What Are The 4 Major Segments Of The Beef Industry?

The beef industry is a complex and diverse system that involves multiple segments, each with its own unique role in bringing beef from farm to fork.

From seedstock production to feedlot operations, the industry is made up of various stages that work together to produce high-quality beef for consumers.

In this article, we will explore the four major segments of the beef industry, their functions, and how they contribute to the overall production of beef.

So, if you’re curious about how your steak gets from the pasture to your plate, keep reading!

What Are The 4 Major Segments Of The Beef Industry?

The four major segments of the beef industry are seedstock production, cow-calf production, stocker/backgrounding, and feedlot operations.

Seedstock production involves specialized cow-calf producers who are responsible for producing superior bulls and heifers to produce good stock for beef. They sell genetic information, breeding animals, semen, and embryos to other breeders and commercial cow-calf producers. Their function is to provide the genetics that can be economically utilized by the industry.

Cow-calf production involves maintaining cow herds and raising calves from birth to weaning. Calves are the primary source of revenue for the commercial producer as well as a source of heifers to replace breeding cows that are culled.

Stocker/backgrounding operations are responsible for adding weight to weaned calves prior to their shipment to feedlots for additional weight gain prior to harvest. They keep yearlings for 12-20 months of age, by the time they enter feedlot.

Feedlot operations are confinement feeding operations where cattle are fed primarily finishing (high energy) rations prior to slaughter. Feeders keep steers and heifers of about 16-30 months of age. Most feedlot operations feed relatively high grain rations for 100-200 days for economically efficient gains and to improve the palatability of retail product. It is also referred to as the finishing phase of beef production.

Seedstock Production: The Foundation Of The Beef Industry

Seedstock production is a critical segment of the beef industry, as it provides the genetic foundation for the entire production chain. Seedstock producers are responsible for breeding and raising purebred or registered cattle that are genetically superior in terms of growth rate, feed efficiency, carcass quality, and other desirable traits. They use various tools such as EPDs (expected progeny differences), DNA profiles, and pedigrees to select the best animals for breeding.

The goal of seedstock production is to make genetic improvements in cattle that benefit the entire beef industry. These improvements are documented through extensive records maintained by both the individual rancher and breed organizations. Seedstock producers market their bulls and replacement females to other seedstock producers or to cow-calf producers.

Seedstock production is a complex process that involves making mating decisions based on an array of data such as weights, measures, EPDs, indices, DNA profiles, pedigrees, and inbreeding coefficients. It takes at least two years for these decisions to result in commercial use and at least three years for market results to be known. Even when economic signals are clear, mating decisions for seedstock today cannot result in commercial use for at least two years.

Successful seedstock producers must harness evolving technology to stay ahead of the competition. Consider that some breeds have literally transformed themselves in less than two decades. The stronger the cowherd, genetically speaking, the greater the payback for many years to come.

Cow-Calf Operations: Raising Calves For Future Beef Production

Cow-calf operations are an important segment of the beef industry. This involves raising calves from birth to weaning, which typically takes place when they are around 6-8 months old. The goal of this segment is to produce healthy and high-quality calves that can be sold to stocker/backgrounding operations or directly to feedlots for further growth and finishing.

Raising calves in cow-calf operations begins with ranchers who maintain a herd of cows that give birth to calves once a year. Calves are typically born weighing between 60 to 100 pounds and will live off their mother’s milk and graze on grass pastures for the next few months. During this time, it is important to ensure that the cows are healthy and well-fed to produce healthy and robust calves.

The major objective of most cattle producers in cow-calf operations is profit. This is determined by several factors including the percent calf crop, the weaning weight of the calves, the costs of maintaining breeding animals, and ultimately, the sale price of the calves. It is essential to maintain good herd health by not allowing the cattle to become too fat or too thin. Overweight or underweight cows do not milk as well and may have problems calving or getting bred. Bulls in poor condition may not perform well during the breeding season.

Different ways of starting a commercial beef cow-calf herd include buying heifers of either weaning or breeding age, purchasing an entire cow herd, or purchasing individual cows from established herds. When deciding on the source of cows or heifers, it is important to consider the genetic potential and health program of the herd.

If you have a good, relatively inexpensive source of feed, December or January is a good time to purchase bred cows and replacement heifers for spring breeding. Cattle for purchase may be priced lower at this time of the year since some producers are reluctant to overwinter too many cattle. Animals that are purchased during this time of the year should be healthy and tested not only for pregnancy but also the stage of pregnancy and projected calving date.

Backgrounding And Stocker Operations: Preparing Cattle For Feedlot Life

Backgrounding and stocker operations are an essential part of the beef industry, as they prepare weaned calves for their transition into feedlot operations. These programs typically last 45 to 90 days and aim to minimize the stress that accompanies weaning and transportation, with the goal of making calves more resilient before they enter the feedlot.

Backgrounding involves the growing of steers and heifers from weaning until they enter the feedlot for finishing. It is suited to farmers who do not want to maintain a cow herd, do not want to finish cattle, but do want to put added weight on calves after weaning. Backgrounding seems to fit the farmer who has extra time during the year to work cattle, has good quality roughage available, and wants to have a flexible cattle business.

Stocker operations, on the other hand, are responsible for adding weight to weaned calves prior to their shipment to feedlots for additional weight gain prior to harvest. They keep yearlings for 12-20 months of age, by the time they enter feedlot. The primary goal of these operations is to allow the animals to grow at a moderate rate, about two pounds per day.

By having calves go through a beef cattle backgrounding program before they enter the feedlot, many problems related to stress and subsequent health issues can be mitigated. This is because calves are often separated from their dams without having an adequate weaning period prior to marketing and being transported to a feedlot or other facility. This can result in high levels of stress for calves and cause subsequent health issues that may hinder growth performance and increase morbidity and mortality.

Feedlot Operations: Finishing Cattle For Market And Beyond

Feedlot operations are the final stage of cattle production, where steers and heifers are fed high-energy rations to achieve market weight and produce a carcass that meets USDA quality grades for the slaughter market. The feeding period can range from 90 to 300 days, depending on factors such as weight at feedlot placement, feeding conditions, and desired grade. During this time, the average gain is from 2.5-4 pounds per day on about 6 pounds of dry-matter feed per 1 pound of gain.

Feedlot rations are generally 70-90 percent grain and protein concentrates, which is a significant shift from the grass-based diet that calves consume until weaning. The feedlot provides a confined area for feeding steers and heifers on a ration of grain, silage, hay, and/or protein supplement to produce a carcass that will meet the USDA quality grade Select or better for the slaughter market.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) grades beef as whole carcasses in two ways: quality grades for tenderness, juiciness, and flavor; and yield grades for denoting the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass. The quality grades are Prime, Choice, and Select. The feedlot operation plays a critical role in ensuring that the cattle meet these standards.

While most feedlots have less than 1,000-head capacity and market a relatively small share of the fed cattle, feedlots with a capacity of 1,000-head-or-greater market 80-85 percent of fed cattle. The industry is shifting towards a small number of very large, specialized feedlots focused on raising high-quality cattle for specific markets. These markets may require cattle not treated with hormones or not fed beta agonists.

Beef cattle producers face many challenges in their industry, including changes in weather, input prices, animal performance, technology, and marketing opportunities. To make informed business decisions that improve efficiency and profitability, producers must collect and analyze production and financial records. In addition to managing animal health and nutrition, producers must also consider available technologies to improve efficiency in their operations.