Beef Cattle

Beef Cattle

Bos taurus

Importance to Oregon

Cattle have been raised in Oregon since 1824. Currently, cattle are raised in all 36 counties. In 2014, the Oregon Department of Agriculture Statistics estimated Oregon had 1,280,000 head of beef cattle. Cattle and calves ranked as the leading Oregon commodity in 2014; with total sales about $992 million. The top Oregon counties for raising cattle are Malheur, Klamath, Harney, Baker, and Lake.

History of Cattle

Not long ago cattle were used for many purposes including meat, milk and labor. Today beef cattle are still raised to provide people with meat, as well as hundreds of useful by-products. Most beef cattle graze on grassland that is steep, hilly, dry or rocky and not suitable for building houses or growing crops. The main reason beef cattle are raised in different climates and settings all over the world is they can thrive on low quality rangeland feed and grasses.

Cattle are descended from a wild ancestor called the aurochs. The aurochs were huge animals which originated on the subcontinent of India and then spread into China, the Middle East and eventually northern Africa and Europe. Aurochs are one of the animals painted on the famous cave walls near Lascaux, France. People started domesticating aurochs between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Cattle were domesticated after sheep, goats, pigs and dogs.

Cattle were first brought to the western hemisphere by Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez took offspring of those same cattle to Mexico in 1519. In 1773, Juan Bautista de Anza brought 200 head of cattle to California to supply the early California missions.

Aurochs cave painting in Lascaux, France

Cattles’ Amazing Stomachs

Cattle are ruminants. This means they have one stomach with four separate compartments. Their digestive system allows them to digest plant material by repeatedly regurgitating it and chewing it again as cud. This digestive process allows cattle to thrive on grasses, other vegetation and feed. Cattle their cud for about eight hours a day. When an animal chews its cud, it is a sign of health and contentment. Other ruminant animals include deer, elk, sheep and goats.

Diagram of a calf’s stomachs

Photo source: Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, by Heather Smith Thomas

Life Cycle

Many ranchers run cow-calf operations. They keep a herd of cows to produce calves. The cows are bred to calve in the spring or fall. Cows, like humans, are pregnant for nine months.


At birth, a calf can weigh between 70-80 pounds. Within only a few hours, newborn calves will be up and wanting to nurse. The first milk after birth is called colostrum, and it is very important to a newborn and should be consumed as soon as possible because it contains antibodies and twice as many calories as regular milk. Because calves are born without any protection from diseases, their antibodies come from their mother’s milk. The antibodies are absorbed from the colostrum directly into the bloodstream. However, within the first few hours of birth, the walls of the intestines start to thicken and the pores that allow the antibodies pass through start to close up. By the time the calves are six hours old, they can only absorb a fraction what they need, so it is important they get the colostrum right away.

Newborn Hereford calf

Photo source: Betsy Hartley


For the first three weeks of the calf’s life, they only drink their mother’s milk because their rumen is not yet fully developed. Rumen is one of the stomach chambers in ruminant animals. Humans do not have rumens. Between three to eight weeks the calf goes through a transitional period where they start eating some hay and grass along with the milk. After eight weeks the calf’s rumen should be fully functioning. The rumen will grow 25 times larger from birth to adulthood.

Tagging, Branding & Earmarks

Newborn calves are commonly tagged. Each ear tag has an individual number which helps ranchers pair the mother with their young and track the calf through its life cycle. Within the first few months, the calves will be branded. A brand is an identification mark for cattle. It can either be a hot iron brand or a freeze brand. Some operations use earmarks, as an additional way to identify their cattle. During branding all calves are vaccinated to help prevent disease. The young male calves are castrated during the first few months. After castration, they are referred to as steers.

Ear tags and brands are ways ranchers track their cattle

Photo source: Carl Fleischhauer


Calves are usually sold after they are weaned, at about six-eight months. After weaning, cattle are sent to feedlots for approximately 120 days where they are fed a high-energy ration of grain and hay. After this time, which is called finishing, the cattle are sent to a harvest plant.

To keep the herd size approximately the same, ranchers save replacement heifers (females). The steers (males) will be sent to the feedlot while many heifers will be kept to later produce calves themselves. Other heifers will go to the feedlot as well. Steers are more common in the beef industry because they grow faster and naturally have more muscle.

