Beef Cattle: Everything the farmer needs to know

Photo extensive beef cattle production system

Producing quality meat in large quantities has become one of the main challenges for ranchers worldwide. Many advances have already been achieved due to improved genetic improvement techniques, management, and beef cattle nutrition. These techniques have made animals much more efficient at converting nutrients received via diet into the meat. And it has been helping beef cattle to thrive worldwide.

The term beef cattle refers to the rearing of sheep, goats, and cattle capable of producing meat. Although sheep and goat farming are essential activities, the most massive production is still due to cattle exploitation. Beef cattle is a widespread and well-established activity worldwide. It is characterized by the creation of cattle to produce meat and its derivatives. Several essential characteristics have made this activity unique and responsible for improving economic rates in several countries. In addition to being an essential source of animal protein for the population.

In this text, we will talk a little about the main characteristics of this activity. Understand a little why today it is one of the flagships of the economy of several countries. And yet, it is one of the great hopes to supply the need for food for the coming years for a population that grows every day.

  • The largest beef cattle producers in the world
  • The production of beef cattle in Brazil in numbers
  • Most used beef cattle breeds in Brazil
    • Nellore
    • Tabapua
    • Brahman
    • Guzera
  • After all, who is responsible for producing beef cattle?
  • The breeding system in beef cattle is key to productivity
    • Extensive System
    • Semi-Intensive System
    • Intensive System
  • Management is differentiated in each production phase
    • Create
    • Recreates
    • Termination
  • Nutritional and food management
  • Health aspects
  • Aspects of animal welfare and behavior
  • Adequacy of facilities to the needs of animals
  • Staff education and training

The largest beef cattle producers in the world

India, Brazil, China, the United States, and the European Union have the largest cattle herds globally. In India, it is expected to find the largest herd of cattle due to its culture. But having large herds is not always synonymous with highly productive and efficient herds.

Despite having a smaller herd than India, Brazil appears as the second-largest meat producer in the world. According to the USDA (North American Department of Agriculture), there is an expectation of 63 million tons of beef in 2019, 1% more than in 2018. And Brazil has a prominent place in this ranking. The projections for 2018 showed that the country should reach the number of 232.35 million heads of cattle, emphasizing the creation of Zebu cattle. For 2019, there is the hope of a 3% increase in production and 5% in exports ( USDA, 2018) of red meat.

The production of beef cattle in Brazil in numbers

In Brazil, 80% of beef cattle are Zebu cattle. The success and expansion of these animals in the national territory was mainly due to their adaptation in tropical climates and made the country one of the world leaders in meat production. With emphasis on Mato Grosso, the Midwest region has the largest number of heads with about 30 million animals ( IBGE, 2016). Despite this, the northern region of the country deserves its due mention, as, in recent years, there has been a huge jump in meat production, and today, it represents around 22% of the national herd.

Most used beef cattle breeds in Brazil

It is possible to produce quality meat in large quantities from north to south of the country. From the states of São Paulo to the Rio Grande do Sul, most animals are of Taurine breeds such as Charolais, Angus, Bradford, and their crosses with Zebu breeds.

However, the predominance of Zebu cattle is undeniable and deserves to be highlighted. They are more rustic animals, translating into lower nutritional requirements and more excellent resistance to diseases than European cattle. The main breeds produced in the country are:


It is the most produced breed of beef cattle in Brazil. They are animals that have adapted very well to the country’s climatic conditions. And those who invested more money and research in genetic improvement and understanding of their nutritional requirements.

Nelore Beef Cattle Photo: Miguel Rudes


They are animals that stand out in livestock production due to their maternal ability and high fertility. It is the only breed of zebu developed in Brazil. And it has been receiving a lot of attention from farmers and researchers in recent years.

Tabapuã Beef cattle.  Photo: Associação Goiana do Tabapuã.


They are animals that have excellent feed conversion (kilos of meat produced per kilos of food consumed). Females have a short calving interval compared to other breeds and are excellent milk producers. This results in weaned calves with good weight gain.

Brahman beef cattle.  Photo: Casa Branca Agropastoril.


They are animals of double aptitude (cut and milk). Because the calves are low birth weight, females have an easy calving. In addition, this breed is the genetic basis for many industrial crossbreeding of zebu beef cattle in the country.

Guzerá Beef Cattle Photo: José Maria Matos

After all, who is responsible for producing beef cattle?

As previously mentioned, meat production involves a very complex and dynamic system managed by a rancher. He is responsible for thinking about the day-to-day life of the farm and has a long list of tasks such as:

  • motivate employees
  • calculate production costs
  • buy inputs
  • assess the efficiency of animals
  • interpret data together with consultants (Zootechnicians, Veterinarians, and Agronomists)
  • evaluate the main zootechnical and economic indexes of the property

The role of the rancher is fundamental to the beef cattle chain.

The breeding system in beef cattle is key to productivity.

There are three production systems where beef cattle can be allocated for their exploitation. 

Extensive System

The extensive system is characterized by animals’ creation in large extensions of pastures with little inputs, equipment, and labor. In this regard, Brazil stands out, as around 75% of its bovine herd is produced in this system. The main advantage of this is the low cost of production. The big problem is the seasonality imposed by the adverse climate conditions in the country. During the water season, food is abundant in the field, while during the drought, the pasture becomes of low nutritional quality and scarce, leading the animals to lose weight, which increases the time for slaughter and the profitability of the activity. Also, rising land costs also hamper the continuity of extensive activity. 

