfere with ovarian function, conception or gestation so it is very rare for all members of a herd to mate successfully and calve in any year. However, cow-calf operators who rely mainly on grazing natural pastures or feeding home grown forages should not need to get 100% pregnancy or calving rates to cover their fixed and variable input costs. Calving rates of 70 to 80% are satisfactory if:

Example. A farmer's goal is to produce 50 caves for sale at weaning time or to remain as backgrounders on the farm, and 25 heifers for replacement.


Spring (late March through May) is the common caving time in temperate regions like Canada which are located in the northern hemisphere. Seasons, and thus traditional calving times, would be reversed in the southern hemisphere. Operators usually try to plan calving so that it begins soon after any danger from severe winter weather has past. Calving may occur on pasture or in pole-barns. With the exception of heifers calving for the first time at two years of age, assistance is rarely required. If calving in confinement, the cow and newborn calf should be left together without disturbance until the calf stands and nurses a few times. Should the calf fail to nurse within four hours, and the cow will cooperate, the neonate can be assisted onto its feet and a teat place into its mouth. Depending on the particular situation and problems, activities like identification, naval disinfecting and vitamin injection might be required soon after birth. Castration of the bull calves and possibly dehorning will also be necessary sometime during the next two months.

Calves should have access to creep feed provided in some form of feeder that allows entry of the young but excludes their dams. This, combined with the small amounts of forage they will consume encourages rumen development and growth so the animals are ready for the transition to only solid feed at weaning.


Beef calves usually remain on pasture with their dams until fall. By this time the calves should be between five and eight months of age and weigh 225 to 300 kg. Once the appropriate time arrives, the cows and calves are separated. The largest calves might be moved directly into feedlots but most will go for backgrounding, either remaining on the farm of being sold through the annual fall calf sales.


Forages or pasture should provide a substantial proportion on the nutrient requirements of beef cows. Mature animals, even when nursing calves, should receive sufficient energy, protein and most other trace factors from grazing alone, provided that the pasture quality is good and stocking rate is appropriate. A free-choice salt-mineral mixture should be available always. As the season progresses and pasture declines in quality and quantity, supplementary feeding of energy and protein becomes necessary. Silage or haylage would be excellent for beef cows during the winter when they must receive stored feed, but these high quality forages are usually reserved for dairy animals. Typically, beef cows winter on hay or plant residues and, provided quality, quantity and digestibility are satisfactory, supplementation should not be necessary before mid-gestation. At the beginning of the final trimester of gestation, all cows should be scored for body-condition and feeding adjusted accordingly. If cows are too fat, feed is being wasted and calving difficulties might occur. Conversely, thin cows may not produce sufficient milk for optimum growth of their calves and often have prolonged intervals before they are ready for rebreeding.
Information on body condition scoring of beef cows can be obtained from various sources.

Body Condition at Calving Key to High Rebreeding Rates in First-Calf Cows. Clemson University [pdf file viewer required]

Evaluating Body Condition and Using It to Improve Beef Cow Reproductive Performance. Michigan State University

Cow Condition Scoring will Improve Breeding Season Success. University of Vermont

Check the article from the Arizona State College of Agriculture for a concise overview of changes in the nutritional content of range forage during the growing season and how this affect range cow nutrition. [pdf file viewer required]

The weaning usually occurs later in the fall when natural grazing is no longer available. Some larger calves might move directly into feedlots and receive roughage plus considerable concentrate. Most, however, move onto a forage diet, perhaps with some supplementation, throughout their first winter and they continue to graze as yearlings. Average daily gains should be between 0.5 and 1 kg per day during this period. Sometime during the summer or fall, the yearling animals move into feedlots for the final growth and finishing phase. Housing for feedlot animals consists of group pens, usually with a partial roof of windbreak. Cattle now receive an energy rich diet (large amounts of cereal grain) until they reach market weight (450 to 600 kg). Feedlots range in size from very small to thousands of animals with substantial mechanization present in larger units.

Some cow-calf farmers retain calves after weaning and operate their own feedlots. Cereal growers may also operate feedlots, purchasing stock directly from backgrounders and marketing grain through these cattle. Still other feeders operate on a contract basis, providing facilities where speculators can deposit cattle and pay so much per kg of gain.


Many farmers around the world diagnose and treat diseases in their own animals. In areas without veterinary service, owners have no alternative other than letting animals suffer and perhaps die. Also, ranchers and farmers with cow-calf herds usually operate with minimal inputs and small margins so may feel that they cannot afford professional attention whenever animals get sick. One might argue, however, that whenever profit margins are small, it is even more important to prevent losses of any kind, particularly when they might reduce performance of the affected animals. Thus, framers should work closely with veterinarians to treat and control diseases. Competent veterinary input should provide a correct diagnosis through clinical examinations and laboratory back-up. This should provide the basis for appropriate therapy and subsequent preventative procedures if these are necessary.

Weaning and subsequent movement to backgrounding farms or into feedlots are some of the most stressful periods in the entire life of beef animals. The stress might easily progress to distress. Particularly whenever calves or yearlings must be transported over long distances. Preconditioning, including appropriate vaccinations and a few days on good quality forage, should minimize problems during and after movement. Observe all cattle closely during and for a period after moving to insure they adapt quickly to the new environment. The disease risk varies greatly between regions, seasons, ages, sexes and production stages. Any preventative program should be planned with knowledgeable veterinary input. The actual treatment with pharmaceuticals and vaccines might, in most instances, be conducted by animal attendants but only after they receive thorough training on procedures for storing, handling and administration of all products.


Veal production, although included with the "red meat" industry, is really a dairy by-product. Veal farmers purchase dairy bull calves shortly after birth and move them into feeding units. Careful attention to the housing environment, nutrition and health is essential to raise veal calves successfully. Animals for the "white veal" market receive a milk-replacer diet until they reach 180 to 195 kg. Alternately, calves may be shifted to a cereal grain based diet and continue on feed until they weigh 325 to 350 kg to produce "red veal."

The Future

The beef industry faces many challenges. One difficulty is prolificacy since large cows must be maintained for relatively long periods to eventually wean a calf. These cows are, however, effective converters of poorer quality roughage so need not compete directly with humans or other monogastric animals. To insure survival the industry must adapt to change and to new technologies. The science of animal production has advanced to the state where knowledge exists on how to improve many of the components involved with performance. Unfortunately, for some of these procedures, the cost associated with providing the required inputs may exceed market value of the additional offspring or commodity produced. An additional challenge for producers, and for their professional advisors, is the initial and continuing evaluation of each new or existing technology to determine whether it should be cost effective when used on particular farms. Academics often propose "high tech," and therefore costly, solutions for almost everything without appreciating the financial risks associated with farming. Fortunately, most farmers are usually much more conservative than their supporting research scientists or extension officers.

Increasing production efficiency is often an all-consuming passion for specialists but each of their individual disciplines, essential as it may be, still comprises only one component of a very complex production sequence. Therefore, progressive farmers and competent professional advisors must consider all activities or concerns in their context as a part of the entire farming operation. In raising a yearling beef animal would include:

The better purebred operations that sell breeding stock should also

Poor growth, reproductive performance or disease, devastating as these might be, are not fundamental problems but symptoms of a deficiency somewhere within the management system. Those livestock producers surviving into the 21st century will certainly require consultants with the ability to critically assess the entire process and correct the major problem causes, not simply treat the symptoms. Specialists must appreciate the complex responsibilities involved in operating any livestock unit and assess the entire picture to locate the basic cause of any abnormality. Some form of holistic or team approach would be the logical response to this challenge.

Cow Town America presents interesting and timely information on beef production.

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