1.2 Cattle Production


This chapter details all the work that goes into raising cattle for the beef industry in Canada. Here you will learn about the various breeds raised in Canada; breeding and care of animals on farms and ranches across the country; feed and animal care and more.

  • Quick Glossary
  • Bos taurus
  • Bos indicus
  • byproduct
  • breeds

The cattle used for beef production in North America historically originated from two areas of the world. These include the Bos taurus cattle from Europe and the Bos indicus from tropical countries. Bos taurus were native to the temperate countries of the UK (Scotland, England and Wales), France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. These cattle were used primarily for meat and milk production with other byproducts such as hides tanned for leather. Bos indicus were native cattle in the tropical countries of Southeast Asia, and Africa. They have the characteristic “humped back” appearance, the capability to tolerate high temperature and humidity environments, disease resistance to ticks, mosquitoes and other tropical insects, and often were used for work, meat and milk production. Due to climate, Bos taurus cattle are raised in Canada. Some of the most common breeds are Angus, Simmental, Charolais and Hereford.


Cow/Calf Enterprise

Raising beef cattle is primarily a family run business with the average Canadian cow herd consisting of 63 head of livestock. Farmers and ranchers carefully select genetically superior bulls and cows to breed each year to produce high quality beef.

  • Quick Glossary
  • bulls
  • cows
  • gestation period
  • pasture
  • calving interval
  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)
  • brand
  • traceability
  • rangeland
  • vaccinated
  • vitamins
  • Steers
  • calves
  • grasses
  • legumes
  • mineral
  • weaned
  • Replacement heifer
  • breeding programs
  • ration
  • hay

Bulls are turned out with the cow herds in spring and early summer. Cows have a nine month gestation period and calves are typically born in late winter and early spring then spend the summer and into the fall at their mother’s side on pasture. Cows will be rebred in two to three months for a 12 month calving interval.

It is common practice to identify calves at an early age with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tag and/or brand to enhance traceability and record keeping measures. In accordance with federal regulations, all cattle must be identified with an RFID tag prior to leaving the farm on which they are born. Branding is used when ranchers pasture their cattle in large rangeland pastures or with cattle belonging to another ranch as it is a permanent form of identification whereas an ear tag can be lost. Brands also help to identify stolen or lost cattle. Calves are also vaccinated to prevent common diseases and often given vitamins to promote good health.

Bull calves are castrated at a young age when it is most humane to the animal. There are several reasons why castration is a common practice.  Steers have a gentler temperament, so are safer for both their handler and other livestock. Steers are also more productive and a better quality source of beef compared to bulls. Genetically superior bulls are left intact for use in future breeding programs.

Cows and their calves spend their summer in herds grazing a variety of grasses and legumes with ready access to water and a mineral source. Calves are weaned from their mothers in the fall at six to eight months of age. Replacement heifer and bull calves that will be used in future breeding programs are separated from the group and fed a specific ration designed to aid in frame growth and accumulation of lean muscle without the addition of excess fat. Replacement heifers are bred at 15 months of age and have their first calf at 24 months. Bred cows and heifers as well as breeding bulls are fed a forage based diet through the winter months, most commonly a hay mix.

Cow/Calf Enterprise

Backgrounding and Feedlot Enterprises

Steers and feeder heifers either enter a backgrounding lot or a feedlot. Those that enter a backgrounding lot are fed a ration consisting primarily of forage and supplemented with grains for two to four months.

  • Quick Glossary
  • backgrounding
  • feedlot
  • forage
  • grains
  • finishing
  • grassers
  • bunks
  • shelter
  • specially designed trailers
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)
  • Health of Animals Regulations

The backgrounding phase is a slower growth phase in comparison to the feedlot as it is designed to grow adequate frame and lean muscle in the feeders prior to the finishing stage. Some of the younger or lighter weight calves return to pasture in the spring for the backgrounding phase as grassers. Feeders from ranches and backgrounding lots are then transported to a feedlot where they are fed a highly specialized ration that increases in grain content as cattle mature to the approximate finished weight of 1350 pounds. Cattle typically enter the feedlot at nine to eleven months of age or 900 pounds and are fed at the feedlot for 60 to 200 days. During their stay in the feedlot and/or backgrounding lot, cattle are fed from their bunks twice daily on a regular schedule, have continual access to water and shelter and are provided with sufficient bedding for the current weather conditions.

Once cattle are finished they are referred to as fats and transported to the slaughter facility or packing plant in specially designed trailers. The transportation of livestock is carefully regulated in Canada to minimize stress and injury to the animals. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for the animal welfare aspects of livestock such as loading densities, bedding requirements and time in transit through the Health of Animals Regulations. Other departments regulate factors such as how often drivers need to stop for a rest, maximum trailer length and axle weight limits. Recent studies have found that over 99.9%* of cattle arrive at their destination with no signs of injury or stress.

Backgrounding and Feedlot Enterprises

Cattle are Ruminants

A ruminant is a mammal that has four stomach compartments that allows for digestion of plant material. With this type of anatomy, cattle are able to efficiently convert forages and grains into a high quality protein source for human consumption.

