Cow/calf operations are the starting point for commercial beef production. There are 2.23 million breeding beef cows and heifers in Alberta, 39 per cent of the Canadian total.
Cow/calf production is based on an annual schedule, with mother cows usually producing one calf per year. Heifers typically produce their first calf at two years of age. Traditionally, most cow/calf producers in Alberta breed their animals in June, July or August so that calving occurs nine months later, in February, March or April of the following year.
This varies according to producer; some prefer fall calving. Mother cows and calves graze pasture during the spring, summer and fall. In typical operations, calves are weaned from their mothers in the fall, from September to November, when they reach a weight of about 230 kg. Weights at weaning can range from about 160 kg to 295 kg, depending on age, genetic background of the calf and pasture conditions during the grazing season.
Since cow/calf producer income is based on selling calves, successful cow/calf production depends heavily on animals receiving proper care and nutrition. Producers ensure their breeding females are maintained on a nutritional program with enough nutrients for the mother cow to give birth to a strong, healthy calf, supply milk to the calf and be in condition to rebreed about 80 to 85 days after calving.
At least half of the weaned calves produced in Alberta each year are “backgrounded” before they are placed on a feedlot finishing program. Backgrounding is the process of feeding younger, weaned calves a high forage diet, usually lower-cost and more efficient growing rations, either in a feedlot or on pasture to increase their weight to about 340 kilograms. Once these cattle reach the desired weight, they move to the finishing phase.
Historically, cattle were finished in small farm feedlots. Today, highly specialized cattle feedlots feed most of the province’s cattle to market weight. Alberta’s natural resources and climate are especially suitable to the cattle feeding industry. There are now 4,000 feedlots in Alberta, making the province the fifth largest cattle feeding area in North America.
Although feedlots can range in size from a capacity of few hundred head to almost 40,000 cattle at one time, the larger-sized feedlots now finish the majority of cattle in Alberta. About 100 feedlots with capacities over 1,000 head produce at least 75 per cent of the finished beef cattle in the province. The feedlot system produces a consistently uniform and high quality beef product for the consumer. Alberta’s feedlot industry is primarily located in the south central and southern regions of the province, in close proximity to the beef processing plants located in southern Alberta.
Feedlot owners either purchase calves or feeder cattle from cow/calf and backgrounding operations, or they custom feed cattle for clients on a fee-for-service basis.
Weight of cattle entering the finishing program dictates the feeding ration used. Steers and heifers that enter the feedlot as weaned calves are started on a high forage, low grain starter ration to gain weight at an initial rate of just under 1 kilogram per day. They are fed at this level for a few months and are then moved onto a finishing program with an 85-90 per cent grain ration. On the high-grain rations, most cattle gain about 1.3 kilograms per day.
Cattle that are heavier when they enter the feedlot - for example, steers that weigh 350 kg - are fed the high-grain, low-forage ration within two weeks of entering the feedlot.
Finishing rations are normally fed to cattle for at least 100 days. Depending on when they entered the feedlot, some animals can be ready for processing from 12 to 24 months of age. Steers are normally processed at 525 to 600 kilograms, and heifers at 475 to 525 kilograms.
As an indication of the high quality of beef produced in Alberta, over 90 per cent of animals produced in Alberta feedlots achieve a grade of Canada A, AA, AAA, or above, the most desired categories within the Canadian meat grading system.
Alberta is home to Canada’s two largest beef processors — modern, efficient processing plants with capacity to process more than 52,000 head of cattle per week. In 2003, approximately 2.7 million cattle were processed in the province. Alberta has increased its share of the total Canadian beef processing industry from 68 per cent in 2000 to 72 per cent in 2003.
The sophistication and capacity of beef processing operations makes Alberta a gateway to world markets for the Canadian beef industry. Working with producers and the entire beef chain, the processing industry is leading the way in the development of new products and markets. Efforts are currently directed towards consumers in countries such as the United States, Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and Mexico. China is also expected to be an important market over the next few years.