Have you ever wondered where beef comes from?
Most of us are familiar with the different ways to prepare those juicy steaks and roast beef.
But do you know where beef comes from?
In this article I will go behind the scenes and tell you the story about beef, from farm to shelf.
Let’s dig in!
In this article I will discuss:
What is beef?
First things first, let’s establish what exactly beef is.
Beef is meat from cattle that are fully grown, which is about 2 years of age.
The meat can be from steers, heifers, bulls or cows.
Veal, on the other hand, is meat from cattle not yet fully grown and younger than about 2 years.
These cattle are produced on farms and in feedlots.
Beef production in the world
Cattle farming is a huge business globally.
According to the USDA, there were around 1 billion cattle in the world in January 2022.
The United States is the biggest producer of beef and veal with more than 12 million metric tonnes produced in 2021. Brazil is in second place with more than 10 million metric tons and the European Union third with more that 7 million metric tonnes in the same year.
Image by Statista
A short history of cattle farming
Cattle were domesticated around 10 000 years ago in the central Anatolian region of Turkey, the Levant in the Eastern Mediterranean region of Western Asia, and in Western Iran, and gave rise to humpless cattle.
In 2013 an international team of researchers published a paper “Morphological and genetic evidence for early Holocene cattle management in northeastern China“, with their findings that the domestication of cattle also happened around the same time in northern China.
Around 8000 years ago, humped cattle started to be farmed in Southern Asia.
Cattle made their way to the western hemisphere for the first time with Columbus in 1493.
The now extinct Auroch is believed to be the common ancestor of all domesticated cattle, of which there are now more than 250 recognised breeds in the world.
Fun fact: In 2009 cattle became one of the first livestock animals to have their genome fully mapped.
How cattle are produced
Cattle farms can be either beef or dairy oriented. It’s less common to have both simultaneously due to differences in management practices, but dual purpose cattle operations do exist.
I will focus on a standard beef cattle farming system.
Cows are pregnant for nine months, the same duration as humans.
When a calf is born, it can stand on its own feet within the first few hours and suckle.
Colostrum is a special type of milk, yellowish in color, produced by cows (as well as other mammals) for the first few days after birth.
This colostrum is high in proteins, fat, minerals and other essential nutrients for healthy development of the calf.
Colostrum also contains antibodies to help the young calf with its immune system in fighting illness and disease.
If the cow is unable to produce the necessary milk for the calf, the calf is given special milk replacer.
After about 3 to 8 days, the cow’s milk composition and color will change to resemble what we know as milk, that’s white in color.
The rumen is the specialized stomach of ruminants, like cattle. Ruminants regurgitate the food they’ve eaten to chew it finer for further digestion. This is referred to as chewing the cud.
When a calf is born, it’s rumen isn’t initially suited for any diets except colostrum and, shortly thereafter, milk.
Calves will suckle for about three weeks after birth, after which they will slowly start grazing as well.
Between 3 and 8 weeks after birth, the calf’s rumen will develop as it starts to graze.
After about 8 weeks the rumen should be fully functional and developed and will grow in size from there.
Marking and weaning
Calves are usually tagged just after birth for identification purposes, and within the first few months thereafter, they are branded. Along with being branded, they are also vaccinated against diseases like pulpy kidney and tetanus.
Also, within the first few months, male calves that are not selected to be bulls are castrated to prevent inbreeding, and they are called steers thereafter.
After about 8 to 10 months, these calves are weaned.
It’s recommended to wean calves gradually in stages because that is less stressful to both the cows and the calves.
From there they either go into a herd, are moved to feedlots for fattening or are sold off.
The usual practice is to keep some replacement heifers (females) to keep herd numbers up.
At an age of 14 to 16 months, heifers are ready for breeding. The rule of thumb is that a heifer should weigh at least 65% of her target adult weight before breeding.
Steers are preferred in feedlots due to their growth rates and higher muscle mass. These steers are sent to feedlots for about 120 days before slaughter. In this time they are fed nutritious feeds for optimal growth.
From farm to shelf
When cattle are ready to be slaughtered, they are sent off to the slaughterhouse for processing.
Carcass weights differ between cattle breeds but averaged 888 lb/402 kg in 2021.
The dressing percentage is the carcass weight as a percentage of live weight and for steers the average is around 63%.
A steer weighing 1200 lb/544 kg, for example, will have an average carcass weight of 756 lb/343 kg.
After slaughter, the carcasses are processed into the different cuts and parts.
Depending on the customer’s requirements, these different cuts are packaged and sealed and kept cool for transport.
Beef, like other meats, are transported in trucks equipped with cooling equipment. It’s basically a fridge on wheels.
When it arrives at its destination, the meat is packed on the shelves or in the case of some supermarkets and butchers, repackaged on site in the desired packaging.