  • Quick Glossary
  • ruminant
  • silage
  • feed grain
  • body condition

Cattle are fed specific rations throughout their life that are tailored to their characteristics such as gender, weight, life stage and body condition as well as the current climate conditions. Cattle are fed forages and/or grains in their ration along with salt, minerals and vitamins and they have continual access to water. Common forages that are fed in Canada are legume, grass and cereal hay and silage, and both tame and native pasture. Common grains that are fed in Canada are barley, corn, oats and wheat.

The grain that is fed to cattle is feed grain and not destined for human consumption. Feed grain is of lower quality than that used in food products for humans. Some crops destined for human consumption suffer from weather events such as frost or hail and do not measure up to the quality standards and are instead fed to livestock. Other types of feed material are used depending on costs and nutritional content; many of these feeds are by-products such as canola meal from crushing plants, pelleted screenings from cleaning grain and dried distillers grain from ethanol production. These would be waste products if they were not fed to livestock.

Grains have a higher energy content than forages. For this reason, the grain content of feeder cattle rations increases as they move through the feeding phase to increase muscle mass and fat cover.
The addition of grain into feeder and finishing rations means more efficient weight gain with less impact on the environment. Modern production practices, including grain finishing, allow the industry to produce more beef with fewer resources including number of cattle, land, water, feed, fuel and fertilizer than was possible in the past. Grain is also fed to other classes of cattle to increase body condition or to young cattle to help with frame growth.

Cattle are Ruminants

Growth Promotants, Antimicrobials and other Veterinary drugs

Feedlots and beef producers use many tools and practices to provide high quality, wholesome and nutritious beef.  This is accomplished while using fewer resources, such as land, feed, fuel, water and fertilizer, and maintaining animal health and food safety.

  • Quick Glossary
  • ionophores
  • growth implants
  • growth promotants
  • Food and Drugs Act and Regulations
  • withdrawal times
  • Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations
  • antimicrobial
  • microbes

Among these tools and practices are the use of growth promotants such as ionophores and growth implants. Both growth promotants and ionophores, along with all other veterinary drugs, must be approved for use by Health Canada and are regulated by the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. Clear labelling includes proper dosage and withdrawal times to ensure that the drug is properly administered. Regular monitoring programs conducted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) ensure that any drug residues which remain in the meat are well within lawful and safe limits.

Growth implants enhance the reproductive hormones that naturally occur in the animal. These added hormones improve the animal’s ability to use the nutrients in its feed efficiently by generally encouraging protein deposition or muscle growth and discouraging fat deposition. Fat deposition requires more energy and feed than protein deposition. The animal metabolizes the added hormones prior to slaughter; the result is that the levels found in food products are too low to have an effect on human health. Growth promotant safety has been reviewed by many experts and agencies worldwide including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations.

The most commonly used antimicrobial in beef production is a type of growth promotant delivered through cattle feed. Ionophores improve the nutrient availability by inhibiting methane producing microbes in the animal’s stomach and allowing beneficial microbes to make more feed energy available to the animal. Ionophores improve feed efficiency and weight gain, and reduce methane production and the incidence of some illnesses. Antibiotics are used in the cattle industry because they are instrumental in treating illnesses to maintain herd health. Veterinarians and beef producers are diligent about proper use of antimicrobials to ensure that antibiotic resistance is avoided and these medications remain effective.

Health Canada ranks antimicrobials into categories related to their importance in human medicine. Antimicrobials that have high importance in the human health system are very rarely used in beef cattle. The feeding of ionophores makes up the majority of antimicrobial use in beef cattle and ionophores are not used in human medicine.

Growth Promotants, Antimicrobials and other Veterinary drugs

Animal Care

Humane treatment of livestock is an important part of beef production. Content, healthy cattle are more productive. Well cared for animals grow faster and produce higher quality beef. Most farmers and ranchers raise cattle because they enjoy working with animals and respect the importance of treating them responsibly.

  • Quick Glossary
  • National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC)
  • Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle

Beef producers have both an ethical as well as an economic interest in the humane treatment of their animals. Canada’s beef producers have joined with governments, veterinarians and humane societies to establish a national code of practice for the handling of cattle under the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Producer education and training programs are in place to help ensure farmers and ranchers have up-to-date information on animal care. A recently updated Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle was released in September 2013.

Farmers and ranchers work on a daily basis to provide proper care for their animals. During all points of the production system, cattle have access to ample food and water, sunshine and fresh air, and space to move around. The rations that cattle are fed are balanced to provide adequate nutrition and promote good health. This is especially true for feeder cattle that are fed high energy diets twice a day on a strict schedule. Animals are also provided with shelter and bedding suitable to the weather conditions. Cattle are regularly observed to monitor conditions such as health, bedding, body condition and feed and water availability. Observation increases in intensity and frequency during weather events, sickness and calving to ensure that the producer is providing the proper care for their animals.

Animal Care


*Taken from Beef Cattle Research Council, 2012