Understanding the 3 Life Stages in Cattle Production
Which cattle production stage is more important than the others?
If you’re a cattle farmer, you likely understand that each stage of cattle production is vitally important to the overall goal of producing cattle, but you also probably have an affection for the one that you operate yourself. You know your operation inside and out, from the trick to get that gate at the west pasture shut to which bulls can be penned with each other and which cannot. Each cattle farming operation has its own unique challenges and joys. But, what if you’re not yet a cowboy? Which stage of the operation should you jump in on?
If you want to get started in cattle farming or just want to know more about the three stages in cattle production, this blog is for you. You’ll gain a foundational understanding of cow-calf, backgrounding, and finishing cattle operations with answers to questions common to the beginner cattle farmer. When the choice is given to you, which type of cattle farmer would you be?
It’s what we here at the Pat Kirk Angus farm hold near and dear, the cow-calf stage (interchangeably called the calf-cow stage).
What is a cow-calf operation?
Cow-calf operation definition: A cow-calf operation is a cattle farm that contains both brood cows (mama cows) and calves and is a place where calves are born, raised to a determined maturity, and sold to begin the next growth period. Some calf-cow operations use bull sires, and some depend on artificial insemination to impregnate their cows.
How to Choose a Brood Cow
Arguably, the hinge point of a successful calf-cow operation is the quality of your brood cow stock. For example, a cow that produces heavy calves will not birth as easily as one that produces light-weight calves, and a cow that is naturally predisposed to produce enough milk for her calves will be an easy keeper, whereas a low milk producing brood will require you to give extra attention, and possibly nutrition, to her calves. Having good broods is critical.
As you may have guessed, a lot of what goes into a “quality” cow has to do with genetics. When choosing a replacement heifer for your calf-cow operation, be sure to ask about her family history. You can ask questions about how the herd has done in terms of milk production, calves born alive, calving birth weights, and temperaments. Choosing a cow with good genetics means the difference between a superior, successful calf-cow operation and a lot of hard work for nothing.
Learn more about how to choose the best Angus replacement heifers, check out the six qualities Pat looks for.
Pat Kirk’s Cow-Calf Operation
We run a calf-cow farm exclusively, so we’ll use Pat Kirk Angus as a real-life example of what goes on in this stage of cattle growth.
On our Central Iowa Angus farm, the cows are bred around June and July by bull sires on the farm, then as spring rolls around, Pat gives his cows extra minerals in preparation for the cows’ calving season.
Following shortly after Saint Patrick’s Day, the calving season picks up. In the cattle farming world, calving season means the time period where a majority of calves are born.
This time of year is, without question, busy!
If you’re like Pat - thorough and a perfectionist with a big heart for stewarding his animals well - you’ll need to expect to be handy many times a day just to check up on the Angus broods and calves. You may even need to hire extra help to make sure the cows and calves get what they need.
Commonly, as labor approaches, a cow will become more alert, bellowing and pacing occasionally and becoming progressively less interested in grazing. This happened in the spring of 2021 when Pat showed his camera girl around the farm. They came upon a brood just about to calve. She was pacing back and forth and watching us keenly. You can read more about that story here.
After our calves are born, weaning begins seven to eight months later, and in another few months, they are taken to sale. Two factors are important. The amount of time since vaccination and weaning determines when calve-cow farmers can take their stock to sale. For the Pat Kirk’s Angus calves for sale, weaning is around the last part of October and sale time is in January. In addition, each calve is green tag vaccinated.
3 Things Calves Need
When it comes to vaccines and medications, it can be hard to know what exactly your calves should be given. According to Dr. Joe C. Paschal, a livestock specialist though the Texas and M AgriLife Extension, there are three essential things your calves need:
Blackleg 7 Way Vaccine. This vaccine should be followed up with a booster 4-8 weeks later or according to label instructions.
Bovine Respiratory Virus 4 Way Vaccine. Two doses are recommended by the doctor, and they should be a killed vaccine product instead of a modified live one, especially on an operation with brood cattle. This vaccine addresses IBR (Infectious Bovine Rino Tracheitis), BRD (Bovine Respiratory Disease), BVD (Bovine Viral Disease), PI3 (Parainfluenza Type 3), BRSV (Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus)
At the end of the calf-cow cattle stage, the calves are called feeder cattle meaning they are prepared to be fed and grown for their intended purpose.
