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From calf to kitchen: The journey of a beef cow

The demand for beef and the increased automation of packing plants has accelerated the life of a typical beef cow. Today, a cow typically is slaughtered at about 14 months of age, but some cattle are slaughtered at 20 months or older.

A calf is born on a ranch in eastern Kansas; calf will usually spend the first six months of its life in a pasture, eating grass

Six months later, the calf is weaned and moved to a pen; the now 600-pound (272-kg) calf will spend the next couple of months learning to eat from a trough and tasting corn; this step is called backgrounding

Growth hormones, antibiotics and a diet of corn or other grains quickly fatten cattle for market Today, it takes as little as 12 or 14 months to grow a beef cow to slaughter weight At a year old, the cow is moved from the backgrounding pen to a feedlot; cow is loaded onto a cattle hauler

Issue: Growth hormones

Huge cattle feedlots, scattered mostly in the middle of the country, produce city-sized waste issues; cow manure is collected in lagoons and spread on agricultural fields

Issue: Manure

5 corn, alfalfa and silage, a

fermented, moist feed made from field crops; they are often treated with hormones and antibiotics at this stage

Cows are transitioned to a daily diet of mostly

4 thousands of others
in enclosed pens

At the feedlot, the cow joins

7 6

Cow has grown to 1,200-1,400 pounds (545-635 kg) and is ready for slaughter; cattle are taken to a packing plant, where they are herded into holding pens designed to keep Shackler them calm

Cattle are herded through a serpentine chute toward the knocking box; worker using a pneumatic gun shoots a steel bolt into the skull, rendering the animal unconscious

Next, a shackler attaches a chain around the cows back leg and hoists it up to a conveyor rail

Cow moves down the rail to a sticker who cuts the neck, draining cows blood


Cow, now dead, makes contact with an electrical line used to improve tenderness

Parts of the cow are used in a variety of products, such as animal feed, soap, clothing, cosmetics. pharmaceuticals

Issue: More than just meat

Conveyor rail Knocker Sticker Electrical stimulation

Experts agree that E. coli generally originates at larger slaughter plants, where pathogen-laden manure can be a big problem

Issue: Fecal contamination

14 machine helps

Hide pulling

skin the animal; carcass moves down the line

13 begins; feet and head

are removed; worker cuts the hide along the belly

De-hiding process

12 a worker removes

During a critical step, the animals bung*, attempting to avoid spreading contamination

11 washer rinses
the carcass of dirt, manure

High pressure

*Before removal, the bung (rectum) is plugged at its open end and tied off on in the inside

USDA inspector examines the carcass, looking for signs of pathogens and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or Mad Cow disease); if contamination is found, the carcass is cleaned or removed


Large saw is used to split the carcass through the center of the backbone; tail and spinal cord are removed


Just 15 minutes after cows are stunned, the split carcasses are washed and left to dry


Meanwhile, beef ground beef trim from other Hamburger is ground at carcasses is packing plants and other prepared for processors; in order to reach ground beef just the right fat content, production meat from different cattle, and sometimes from foreign countries, is mixed together

Issue: Diverse

USDA advises consumers to cook all steaks to an internal temperature of at least 145 F (63 C)

Issue: Cooking caution

21 steaks or burgers,
the beef is ready for your barbeque

Whether its ribs,

20 broken into primal cuts,

Finally, the carcasses are including steaks and roasts; fresh beef is vacuum-packed, or boxed for sale to wholesalers, retailers, hotels and restaurants in the U.S. and around the world

19 cooler room, where they are

Carcasses are sent to a larger typically aged for two days; carcasses from cattle 20 months old or younger are marked for export to Japan; older cattle are more prone to BSE problems, which is a concern in Japan

2012 MCT Source: Industry and union officials Graphic: Dave Eames, Mike McGraw, The Kansas City Star