Beef Raising Today


Beef production represents the largest single segment of American agriculture. In fact, USDA says more farms are classified as beef cattle operations (35%) than any other type

Raising cattle involves numerous farms and operations, each serving a unique role in the process. At each stage, America’s farmers and ranchers strive to provide safe, high-quality beef for consumers while following best practices for raising cattle humanely

1.      Cow-Calf Operation – Beef production begins with ranchers who maintain a breeding herd of cows that nurture calves every year. When a calf is born, it weighs 60 to 100 pounds. Over the next few months, each calf will live off its mother’s milk and graze grass in pasture.

2.      Weaning – Beef calves are weaned at six to 10 months of age when they weigh between 450 and 700 pounds. These calves are now grass-fed in pasture

3.      Stockers and Backgrounders – After weaning, cattle continue to grow and thrive by grazing during the stocker and backgrounder phase.

4.      Livestock Auction Markets – After weaning and/or during the stocker and backgrounder phase, cows are sold at livestock auction markets. About 1/3 of cows stay on the farm for breeding purposes.

5.      Feedyard – The next step in beef production is when mature calves are moved to feedyards (also called feedlots). Here, they typically spend four to six months, during which time they have constant access to water, room to move around, and are free to graze at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet. Veterinarians, nutritionists and cattlemen work together to look after each animal.

6.      Packing Plant – Once cattle reach market weight (typically 1,200 to 1,400 pounds and 18 to 22 months of age), they are sent to a processing facility. USDA inspectors are stationed in all federally inspected packing plants and oversee the implementation of safety, animal welfare, and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants establishments.

7.      Food Service and Retail – The final step in beef production is when beef is shipped and sold in the United States and abroad. In the retail and food service channels, operators take steps to provide consumers with the most safe, wholesome and nutritious products possible. Proper animal care is the responsibility of everyone in the beef production chain. Beef ranchers recognize that ensuring animal well-being is the right thing to do and critical to their operation’s success.

From Our Family to Yours

In every state in America, you will find beef ranchers and farmers – hard-working people who are dedicated to their land, their animals, and to providing America and the world with safe, wholesome and nutritious beef.

There are 750,000 farmers and ranchers around the country who raise beef. Of these, 97 percent are family owned and more than half (54 percent) of these farms and ranches have been in the same family for three generations or more. The United States is leader in the global beef marketplace, producing 20 percent of the world’s beef with just 7 percent of the world’s cattle.

Animal Welfare

Cattle farmers and ranchers know that giving animals the proper care, handling and nutrition they deserve makes good business sense. They also recognize that it is just “the right thing to do.”

Cattle farmers and ranchers have a tradition — a way of life — that has always included the symbiotic relationship between human caretaker and animal. Cattle farmers and ranchers take pride in exemplary care and husbandry of their animals. Farmers and ranchers use sound animal husbandry practices, based on decades of practical experience and research, to assure the well being of cattle under their care.

Of course, humane treatment of meat animals is not limited just to the producer. The U.S. meat industry is also one of the most heavily regulated industries in the nation.

What is the difference between “Animal Welfare” and “Animal Rights”

“Animal welfare” and “animal rights” are often confused by both the media and the public. “Animal welfare” may be defined as the use of proper animal husbandry practices by farmers and ranchers that will assure the continuous well being of animals under their care. Perhaps the American Veterinary Medical Association, representing the nation’s veterinary professionals, best describes the commitment required of all livestock farmers and ranchers to the welfare of livestock: “Animal welfare is a human responsibility that encompasses all aspects of animal well being, from proper housing and nutrition to preventative care, treatment of disease, and when necessary, humane euthanasia.”

On the other hand, “animal rights” is a philosophy based on the premise that humans have no right to use (or “exploit”) animals for their own purposes. Proponents of “animal rights” reason that just because we have the power to do so does not give us the right to do so. This philosophy leads its proponents to challenge our right not only to eat animal products, but also our use of animals in biomedical or agricultural research.

What is the Producer Code for Cattle Care?