Answering Your Cow-Calf Operation Questions
If you’re like many other people interested in cow-calf farming operations, you have a lot of specific questions. So, instead of trying to eloquently put each of these into a wordy paragraph, we’ll give you straight forward, cow-calf operation facts including a few resources in the form of a Q&A.
Q: How many calves can a beef cow have?
A: Bred Angus cows, specifically, have one to two calves. The most calves Angus broods have been known to have is five per pregnancy - but that is extremely rare!
Q: How many calves does a cow have in her lifetime?
A: Generally, a cow has a total of 7-10 calves during her most productive years, and she is usually productive till around 8-10 years of age.
Q: How many cows can you have per acre?
A: The short and simple answer is 1.5-2 acres per cow and calf. Some cattle farmers go by this “Rule of Thumb,” but to find an exact calculation, you’ll need to know five detailed variables. You can see those and calculate your cows per acre here.
Q: How long does it take for a cow to have her calf?
A: According to the National Angus Association, bred time till calving is on average 283 days or about nine months and three days. The association provides Angus farmers with a gestation calculator. You can find that here.
Raising beef calves for profit requires constant attention to maintain good genetics, hearty brood cows, and faithful stewardship. Because of these challenges, some cattle farmers skip the calf-cow stage altogether and choose to work only with stock in the next stages of cattle production.
A note here: if you’re interested in starting a cattle farm but don’t want to work through the calving and weaning seasons and all the other challenges that go along with cow-calf operations, contact us. We have genetically superior Black Angus calves for sale every year and would love to help you increase your cattle production.
What are stocker cattle? Stocker cattle are calves that have been weaned and continue the process of growing with the goal of putting on more weight to enter the finishing stage. Keep in mind that these are usually young to middle aged cattle. Beef stocker calves will not be ready for harvest at the end of this phase, only for finishing.
Also, it’s helpful to note that cattle farmers refer to the stocker stage as backgrounding and the farmers are called backgrounders. Think of the stocker stage in cattle production in terms of giving animals a background or foundation from which they will be prepared to transition into their designated purposes: beef or sometimes reproduction. They are being prepped.
Usually, backgrounders go to a sale to look for stocker calves. They will be interested in cattle with meaty flesh, but not an overgrown confirmation. They’ll also observe how the animal’s hair looks as an indicator of overall good health. It should be thick, but not long for the breed. Often, long hair indicates weak and runt-like characteristics. That’s not something you want! When a backgrounder wins the bid, his new calves are loaded up into stock trailers and taken to the farmer’s backgrounding operation.
If you ever get the chance to attend a cattle sale in person, take it! Cattle farmers are some of the best people we’ve met. They can teach you a lot about what you should be looking for in a good animal. The environment at a sale barn can be loud, and dust fills the air as animals move through the shoots, but the “here” and “yep” calls of the cattle farmers will be intriguing and educational. The higher the bid, generally, the higher quality the animal.
If a stocker farmer does his work, he will have studied the upcoming sales to see which ones will be offering the best animals. Year after year, the farmers learn who offers what kind of animals, and those that do a good job with their stock will become known for their quality stock. To make this easier, many auction houses publish lists of farmers that will be bringing their cattle to sale.
For example, when Pat Kirk takes his Black Angus cattle to sale at the Guthrie Center Livestock Auction here in west central Iowa, his Angus calves for sale are listed in the publication the sale barn mails out. Because it is an auction, it’s hard to know, but we hope we’ve earned repeat buyers as our calves’ productive qualities speak for themselves both on the beef side of cattle production and on the Black Angus replacement side. Feel free to call us to find out more about our award-winning genetics, high-standard care, and above-average confirmation.
Best Producing Stocker Cattle
If you want to know how to make money raising beef cattle, you’ll want to know which beef cattle provide the highest production. What comes to mind first? Maybe breed or the type of feed, might come to mind. Honestly, there are a lot of factors that go into weight gain averages and profit of beef cattle. Here are a few things to consider when choosing money making stocker cattle:
Energy source: corn, grass fed, etc.
Environment conditions and shelter
Predisposition for contracting sickness
We’ll add a couple pointers here on some of these variables.
First, look at steers vs. heifers. In general, steers gain weight faster than heifers.
