Feedlot versus Grass Fed Beef
The good, the bad and the not so pretty things about beef
Part 2 - Birth to 700 lbs
As a generality, almost all beef cattle have the same conception to weaning experience. Mother cow gets pregnant, hopefully eats a good diet while pregnant, nine months later gives birth to baby. Baby calf nurse from mother exclusively for first 2-4 weeks and then starts eating a bit of grass or hay. Continues to nurse but increases the percent of its nutrient intake steadily until time for weaning at about seven months of age. Almost all cow-calf operations are grass based, in other words, not confinement feeding.
Weaning age is when things begin to change. Some farms wean by sticking the calf in a trailer and taking them to the local sale barn. This is frowned upon by many, including myself, as this puts a lot of stress on the animal and can lead to respiratory illness that can be terminal. Most farmers wean their calves on the farm and couple this with a round of vaccinations. Depending upon tradition, grazing availability and grain costs, the weaned calves may be simply put 'next door' in a grass field to fend for themselves, or they may be provided some level of grain to make up for the loss of milk. After 30-60 days from weaning, the calf will be truly weaned.
For our calves, from weaning to butchering, their lives are very stable: Eat grass, drink, sleep, repeat. We do toss them some grain to keep them docile and so that I can easily capture them but nothing compared to what a feedlot animal would experience (~3 lbs every other day versus 30 lbs per day).
A calf destined for the feedlots, which is where 99% of the grocery shelf and restaurant meats are sourced from, will typically spend 3 to 9 months being "backgrounded". Backgrounding is the term used to denote that time when the calf is prepared, or given the background, so that they do not die when they go to the feedlots. What this entails is teaching the calves to eat grain from a bunk, drink water from trough and gaining a few hundreds pounds. The particular environment may be anything from wheat farm grazing the winter wheat, a farm with some pastures and feeding bunks to essentially a small feedlot. While there is a fairly wide variance in the 'end point' of backgrounding, roughly when the steer or heifer is 600 to 800 lbs, they are considered ready to go to the feedlot.