The Producer Code for Cattle Care, first developed in 1996, represents a comprehensive set of good production practices, which includes the following recommendations for farmers and ranchers to implement in raising and handling cattle:

  • Provide adequate food, water and care to protect the health and well being of animals.
  • Provide disease prevention practices to protect herd health, including access to veterinary care.
  • Provide facilities that allow safe, humane and efficient movement and/or restraint of livestock.
  • Use humane methods to euthanize sick or injured livestock and dispose of them properly.
  • Provide personnel with training to properly handle, and care for, cattle.
  • Make timely observations of livestock to ensure basic needs are being met.
  • Provide transportation that avoids undue stress caused by overcrowding, excess time in transit or improper handling during loading and unloading.
  • Keep updated on advancements and changes in the industry to make decisions based on sound production practices and consideration to animal well being.
  • Do not tolerate persons who willfully mistreat animals. The Code makes it very clear that, “Persons who willfully mistreat animals will not be tolerated.”

Developed by animal health experts and cattle producer leaders, the “Cattle Industry’s Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle” also serves as a how-to guide for cattlemen.

What is Humane Harvest?

The meat packing process has evolved over the years, based on the latest scientific research, to ensure both humane treatment and food safety. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1978 dictates strict animal handling and slaughtering standards for packing plants. Those standards are monitored by federal meat inspectors nationwide, who are present in packing plants during operation. The USDA assigns veterinarians to more than 900 federally inspected meat packing facilities and monitors their practices every day. FSIS inspectors are empowered to take action in a plant any time they identify a violation of the Act’s requirements, which include:

  • Animals must be handled and moved through chutes and pens in ways that do not cause stress.
  • Livestock must be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter. The Act details the methods that must be used to cause insensibility.
    Animals must have access to water, and those kept longer than 24 hours must have access to feed.
  • Animals kept in pens overnight must be permitted plenty of room to lie down.
  • The dragging of downers or crippled livestock in the stockyards, crowded pen or stunning chute is strictly prohibited.

BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy)

U.S. cattlemen have been proactively engaged in the prevention and mitigation of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) — more commonly known as “mad cow disease”— for more than 20 years, beginning when the disease was first discovered in the United Kingdom in 1986.

What is BSE and how is it spread?

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called “mad cow disease,” is a degenerative neurological disease of cattle that is caused by misfolded proteins (called prions) that build up in the central nervous system (CNS) and eventually kill nerve cells. BSE is spread through certain cattle feed ingredients, which have been banned in the United States since 1997.

BSE typically affects older cattle, typically those more than 30 months of age. The vast majority of cattle going to market in the United States are less than 24 months old.

Experts in human and animal health agree that U.S. beef is safe from BSE because of the progressive steps taken by the U.S. government.

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Is U.S. beef and milk safe from BSE?

The U.S. food supply remains the safest in the world, including beef and dairy products. The government has implemented a series of strong measures that protect our food supply. Working together, the beef industry and government have put in place science-based measures that have proven successful in preventing the spread of BSE in the United States. In May 2007, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the leading international body for animal health, designated the United States a “controlled BSE risk” country in recognition of these strong prevention measures.

How is BSE detected

USDA’s ongoing BSE surveillance program tests approximately 40,000 high-risk cattle annually, bringing the total of tested animals to more than 1 million since the program began. A scientific analysis of seven years of surveillance data found the estimated prevalence of BSE in the United States to be less than one infected animal per 1 million adult cattle.

What systems are in place to prevent future cases of BSE in the U.S.?

The U.S. government, in partnership with the industry, has worked for years to build a system that works to protect animal and public health by preventing the introduction of BSE and preparing to prevent its spread. In 1989, the U.S. began a series of bans on imports of animals or at-risk animal products from BSE countries and, in 1997, instituted the ruminant to ruminant feed ban. As mentioned above, the U.S. has in place an ongoing surveillance system targeting the highest risk populations and mandates the practice of removing specified risk materials from all cattle. A report by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, released in July 2006, found that removal of these high risk tissues from animals 30 months and over “almost completely eliminated potential human exposure” to BSE.

