Walking into a grocery store and finding empty shelves is not a situation Americans are used to. In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, consumers flocked to the grocery store and stocked up on essential items and food. Retail workers struggled to restock shelves at the rate consumers were buying. This puts questions in consumers’ minds. Questions like: “How does beef end up in the grocery store?” and “Is there a shortage of beef?” For beef to get to the grocery store and on the plates of consumers it has to go through a multiple step process called a supply chain. All the components of the supply chain must work together in order to get beef on the table.
The first phase of beef production starts at cow-calf operations. On these operations, cows are bred annually to produce calves. The vast majority are extensively managed operations where cows are maintained on grazed and harvested forage throughout the entire year. Most cows will give birth to calves in late winter and early spring, but this can vary depending on the operation. The calves will remain with their mothers until they are around 4-7 months old (this also varies), then the calves are weaned and prepared for the next step in the chain. After calves are weaned, they typically are sent to the livestock auction market where backgrounders may purchase them. Backgrounders manage calves through the stressful adjustment period following weaning and shipment. Backgrounders transition weaned calves into a final “finishing” stage either on grass or grain. Finishing refers to a period when animals are fed a dense diet in order to grow muscle and optimize fat cover. Calves leave the backgrounding operation at around 600–800 lbs. and 6–8 months of age. Stockers are another segment of the beef supply chain. They turn out weaned calves back on pasture, where they continue grazing to put on weight until they are 12–18 months and 800–1100 lbs. Stocker animals can come from a backgrounder or they can come directly from a cow-calf operation. In the next phase, the calves are sent to feedlots. The vast majority of calves are fattened or “finished” at feedlots, where they live in pens and eat grain (mostly corn, corn byproducts such as distiller’s grains, and soy-derived feeds) until they are 16–24 months and 1100–1400 lbs. Feedlots are typically large operations and cattle spend 4–6 months there. After cattle have been finished in feedlots or on a grass-finished diet, they are transported to a packing plant to be harvested at 16–24 months, when they weigh 1100–1400 lbs. USDA inspectors oversee the entire harvesting process to ensure food safety and quality. The meat is cut, boxed, and sent to retail outlets. Retailers package the meat for consumer purchase and sell it either in supermarkets and restaurants. While this is a general description of the beef supply chain, there are variations depending on different operations. Last week a major beef packing plant announced a temporary closure due to COVID-19. Although the full beef supply chain is being challenged by the outbreak, all segments of the industry are working together to stabilize the supply chain on behalf of the American people. While some consumers felt concern seeing empty shelves, they should rest assured knowing they will continue to have access to beef. Producers across the industry remain ready to provide the safe, delicious, high-quality protein; securing our food supply and making it Better with Beef.