5 amoosing facts about cows and calves

From juicy burgers to celebratory rib-eye steaks, beef is a beloved fixture on dinner tables nationwide. Each year, the average Canadian feasts on 38.6 lbs of beef! But how much do you really know about the journey from pasture to your plate? Here’s a roundup of fascinating facts to beef up your knowledge of our country’s industry.   

  1. Many small ranches make up the backbone of the Canadian beef industry.

While the endless prairies may capture our imagination, the reality is that most Canadian cattle producers are part-time farmers on mixed-income farms. According to Canadian Beef, 61% of ranchers manage fewer than 47 heads of cattle each.

However, the collective might of these small-scale operations is impressive. According to the Canadian Cattle Association, 60,697 farms and ranches reported raising beef cattle in the 2021 Census of Agriculture, a 1.5% increase since 2016.

In 2024, this national network of dedicated farmers were managing over 9 million beef cattle in total, including over 3.4 million beef cows.

  • Just three provinces make up 84% of Canadian beef.

Alberta reigns supreme among beef-producing provinces, contributing to a whopping 44% of the country’s national output. Saskatchewan ranks second with 29%, followed by Manitoba at 11%. In addition, the average size of a cow-calf farm tends to be larger in Western Canada, where it stands at 85 heads, well above the national average of 69, as reported by the Canadian Beef Agency.

These provinces fully utilize their extensive and relatively affordable land to manage large-scale cattle operations. The flat and fertile terrain, abundant sunny weather, and moderate rainfall are also ideal for grazing.

  • Breeding methods vary significantly between the East and West.

Bull breeding is the standard breeding system among cow-calf producers in the vast expanses of Western Canada. This natural process is cost-effective and well-suited to the area’s large herds and farm size, providing significant economies of scale. Bulls are carefully selected to meet the needs of genetic improvement and breeding efficiency, and service around 25 cows per season.

Meanwhile, Eastern Canadian farms are more inclined to leverage artificial insemination. Studies from 2017 showed that 32% of Ontario producers and 53% of Atlantic producers have bred at least one cow using this process, compared to just 18% in Western Canada. Despite requiring a more significant upfront investment, the use of such technology improves conception, calving, growth uniformity, and calf weaning rates through specific trait selection, enhancing overall profitability.  

  • More than three times as many calves are born in the first half of the year as in the latter half.

In 2019, an overwhelming majority of calves – 3.24 million, to be precise – were born between January and June, compared to just 1.1 million in the following months. Although most beef cows give birth in spring, 9 months after the grazing season, late summer births do happen. Defining a controlled calving season improves uniformity in calf size and quality, and streamlines labour, vaccination, and care schedules.

Why the preference for the early spring? Calving from January to March means the young animals are robust and market-ready by the traditional sales time. The later spring period, from March to May, offers mild weather and abundant pastures, which supports lactating cows and reduces the need for costly feeds.

Conversely, summer and fall present unique challenges. Cows calving out on pasture from June to August may face increased complications. From September to November, shorter days and limited housing space can complicate management as winter approaches.

  • Newborn calves depend on the first suckling for protective immunity.

The primary challenge to calf survival is dystocia, or complications during calving, followed by infections such as diarrhea and pneumonia. Nutrient- and antibody-rich colostrum from the cow is the most powerful tool to combat these early threats. Beef calves should consume the equivalent of 5% of their body weight in colostrum—that’s 2 litres for a 40 kg newborn—within their first hour to benefit from protective immunity, followed by another litre about 12 hours later. Providing calves with this life-saving elixir is crucial for bolstering their resilience during these vulnerable early days.

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