Feeder Cattle: What You Should Know: A Detailed Guide

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Cattle are a valuable commodity across industries like agriculture, clothing, sporting goods, and even musical instruments.

We explore the main uses of cattle in the global economy and why they are a valuable live stock to invest time and money in.

You can also dive straight in to our feeder cattle trading guide.

Read on to find out more the top beef and veel producing countries and learn about how ranchers raise, produce, and process feeder cattle.

We conclude the overview of this livestock with remarks from an expert on the outlook of cattle prices.

5 Main Uses of Cattle

Cattle have various use cases over the world. Here are the most common categories with examples of what cattle-derived goods are used for:

Use of CattleDescription
Burger Icon
Hamburgers, steaks and roast beef are among the many products produced from beef.
Food By-Products
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By-products of beef production include the following:
  • Liver, kidney, brains, tripe, sweetbreads and tongue are food sources in many countries
  • Oleo oil and stock are produced from beef fat and used to make margarine and shortening
  • Oleo stearin is an edible solid beef fat used to make some chewing gums and candies
  • Gelatin from cattle bone and skins is used to make marshmallows, ice cream, canned meats and desserts
  • Beef Hide
    Football Icon
    Beef hide is used to make a variety of items:
  • Leather
  • Felt
  • Some textiles
  • Base for ointments
  • Binder for plaster and asphalt
  • Base for insulation material
  • Brushes
  • Footballs
  • Non-Food Uses (Beef Fats and Fatty Acids)
    Soap Icon
    Some industrial oils, lubricants, soaps, lipsticks, face creams, hand creams, chemicals, pesticides and detergents derive from beef fat products.
    Bones, Horns and Hooves
    Piano Keys Icon
    Buttons, piano keys, glues and fertilizers are some of the many products made from bones, horns and hooves of cattle.

    Why Are Feeder Cattle Valuable?

    Feeder cattle are weaned calves that reach a weight of between 600 to 800 pounds. At this point, cattle producers feed them a diet of high-energy feed to promote weight gain.

    Ultimately, when they reach a weight of about 1,200 to 1,400 pounds, feeder cattle are slaughtered to produce beef.

    Feeder Cattle Within The Global Economy

    Worldwide consumption of beef approaches around 60 million metric tons annually.

    The economic impact of the meat and poultry industry in the United States alone is over $1 trillion.

    Beef production creates millions of jobs including suppliers, distributors, and retailers. Feeder cattle are a vital part of the global ecosystem of beef production and an important commodity in world markets.

    How Do Ranchers Produce Feeder Cattle?

    Producing feeder cattle is a complex, high-stakes business. Successful production relies on proper animal husbandry techniques as well as good economic decision-making.

    Ranchers begin the process by breeding cows (females) with bulls (males) either naturally or with artificial insemination (A.I.). Ranchers traditionally breed cattle in the summer to produce calves in the spring.

    Feeder Cattle Breeding Process

    A natural breeding process generally requires one bull for each 20 to 25 cows. Many producers prefer A.I. because they can better control the genetics of the calves.

    Ranchers must allocate a set amount of acres of pasture or grazing land for each cow and its calf offspring. This set amount of land is known as the stocking rate, and it varies from region to region based on weather conditions and maintenance procedures.

    In the United States –the top cattle producing nation in the world – the stocking rate can be as low as five acres per cow-calf pair in high precipitation regions of the East to 150 acres in dry, arid regions of the West and Southwest.

    Cattle Farming
    The Stocking Rate Determines How Many Cows There Are Per Acre – Image via Pixabay

    A group of cows on a ranch is called a herd. Each cow generally gives birth to one calf, although some may occasionally produce twins. Not all cows conceive; weather, disease and nutrition can all affect conception rates.

    Cattle Culling and Slaughtering

    Each year ranchers typically cull about 15 to 25% of the cows in their herd and send them to slaughter. The most common reasons for culling a cow include:

    1. Failure to reproduce
    2. Advanced age
    3. Bad teeth
    4. Drought conditions
    5. High feed costs.

    Once the calves are born, a certain number of females are held back to replace the cows that are culled. The remaining calves are raised for eventual slaughter.

    How Are Feeder Cattle Raised?

    The timeline for raising feeder cattle is as follows:

    1. First six months: Calves remain with the cow and receive their initial nutrition from nursing. Over time, ranchers supplement this nutrition with grass feeding and eventually with grain.
    2. Six to eight months of age: Calves typically weight 500 to 600 pounds at this stage. Ranchers wean the calf from the cow. Some very heavy calves go directly into feedlots, but most pass through stocker operations.
    3. Stocker operations: Calves get fed on summer grass, winter wheat or some other roughage until they reach the weight of 600 to 800 pounds, which is when they become feeder cattle. This phase generally lasts between six to 10 months.
    4. Feedlot: A rancher with feeder cattle has three options:
      1. Continue to raise the cattle on the rancher’s property until they reach the designated weight for slaughter
      2. Send the cattle to a commercial feedlot. A rancher would retain ownership of the cattle while the commercial feedlot feeds them.
      3. Sell the feeder cattle to another rancher or feedlot operation.
    Feeder Cattle
    Weight Gain is Promoted with High-Energy Feed – Image via Pixabay

    Feeder cattle receive high-energy feed to promote weight gain. They are usually either steers (castrated males) or heifers (females that have not given birth).

    Cows (females that have given birth) and bulls (sexually intact males) generally are kept for production and not placed in feedlots.

    Top Beef And Veal Producing Countries

    World's Biggest Beef Producers

    Here is a list of the 10 top beef and veal producing countries:

    RankFlagCountryBeef and Veal Produced per Year (1,000 Metric Tons)
    #1Flag of USAUnited States of America12,448
    #2Flag of BrazilBrazil9,700
    #3Flag of European UnionEuropean Union7,900
    #4Flag of ChinaChina7,110
    #5Flag of IndiaIndia4,300
    #6 Argentina FlagArgentina2,900
    #7Flag of MexicoMexico1,960
    #8Flag of pakistanPakistan1,800
    #9Flag of TurkeyTurkey1,600

    Cattle producers primarily raise cattle as a food source. However, beef accounts for one of several products produced from cattle:

    What Do the Experts Think About Feeder Cattle?

    Cattle Feeder Experts

    Experts generally have a pessimistic outlook about feeder cattle prices. One analyst cites the abundant supply of three sources of meat – poultry, pork, and beef – as reasons to sour on the market:

    All three of the major meats are in expansion mode, and that’s scary.

    – Randy Blach, CEO CattleFax

    Randy Blach
    Randy Blach Talks About the Volatility of the Cattle Market – Screenshot via YouTube

    Another expert concurs. Jeremy Klassen, manager of the Canadian office of Swiss-based grain trader GAP SA Grain Products Ltd., believes growth in the calf crop signals problems for the market:

    the 2017 calf crop was estimated at 36.5 million head, up 3.5 per cent from the 2016 calf crop of 35.0 million head. The last time the U.S. calf crop was this large was back in 2007 when it reached 36.8 million head. We haven’t seen a sharp increase in the cow slaughter so the U.S. cattle herd continues to expand at a rapid pace.

    – Jeremy Klassen, Manager GAP SA Grain Products Ltd.

    Further Reading

    Learn more about other Agricultural Commodities and see other anima-related commodity guides on:

    If you’d like to learn about trading and speculating on feeder cattle prices, see our Feeder Cattle Trading Guide.

    Other resources:

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