Another factor is raising feeder cattle on grass vs. corn. While the majority of calves are grass fed initially, when they move to the stocker stage, and sometimes before, they are transitioned onto grain. Undoubtedly, grains cause cattle to gain weight faster than grass fed cattle. Those on grass, according to Dr. Paschal, gain around a pound to a pound and a quarter, and up to a pound and three quarters on high nutrient producing pastures. At the same time, people are willing to pay more for grass-fed beef. You’ll decide which is more profitable, you’ll need to watch the markets or do good advertising.
What about breed? Which is the fastest weight gaining breed, and which makes the most profit? Unashamedly, we believe Angus is the best beef breed. But don’t take our word for it. Because customers at restaurants and grocery stores prefer it over other beef breeds, Angus beef is a top-priced item. In addition, the Angus breed has the genetics to convert energy to weight quickly, withstand cold environments well, and be easy keepers in terms of temperament, size, and physical attributes - namely, no horns. You could say the Angus breed has a rich resume!
If you’re interested in understanding more of what goes into making up the price of beef animals, check out this article.
It’s the end of the line, the last step in cattle production: finishing.
Often, finishing cattle are taken to feedlots with hundreds and thousands of other cattle. Here, they will be fed a calculated diet of grains (mostly corn), minerals, and other additives all in an effort to increase weight gaining averages while maintaining health.
Alternatively, some cattle are finished on grass. They are grass-finished cattle. While not gaining weight as rapidly as those in feedlots, grass-fed cattle often have a higher quality of life, grazing as often as they want, enjoying a more natural environment, and often not receiving many of the growth additives or and GMOs that are common to large production feedlots.
Whichever method is used, feedlot or grass-fed, cattle in the finishing stage of cattle production are fed out for harvest.
Stocker Cattle vs. Feeder Cattle
What is the difference between stocker and feeder cattle? While stocker cattle are those that are in the intermediate stage of cattle production, weaned, but not ready for harvest, feeder cattle are in the last stage of cattle production, putting on weight till they are ready for harvest.
Feedlot vs. Grass-Fed Finisher Cattle
Although Pat Kirk does not have a finishing operation, he does value a more natural method of finishing cattle. For example, Pat will not give his calves growth hormones and GMO corn that are typical protocols for beef production.
Yes, there is definitely a monetary incentive to mass cattle production in artificial environments (like the cattle confinements that have become common), cattle farmers have a responsibility. What is that? It’s stewardship. We have been made in the likeness of the only Creator and given a bit of a job description: “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically as something done for the Lord and not for men… You serve the Lord Christ,” (Colossians 3:23 and 24b, HCSB). How do you think the Lord intended cattle to be stewarded? We’ll let you ponder that question in relation to how you care for your animals.
Finishing Time Requirements
How long does it take for a beef cow to be ready for slaughter? According to the unbiased resource called the Beef Cattle Clearing House, beef finishing cattle can be harvested anywhere from 12 to 22 months, traditionally. The cattle harvest age is determined by two main factors: marbling and bone maturity.
Although finishers have harvest dates down to a science, farmers using more traditional cattle production methods, like free feeding on pastureland, must take many factors into account. Things like whether the calves were backgrounded on grass or grain and if the cattle received good minerals and adequate fodder play into predicting a harvest date. There are many variables.
So, what should you be looking for to predict a harvest date finishing beef cattle? Sweet and simple, look for well-rounded confirmation. You won’t want obese cattle, but they should be filled out and a little on the heavy-looking side. Here are some things you can look for according to one beef butcher:
Thick flank - the meaty part of the flank should be dropped and dense enough that if felt with thumb and index finger, you would not be able to feel your fingers through the tissue.
Full brisket - this front part of the animal should be round and toned.
Smooth Back - when running your hand over the back of the bovine, it should feel even with no rib ripples.
Rounded thigh/butt area - this should be “heart shaped”. In addition, if you place your thumb into the tissue, it should indent slightly.
In the end, however you choose to finish your beef cattle, your main goal should be to one, increase production while two, maintaining good stewardship of your cattle.
In the end, which stage of cattle production would you like to start up: calf-cow production, a backgrounding operation, or cattle finishing farm? Which one looks the most challenging or the most rewarding? Now that you have a foundational understanding of each stage, we'll let you choose.