Cattle and beef production represent the largest single segment of American agriculture. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (31 percent) than any other type of farm. USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture classified 687,540 farms as beef cattle operations.
There are more than 1 million beef producers in the United States who are responsible for more than 94 million head of beef cattle.
Most farms and ranches in the United States, including cattle ranches, are family owned and operated. Although the majority of beef cattle operations have less than 50 head, even the largest farms tend to be family farms. More than 97 percent of beef cattle farms and ranches are classified as family farms.
Most beef calves are born on cow-calf operations. These are farms and ranches like people see along highways and country roads. During this stage, cattle graze in herds on large pastures within sight of their mothers.
As calves reach six to 10 months of age, they are weaned from their mothers. Weaned and castrated male calves (called steers) may graze until about one year old and then they are sold to a cattle feeder or a stocker/backgrounder who will prepare the animal for the feedlot.
As weanlings, cattle may be transferred from cow-calf operations to backgrounders or stockers. Like cow-calf operations, these are mostly family-owned ranches and farms where cattle graze on pasture or start receiving grain to supplement their diet. Once most cattle reach approximately 12-18 months, they are taken to a feedlot.
Feedlots look different than cow-calf and backgrounding operations because cattle do not graze on pasture. Instead, they are usually separated into groups of 100 animals and live in pens that allow about 125 to 250 square feet of room per animal. Cattle usually spend four to six months in a feedlot, during which they are fed a scientifically formulated ration averaging 70 percent to 90 percent grain. They also have constant access to water.
Environmental factors such as water quality, air quality and land utilization are monitored and managed in feedlots daily. Operators are not only responsible for constantly monitoring the health and well-being of cattle, but also for protecting the environment. In fact, most large feedlots have environmental engineers on staff or on contract to ensure the operation is in compliance with the strict Environmental Protection Agency regulations that govern concentrated animal feeding operations.