USDA Public Health Veterinarians examine every single animal before processing and condemn those with any signs of illness. Animals most likely to have BSE are older animals either unable to walk or showing signs of neurological disease. Such animals are banned from the human food supply.

Together, all of these interventions work to protect the U.S. cattle population from BSE.

This disease is fast approaching eradication worldwide. According to USDA, there were only 29 cases of BSE worldwide in 2011, which is a 99 percent reduction since the peak in 1992 of more than 37,300 cases in the United Kingdom.

FMD (Foot-and-Mouth Disease)

Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is a serious animal disease that affects animals with cloven (divided) hooves, such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and deer. FMD is not a public health concern, nor does it affect the safety of meat or pasteurized milk and dairy products sold in supermarkets. The FMD virus is highly contagious and easily spread among susceptible animals by wind, infected animals, people and vehicles. 

FMD is not related to Hand, Food and Mouth Disease (HFMD), a common viral illness of infants and children, nor is it the same as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as “mad cow disease.” Dogs, cats, horses and other animals without cloven hooves are not susceptible to FMD.

FMD is not a threat to public health, and is not a human health concern. It also does not affect the safety of meat and milk products. FMD is not related to Hand, Food and Mouth Disease (HFMD), a common viral illness of infants and children. Humans do not get FMD, and animals do not get HFMD. FMD is occasionally confused with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease,” which is an unrelated disease of cattle that affects the nervous system.

FMD does not affect companion animals like dogs and cats. Horses are also unaffected. While FMD does not pose a risk to people, the economic consequences of an FMD outbreak in the United States would be dramatic. FMD permanently affects the health and productivity of animals contracting the disease, and therefore, can greatly affect the supply of meat, milk and dairy products. If an outbreak did occur, travel would be restricted in affected areas, creating a negative impact on travel and commerce.

The United States has not had an outbreak of FMD since 1929, thanks to an aggressive program of surveillance and prevention.  U.S. veterinary officials perform more than 800 investigations on suspect animals every year, and strict controls are in place on our borders to prevent livestock from being imported to the U.S. from areas where FMD is endemic. 

Emergency response planning is also a key part of U.S. efforts to combat FMD.  Through drills, exercises and other preparedness activities, emergency personnel are constantly training for an FMD scenario. 

America’s beef farmers and ranchers know the importance of remaining vigilant on their farms and ranches to prevent the potential introduction and spread of FMD on their operations. Because the livelihoods of beef farmers and ranchers depend on protecting the health of their herds and the safety of their product, they realize the importance of working with and following the direction of local, state and national agencies in the event of an FMD outbreak.

The FMD virus can be killed with heat, low humidity or some disinfectants. To control the spread of the disease from animal to animal and farm to farm, infected animals must be quarantined and often euthanized, and human and vehicle traffic around the perimeter of the farm must be stopped


Though the cattleman’s primary goal is to prevent illness in the herd, it is natural for some cattle to become sick. Cattle farmers and ranchers make every effort to return sick or injured animals to good health because it is the right and humane thing to do. When antibiotics are necessary to maintain cattle health or treat sick cattle, cattlemen believe in using the smallest and most effective dose of antibiotics made specifically for cattle.

Farmers and ranchers and veterinarians take great care to promptly detect and treat animals with the correct type and amount of medication, providing the most efficient treatment for returning an animal to good health. Careful and judicious use of animal antibiotics is one way America’s beef farmers and ranchers help an animal regain or maintain excellent health while producing safe, wholesome and nutritious beef

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics, also known as antimicrobials, are medications that fight bacterial infections. Antibiotics made specifically for cattle are used to help an animal regain or maintain superior health and produce safe beef.

What is the approval process for antibiotics?

