As cows live and eat

Here’s the third in a series of guest posts I’ve been writing for the Canadian Beef Blog.

Last month, I described some of the different cattle breeds and how to tell the difference between a dairy cow (one that gives milk) and a beef cow (one that is raised for meat).

Now we’re going to take a quick look at how and where cattle are raised and what they eat.

Beef cows and calves typically live outside on pasture in the spring, summer and fall months – which is why it’s not uncommon to see cows grazing in fields if you find yourself out enjoying the Canadian countryside.

Believe it or not, some beef cattle actually live outdoors year-round. Knowing what I do about cold, snowy Canadian winters, I can’t say that this is something I’d want to do, but for cattle it works quite well – as long as they have a good supply of food, water and of course, adequate shelter. They grow a thick coat of hair that helps protect them from the cold temperatures.

Cows are generally bred (aka become pregnant) in the summer. Farmers try to time calf births for the spring so they can be born outside in the fresh air and on fresh pasture.

Heifers – young females who have never given birth – are usually bred at 12 to 17 months of age, which means they’ll have their first calf around 24 months of age. Like with people, a cow’s gestational period (pregnancy) is nine months.

Calf nursing from its mother

Calves will nurse from their mothers until they are weaned at about six to seven months of age. Often the mother’s milk is supplemented with a special feed called calf starter, which includes grains and minerals to help ensure healthy growth.

From the time they’re weaned until they’re about one year old, calves are usually kept on pasture eating grass, or have access to barns where they eat forage (grass-based) diets, including hay.

Most of us probably take in more sodium in our diets than we really need, but quite the opposite is actually true with cattle. They need more salt then they can normally obtain from grazing, so farmers will provide salt blocks for them to lick whenever they like.

Salt lick in a manger

Cattle are moved to feedlots – a sort of penned yard – from the open range and pastures for the final months before they go to market.

During their time at the feedlot, what they eat gradually changes from mainly forages and grasses to a high-energy diet of grains, corn, hay silage or hay. This works to achieve a greater level of marbling in the meat, which is what helps give beef its flavour.

And here’s one funky cow fact to conclude with: Cows are ruminant animals, meaning they digest their food in two stages. First, they eat the raw material and then regurgitate it in a semi-digested form, called cud, which they then chew again.

And again…and again until it has gone through all four of its stomach chambers. On average, a cow will spend about six hours a day eating, and approximately eight hours a day chewing its cud.

For more information on how cattle are raised or to virtually tour two real Ontario beef farms, check out

Photos sourced from the Ontario agriculture photo library.

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