The ideal breeding age for heifers is at least 14-16 months of age, depending on breed. Heifers should be about 65% of their mature weight before breeding.

Cattle at a feedlot

Photo source: All American Co-Op


There are numerous breeds of cattle raised in the United States. Some breeds have been around for centuries, while others have been developed in the last couple of decades by mixing older breeds. Each breed is characterized by different traits such as size, weather tolerance, color, markings, hair length and temperament.

There are two classifications: Bos indicus and Bos taurusBos taurus includes British and Continental. British breeds, also known as English breeds, are smaller in size than Continental breeds. These breeds are the foundation of the U.S. beef herds. Common English breeds include Angus, Red Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford.

Continental breeds, also called Exotics, originated in Europe. They are larger in size, lean, muscular and can tolerate hot climates. Continental breeds include Charolais, Limousin, Simmental and Salers.

Bos indicus are humped cattle originating from South Central Asia. They are adapted to the stresses of heat, humidity, parasites, and poorly digestible forages. Bos indicus breeds are often found in the southern United States. Common bos indicus breeds are Brahman, Brangus, Beefmaster, Simbrah and Santa Gertrudis.

Some common breeds found in Oregon include:

  • Angus: Originated in northeastern Scotland. They can either be black or red and are polled cattle. Oregon ranchers raise a large percentage of Black Angus cattle.
  • Hereford: Originated in England. They have a distinctive color pattern with their red bodies and white faces, feet, bellies, and chests. They are either polled or horned.
  • Limousin: originated in western France. Ranging in color from red to gold, this breed can also be black.
  • Charolais: Originated in central France. This breed is known for its white to cream colored animals.
  • Shorthorn: Originated in northern England. This is a dual-purpose breed, meaning they are raised for both meat and milk. Its color patterns range from red to white. They can be spotted or roans.
  • Brahman: Originated in India. These cattle can tolerate high heats, and are insect resistant because of their thick skin.

Red Angus







Beef is a nutritionally rich food and an excellent source of ten essential nutrients. A three-ounce serving of lean beef contributes more than 10% of the daily recommended value of protein, zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorous, choline, niacin, vitamin B6, iron and riboflavin. Beef is among the top food sources for protein, zinc and vitamin B12. Some common types of lean beef cuts include: top sirloin steak, 95% lean ground beef, rib eye steak, T-Bone and tenderloin steak. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Database shows that many cuts of beef are 20% leaner than they were 15 years ago. Half of the fatty acids found in beef are monounsaturated, the same “good healthy fat” found in olive oil.

Here are some nutrition facts about 95% Lean Ground Beef and Top Sirlion Steak. Source: USDA

95% Lean Ground Beef ( 3 oz cooked) Top Sirloin Steak (3 oz cooked)
Calories 139 Calories 156
Total Fat 5.1 g Total Fat 4.9 g
Saturated Fat 2.3 g Saturated Fat 1.9 g
Cholesterol 65 mg Cholesterol 49 mg
Protein 22 g Protein 26 g
Iron 13% DV Iron 9% DV
Zinc 37% DV Zinc 33% DV
B12 43% DV B12 25% DV

Kid Friendly Recipe

Porcupine meatballs are fun, kid-friendly food, made with ground beef, rice, onion, tomato soup, and seasonings.

Try the recipe out.

Beef By-products

Besides meat and milk, cattle provide us with hundreds of important by-products. Almost the entire beef animal can be used in some way. From a typical 1,000 pound steer, slightly over 40% of the animal is used for retail beef and the remaining 60% is processed into by-products.

Beef by-products are anything made from a beef animal other than meat. You probably use more beef by-products than you think! Some edible examples include margarine, gelatin and marshmallows. Non-edible by-products include leather, soap, cosmetics, crayons and buttons. Cattle also contribute to the health industry. Here are some examples.

Bone, Horn, Hooves and Gelatin: combs, gelatin candy (Gummy Bears), photographic film, steel ball bearings, fine bone china, pet food and vitamin capsules/gel coatings.

