Beef calves are usually born in the spring. Calving is timed to coincide with mild weather and the emerging spring grass so that the mother cow will have nutritious grass to eat, which helps produce an abundance of milk for her offspring.
Calving is predominately done outside. Producers prefer to have their cow herd calve within a 30–45-day window. This allows the farmer and rancher to keep a close eye on their cows that are about to give birth to ensure a safe delivery. A short calving period also means the calves will reach market weight at approximately the same time and weight, allowing the farmer and rancher to sell a uniform group of calves.
To keep cows calving window tight, farmers and ranchers limits the exposure that their cows have to herd bulls. Bulls are turned out with the cows in early summer and removed from the cow herd a few weeks later. Approximately 283 days or just over nine months later the calves are born.
Cows that do not become pregnant during that year’s breeding season are usually culled and sold for processing. The lean meat from cows is mixed with fed cattle to produce the various leanness grades of hamburger consumers purchase in grocery store.
During calving, farmers and ranchers typically keeps an eye on the newborn calves and their mothers to ensure the calves are thriving. Occasionally there may be trouble delivering the calf or with the cow accepting the newborn calf. The farmer and rancher will take all necessary steps to help the calf and cow through this important time.
Once the farmer and rancher are satisfied that all the calves and cows are healthy, they are left to pasture together. Most of the care is left to the mother cow. There are some interventions that the farmer and rancher will take to ensure the health and safety of their herd. These include vaccinating the calves against diseases, castrating male calves, and dehorning to prevent the cattle from injuring one another with their horns as they grow. All cattle must be ear tagged with a Canadian Cattle Identification Agency approved RFID tag before they leave their herd of origin as part of Canada’s national identification system.
The fall roundup is a tradition on many western ranches. Cows and calves are brought in from their summer pastures and separated. By this time the cows have been rebred and will need all their nutrition to maintain their body condition over the winter and nurture the next year’s calf growing inside them. The current year’s calf will by now be almost as big as its mother, ranging in weight from 272 kilograms (600 lbs.) to 408 kgs (900 lbs.). The calves are ready to eat grass and hay on their own and it is time for them to be weaned from their mothers.
At this point, most farmers and ranchers sell their year’s calf production to a feedlot operator who specializes in backgrounding or finishing cattle. Some of the female calves may be retained in the herd to replace culled cows or may be sold to another farmer or rancher to add to their cow herd.