Pasture to Plate Series: Cow/Calf Operation

Feb 09, 2017

Most beef cattle begin their lives on a farm or ranch known as a cow/calf operation. The rancher on a cow/calf operation makes decisions on breeding the cow, delivering the calf, and raising the calf until it is ready to be sold. These farms may be very large with hundreds of cows and calves or very small with only a few cows and calves. The average beef herd in the USA has about 40 cows. Many times, cows are only part of a rancher’s income, and they may have another job or other farming enterprises, such as crops or chicken houses.

Beef farmers put a lot of work into the calf even before it is born. First, they must choose which breed of cattle will work best for their farm. They need to consider conditions like weather, terrain, and the availability of grass and feed, and prioritize the traits they want their cattle to have. Some breeds are known for heat tolerance whereas others are more tolerant of colder climates. Some need abundance of feed and grass, whereas others are more adapted to survive in times of drought. The cattle that are successful in the Rocky Mountains will probably be very different from the ones that do well in the heat and humidity of the Southeast. Ranchers may also need to prioritize the traits of the beef they want to raise. Some cattle produce very tasty, highly marbled beef with more fat, whereas others produce more lean beef with little fat. Some examples of cattle breeds are Angus, Charolais, Simmental, Brahman, or Brangus.


Most of the calves that become beef are not registered, purebred cattle. Cow/calf farmers often use registered, purebred bulls and non-registered, crossbred cows. Selecting the bulls you want to breed to your cows is a huge part of herd management.

After a cow is bred, it takes 283 days until she is ready to calve. Most cows are bred to calve either in the fall or spring. Calves typically weigh 60 to 80 lbs. at the time of birth. The calf will stay with its mother in a pasture, drinking milk and learning to eat grass until seven to eight months of age.

The farmer will vaccinate the calves for diseases, castrate and dehorn calves (if needed), treat any animals that become sick, and perhaps provide some supplemental feed for older calves. When the calves are weaned, they typically weigh around 400 to 600 lbs. and are ready to move to either a stocker or feeder farm, which is the next stage in the beef calf’s life.


Penn State Extension Services

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