Last week I covered some basic definitions of terms I will use here and there in the coming posts. Now I get to go into actual production descriptions.
Most beef calves are born in the spring or late winter. They spend the first six or eight months of life at momma's side, typically on pasture. Once the farmer or rancher decides it's time to sell the calves they get sorted off their dams and sent to auction, or if they're lucky, straight over to a "stocker operation". Stocker operations are typically pasture-based, but many use supplements (grain) to make cattle grow faster. The stocker raises the steers and heifers up to "finishing size", at which point they're loaded into a truck again and shipped to a feedlot. They then stand around eating out of troughs and standing in their own waste for approximately four months, though it can be as short as one month or as long as six. Once they're "finished" they truck one more time to a large slaughter house where they're killed and butchered. Total time from elapsed from birth to death is somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 months.
At our farm calves are born in the spring once the chance of snow is low. They run with their dams on the pasture until the fall or late fall when we wean them across a few strands of electric fence. The calves spend the winter in a bedded barn with access to the outdoors. In the spring they rejoin the cowherd and run together for the entire next year. They go through their second fall and winter as part of the larger herd eating dormant pasture and hay we provide. They shelter from our nasty winter winds behind the tree lines and topography of our place. When the warmth arrives again they fatten up on the high quality grass that flushes out in spring. Then they have one short 20 minute truck ride to the slaughterhouse where they're dispatched quickly. Total time from birth to death is 24-30 months, or even longer in some cases.
There are a number of points here that ought to be addressed. One is the number of times the animals are trucked around. Shipping is extremely stressful to cattle. They often get sick immediately after being shipped because of the stress involved. "Humanely" raised meat does not include number of times a given animal is shipped during its life, but in my book it ought to be one of the many metrics used to determine whether a cow was in fact raised ethically.
The time discrepancy between the two models is important from a cost perspective. The longer life of a grass-fed animal means we need to feed it for more days. That increases our costs, and thus the price of the final product is higher too.
Also notable is the fact that even in this day and age, the realities of the bovine life-cycle do not lend themselves to mega-agri-business for the first 2/3 of a cow's life. Pigs and chickens have been relegated to vertically integrated CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) for several decades thanks to the American dictate that food must be cheaper at any cost. The logistics of trying to deal with the health of a confinement operation for pregnant cows appears to be beyond the ken of even IBP and Cargill. "Conventional" beef cattle still get to spend a little over a year in the wide world of grass and sunshine. So its really the finishing period that sets beef into different worlds.