Antibiotics used in beef cattle production must go through a rigorous testing process before being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to assure the safety of cattle as well as beef products entering the food supply. FDA has developed an approval process which stringently manages antibiotic use and specifically monitors for potential resistance. This system helps protect human health while giving veterinarians and cattle farmers and ranchers the tools needed to keep animals healthy. Guidance 152 is an FDA recommended process introduced in 2002 that subjects all antibiotics to a thorough and stringent resistance risk assessment that identifies any potential risk of using a particular antibiotic. The New Animal Drug Application process requires a sponsor to submit an average of 75 studies to prove an antibiotic’s safety.

Why are antibiotics used in cattle?

Farmers and ranchers and veterinarians take great care to administer only the amount of antibiotics needed to bring an animal back to health in order to maintain the continued effectiveness of medicines. The Beef Quality Assurance program has been training beef farmers and ranchers about the safe and appropriate use of antibiotics since the 1980s. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Producer Guidelines for “Judicious Use of Antimicrobials” have been in place since 1987 and specifically outline the appropriate use of these products:

  • Avoid using antibiotics that are important in human medicine.
  • Use a narrow spectrum of antimicrobials whenever possible.
  • Treat the fewest number of animals possible.
  • Antibiotic use should be limited to prevent or control disease and should not be used if the primary intent is to improve performance.

What about antibiotic residue?

Cattle farmers and ranchers and veterinarians take great care to use the optimal amount of antibiotics needed to return an animal to good health, and the government supports

this effort through regular testing. By law, no meat sold in the United States is allowed to contain antibiotic residues that violate FDA standards. The Food Safety Inspection Service’s National Residue Program (FSIS NRP) is a multi-component, analytical testing program for residues in domestic and imported meat, poultry and egg products. The FSIS NRP has been in effect since 1967 and provides a variety of sampling plans to prevent concerning levels of residues from entering the food supply. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) conducts tests to ensure beef products entering the food supply do not contain antibiotic levels that violate FDA standards. The program also provides national data on the occurrence of chemical residues to support risk assessment, enforcement and educational activities.

Growth Promotants

America’s cattle farmers and ranchers use growth promotants to safely produce more of the lean beef that consumers demand while using fewer resources, like land and feed. The use of growth promotants such as growth hormones in cattle or feed additives like beta-agonists can help cattle convert the nutrients in their feed to lean muscle

Sometimes referred to as cattle growth hormones or steroids, these production technologies have been used for nearly 60 years to help cattle efficiently convert their feed into more lean muscle. The safe and judicious use of growth promotants in beef production is assured by the product approval procedures required by FDA, as well as by the on-going testing policies and procedures administered by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). FSIS regularly tests for residues in meat to assure there is no misuse of growth promoting products.

What are growth promotants and how are they administered?

Growth promotants are typically small pellets implanted under the skin on the back of an animal’s ear. The pellets release tiny amounts of growth promoting hormones, which safely dissolve as treatment is completed. Growth promotants are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Why are growth promotants used in beef production?

For more than 60 years, growth promotants have helped cattle farmers and ranchers safely meet the increasing consumer demand for lean beef. Typically, cattle raised with growth promotants can have up to 18 percent more lean muscle than other cattle, with an equal decrease in fat.

Do those hormones ever end up in the beef?

There is very little difference in the amounts of estrogen found in beef from cattle raised with or without growth promotants (1.9 versus 1.3 nanograms per serving). FSIS regularly tests for residues in meat that would indicate misuse of growth promoting products 

Is the use of growth promotants safe?

Yes. The use of hormones in cattle production has been declared safe by scientific organizations world wide including the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization, the European Commission Agriculture Division and the Codex Committee on Veterinary Residues. In addition, growth promotants are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after a thorough review of data from rigorous scientific tests, similar to the tests the FDA requires for human drug approval.

What about the affects on my health and the environment?

Growth promotants have been used safely in agriculture for more than 60 years. Beef farmers and ranchers feed their animals the best science-based diet available and use humane animal husbandry practices. Growth promotants allow cattle farmers and ranchers to deliver leaner beef and use fewer acres for grain, which is better for the environment.
Courtesy of Beef Checkoff Program