Hide and Hair: insulation, paintbrushes, glue for bookmaking and band-aides, clothes, shoes, luggage, saddles, furniture, automobiles, volleyballs, basketballs and baseball gloves.

Fats and Fatty Acids: shampoo, shaving creams, deodorants, candles, crayons, floor wax, detergents, hydraulic brake fluid, plastics, insecticides, paints, perfumes and synthetic rubber.

Oregon Cattle Industry Timeline

  • 1824-1825 – Hudson Bay Company imported cattle and sheep by ship from California.
  • 1838 – The first cattle drive of the west arrives in Oregon from California.
  • 1860’s – Cattle drives begin across the Cascades to the Willamette Valley.
  • 1863-1864 – Large herds of cattle are moved from the Willamette Valley to feed miners in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho. Sheep are brought into Jordan Valley, with cattle soon to follow.
  • 1866-1890 – Massive migration of Texas longhorns occurs northward. The open range system develops and branding is used to distinguish among cattle on open land. The technique of stock farming with enclosures, winter feed and controlled breeding spreads from the Midwest to the Willamette Valley.
  • 1869 – Chicago and San Francisco are connected by rail. Oregon livestock are shipped in either direction. Northern California surplus cattle are moved into southeastern Oregon. Texas longhorns expand these herds.
  • 1880’s-1890’s – Settlers bring Midwest cattle to the north end of today’s Harney County.
  • 1900 – Rail lines extend into Prineville, Lakeview, and later Redmond, Burns and Bend, all of which become active cow and sheep towns.
  • 1917 – The United States enters World War I. Demand for meat increases and promotes industry expansion.
  • 1929 – The Great Depression begins. Overgrazed lands impacted by prolonged drought cannot sustain the numbers of animals grazing on them.
  • 1934 – The remaining public land is withdrawn from homesteading. The Taylor Grazing Act requires federal protection and management of public lands. Today the act guides the activities of the Bureau of Land Management.
  • 1950-1978 – Beef cattle numbers increase in Oregon, and dairy cows and sheep decline.
  • 1978 – The Public Rangeland Improvement Act gives the highest priority to improving range land, and herd numbers are reduced.
  • Present Day – Cattle and calves rank as one of Oregon’s top commodities. The most extensive herds are in southeastern, northeastern and central Oregon.

Oregon ranchers still use horses to herd cattle

Photo source: Larry Turner

Vocabulary Terms

Auroch: the ancient ancestor of domesticated cattle.
Beef By-products: anything made from a beef animal other than meat.
Bovine: scientific name for cattle.
Brand: identification mark on cattle; either hot iron or freeze brand.
Breed: group of animals that have the same ancestry and characteristics.
Bull: a mature male who has not been castrated.
Calf: young animal, either male or female, less than one year.
Calve: to give birth to a calf.
Castration: to remove the testicles of male cattle.
Cow: a mature female that has given birth, usually two or more years of age.
Cow-calf operation: a ranch or farm where cows are raised and bred to produce calves.
Cud: the portion of food that an animal regurgitates to chew for the second time.
Dual-purpose: being used for both milk and meat production.
Earmark: identification tool where part of the ear is removed to show ownership.
Feedlot: also known as a feed yard; a type of animal feeding operation used for finishing animals before they are ready for harvest.
Finish: to ready cattle for market by feeding to a desired weight.
Forages: plant material, mainly leaves and stems, eaten by livestock.
Heifer: a young female cow that has not yet had her first calf. Most heifers have their first calf when they are about two years old, depending on the breed.
Horned: born with horns, usually removed at a young age.
Polled: born without horns, naturally hornless.
Regurgitation: controlled flow of stomach contents back into the throat and mouth.
Roan: an even mixture of white and pigmented hairs, normally red or black.
Rumen: the largest compartment in a ruminant’s stomach, fermentation and break down of food occurs in the rumen.
Ruminants: mammals that chew cud and have a complex, usually four-chambered stomach.
Steer: a young male calf which has been castrated before reaching sexual maturity. Steers are usually raised for beef.
Tag: a numbered plastic identification tool.
Wean: when a young animal is taken off its mother’s milk.
Yearling: animals approximately one year old.