Virginia’s topography, relatively mild climate, and various levels of elevation make it an ideal location for a variety of agricultural pursuits within the state’s different regions. The cattle industry is not least among these. Particularly in the western part of the state with its higher elevation, cattle farmers take advantage of the miles of sprawling pasture to breed and raise feeder calves which are typically weaned around 7-9 months. As you probably know or can assume, livestock is not one integrated, homogenized industry. It’s extremely uncommon for one farm to raise an infant cow to adulthood; it’s more efficient to consolidate the training, resources, and labor required for one stage and to focus on that. Your porterhouse steak or cheeseburger was likely born and bred on one farm, shipped to another operation after a few months, and then “finished” at a feedlot with a bunch of other cows. At this point in the process, the cows (varying in age from little over a year to over two and a half years) are anywhere from 1000 to 1500 pounds! As you’ll see, certain steps in the operation lend themselves better to certain climates and regions. It’s pretty normal for cattle farmers in Virginia to send their weaning calves off to feeding lots all over the country, especially up north to Pennsylvania, which is the closest market for feeder cattle on the coast.
There are four distinct stages of cattle production in the beef industry. Beyond these, the beef must be processed, packaged, and approved for public consumption.
Like all forms of life, the cattle industry begins with genetics. In this phase, special consideration is given to breed. Branding is every bit as important here as it is in the marketing of other products: consider the weight of terms like “angus” or “wagyu” beef. The cows must have documented pedigrees and in most cases must be registered with a breed association (i.e. the Belted Galloway Society in Staunton, Virginia). These measures protect the brand. Within this sector, seedstock operators make decisions, the implications of which last for years. They are the source of bulls and new genetics. The idea is to use thoughtful, deliberate breeding to engineer “genetically superior” cows. Artificial insemination is central to this segment of the cattle industry, as it helps to quickly introduce superior genetics into herds of cattle. The relative nature of terms like “quality” or “superiority” leaves much of the seedstock operator’s job open to interpretation. A breeder has countless considerations. S/he must attempt to predict and intuit the market, and a reputation for having excellent or substandard product tends to be quite lasting.
Most of the revenue generated in this sector comes from the sale of yearling bulls, generally no older than 18 or so months. These bulls can be extremely valuable based on their genes. Seedstock operators can also make money by selling:
-Young breeding females
-Older bulls that have lost most of their reproductive potential,
-“Genetically inferior” cattle as commercial feeders
-Genetic materials like semen or embryos
The seedstock operation can be further subdivided into elite and multipliergroups. An operator belonging to the former group would be more expressly concerned with making improvements to the breed and manipulating genetics. Elite operators sell their bulls, semen and embryos to other seedstock operators. Multiplier operators interact more directly with the cow/calf operators at the next step in the livestock chain.
This second segment is by far the most prevalent, with regard to both total designated acreage and the number of operations compared to the other sectors of the cattle-rearing industry. This operation by-and-large is sustained by breeding a herd of permanent cows to produce calves for sale. These mother cows are either raised from infancy on the farm or purchased from a seedstock operation (in which case they may be used to produce purebred beef). Their offspring—the commercial feeder cows—are raised from infancy and weaned between 7 and 9 months, when they reach a weight between roughly 400 and 650 pounds. The goal of this operation is to produce a regular generation of feeder calves annually.
Cow-calf operations are usually established on pasturelands unsuitable for the cultivation of row-crops. The livestock is raised on forage from the pasturelands, often supplemented with vitamins and minerals as the operation sees fit. In the U.S., this sector of the industry is concentrated in the western and southeastern parts of the country. Cow-calf operations in these parts of the country have a few significant advantages. They have longer grazing seasons, so there is less need to stockpile additional forage for the winter months. Operations in the Midwest must endure longer, more severe winters and this takes a toll a significant toll on revenue. What the Midwest, Southeast, and Western regions have in common is an abundance of large open pasture space, although in the Southeast, cow-calf operations are generally smaller, with many functioning as part-time operations.
From the outset, a person hoping to put a foot into the door of this sector would require substantial intermediate—long-term investment. From an economic perspective, this operation is largely cyclical. The beef industry follows a 10-12 year cycle of growth and diminishing, wherein the usual supply-demand principles are in effect. As farmers, ranchers, and operators across all four sectors increase their stock in response to favorable/profitable conditions, demand predictably diminishes. At this point, the industry limits the number of stock, trying to find agreement between the supply and demand curves.
When they are between 7 to 9 months old and between 400 and 650 pounds, feeder calves are ready to leave the cow-calf operation. There are several problems associated with this transitional phase, which become exacerbated when present in large number of cows. This is a difficult period for the young cows, as they have been freshly weaned, are adjusting to changes in diet, being marketed extensively for different bidders and ultimately being shipped or otherwise transported to unfamiliar surroundings. This confluence of factors, coupled with the presence of foreign cows can result in Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex (BRDC). Also known as “shipping fever” or pneumonia, this illness is responsible for between 45 and 75% of the deaths in some feedlots. When afflicted, cows will adopt mannerisms and behaviors symptomatic of depression. Look for drooped ears (think Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh) and a bowed neck. The cows also tend to stand isolated…eventually they will stop eating. Their respiratory rate increases; their lungs start to create noise (audible with the aid of a stethoscope); their temperatures float around104-108 degrees.
The backgrounder serves as a buffer between the cow-calf operators and the feedlots. Feedlot operators have become increasingly reticent to deal with BRDC, and often the symptoms manifest themselves after the calves leave the cow-calf operation (typically one to three weeks after purchase). Calves generally spend between one and six months being “conditioned” by the backgrounders. As they are seeing calves through a difficult, transitory time, backgrounders must be very cognizant of nutritional standards. They generally have access to at least rudimentary health management facilities. There must be in place a feeding infrastructure capable of producing intermediate energy to sustain cows. There is considerable price risk in running a backgrounding operation, especially considering the aforementioned conditions that are present in several of the calves. Nevertheless, this sector of the cattle industry is crucial in bridging the gap between cow-calf operations—where cows are essentially produced—and feedlots where the cows are fattened for the slaughter. Backgrounders typically buy several small groups of cows, identify and address any health issues, and repackage them into larger groups, which are more attractive to the owners/operators of commercial feedlots.
Cattle finishing is the final sector of the cattle industry (besides the post-production aspects like slaughter, processing, packaging and retail). At this point, feeder calves have been weaned, and are taken to feedlots. The name is very indicative of the procedure; cows are fed a high-grain diet (generally corn). They exist only to eat, gaining as much weight as possible before marketing, and generally health concerns and other “growing pains” are of little concern.
These commercial feedlots may receive feeder cattle from either cow-calf operations or backgrounding operations, which do more to prepare cows for life on the feedlot. The cattle they receive range from freshly weaned seven-month-olds to yearlings. At this point, the cattle finisher switches from a primarily pasture, forage-based diet to a high-grain diet on substances like corn. When their tenure at the feedlot comes to an end, cattle can weigh anywhere between 1000 and 1350 pounds…sometimes even more! Cattle spend more time at this sector than anywhere else in the cattle industry, generally a length of time that spans between 14 months and 30 months. The cows are cultivating mass.
In other big cattle-producing regions (primarily Australia), cows in feedlots are grass-fed. In America they are mostly grain-fed, with corn being the primary source of nutrition. Effective feedlots have access to large amounts of low-priced grain with which to sustain cows. Due to its climate and topography, Virginia is an ideal place for cow-calf operations, but not so much for feedlots, at least if feedlot operators are using the high-grain diet which typifies the American cattle industry. But in recent years, there has been a surge in the grass-fed cow industry; through food marketing and increased health-awareness, many Americans are espousing a preference for grass-fed beef. Virginia, with its plethora of rolling pastures and uplands, is ideal for grass-fed cows. Especially with farms in the Madison, Nelson and Albemarle counties; there is considerable interest in the farm-to-table concept in Charlottesville, a city whose chefs are generally well-known in the culinary industry.