Extensive beef cattle production system.

Semi-Intensive System

This system can be applied in different situations. The most common is the termination of the animals. Thus, cattle raised in the field receive reinforcement of food in the trough. Supplementation can be either energetic (ground corn or citrus pulp, for example) or bulky (mainly corn silage ). This will accelerate weight gain and improve the profitability of the rancher. Another situation in which semi-confinement is widely used is when there is a lack of forage or low nutritional value, which happens in periods of drought. The diets used must be formulated following the same principles as those used for confined cattle.

Photo semi-intensive beef cattle production system.  Photo: Rafael Anselmi

Intensive System

This breeding system is considered the most modern and brings the best results from production efficiency. This system is used mainly for finishing animals and results in well-finished carcasses, with good deposition of subcutaneous and intramuscular fat. A disadvantage of this system is the high cost of implementation and production costs since the system is guided by the purchase of inputs such as corn and soybean meal and animal replacement. Despite this, high levels of productivity and the opportunity to slaughter animals all year round made this system a success and helped increase red meat production.

It is essential to mention that the breeding and recreating phases are carried out in extensive and semi-intensive Brazil systems. Termination can be carried out either in these two systems or in confinement. What will decide this is, mainly, the price of corn, the potential for appreciation of live cattle, and their relationship with the price of live cattle when livestock will enter the feedlot. For example, when the price of a bag of corn falls, this is an incentive for ranchers to fill their feedlots. Otherwise, the animals are finished on pasture or in semi-confinement.

Photo confinement / intensive beef cattle production system.  Photo: Rafael Anselmi.

Management is differentiated in each production phase.

As previously mentioned, beef cattle’s production cycle is divided into breeding, rearing, and finishing. Let’s talk a little bit about each one.


This phase extends from birth until the weaning of the calves that lasts six to eight months. The mothers play a vital role since part of the offspring’s nutrients are the milk produced by their mothers. Animals can reach between 25 to 50% of their adult weight during this period, and this is due to the high efficiency of the offspring that result in optimal feed conversions. Ideally, these animals should be weaned, weighing between 5.5 and 7 arrobas.

In this phase, the main challenges are to reduce mortality rates, which are around 15%. This occurs due to the inefficient healing of the umbilicus and colostrum (secretion produced by the cow in the first two to three days after calving that has antibodies, essential for the calf’s excellent development) poorly performed. Unfortunately, this low colostrum is often associated with the mother’s lack of maternal ability, especially first calves.

Breeds beef cattle.  Photo: Carlos Lopes.


After calves are weaned, the withers enter the growing or growing phase, which will extend until puberty. This phase lasts an average of 12 months, and the animals reach around 10 to 12 arrobas. This period’s objective is to exploit the genetic potential of the steers to the maximum to obtain animals with good structure and uniform carcasses, of course, in the shortest possible time. This is the phase in which the diet has the most significant influence on the development. Therefore, it is necessary to use the right supplementation strategies to avoid adult animals with low production rates.

Breeds beef cattle.  Photo: José Maria Matos.


This phase, also known as fattening, is carried out on pasture or in confinement. In Brazil, animals are traditionally finished on pasture with no supplementation. Due to forage seasonality and higher maintenance requirements for animals kept in this breeding system, they are slaughtered older and have smaller carcasses. Contrary to this, cattle finished in feedlot achieve better carcass finishing (deposition of subcutaneous and intramuscular fat), depending on the high energy diet they receive. The cattle remain an average of 80 to 90 days in confinement and reach between 16 and 18 arrobas.

Finishing beef cattle Photo: José Maria Matos

Animals at different stages of life and in different rearing systems respond to the management developed on animals. Each phase and system has different needs for balancing diets and food supply, health, and well-being. Not to mention the reproductive management carried out in the sows.

Nutritional and food management

Beef cattle raised on pastures are more demanding in maintenance energy since they need to travel to capture the field food. The most widely used tropical forages in Brazil have low nutritional value, mainly in energy and protein. Combined with pasture seasonality, cattle raised on pasture have low weight gains and longer time to slaughter. This problem can be partially corrected when supplementation with energetic foods such as ground corn and protein such as soybean meal. Already in confinement, although the results in weight gain are better and if we have the opportunity to obtain heavier and better-finished carcasses, there is a great challenge that is to prevent animals from suffering from metabolic diseases and also the seasonality of the price of the inputs and the replacement of the animals.

Health aspects

In the beef cattle production cycle, special attention must be given to using preventive measures to prevent the animals from becoming ill or even the need to dispose of the entire herd. In the breeding phase, proper navel healing and colostrum is essential. Any infectious, parasitic, or deficient disease can reduce animals’ performance in all stages of life. For this reason, every farm must respect a sanitary schedule of vaccinations, deworming, and control of ectoparasites, such as flies and ticks.

Aspects of animal welfare and behavior

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) recommends five principles that must be observed within the farms so that it can be affirmed that aspects of well-being are being respected, they are: 1) avoid hunger, thirst or malnutrition; 2) avoid fear and anguish; 3) avoid physical and thermal discomfort; 4) avoid pain, injuries and diseases and 5) create conditions for animals to express their natural behavior. These requirements tend to increase as Brazil increases the proportion of animals exported and serves more demanding markets.

Adequacy of facilities to the needs of animals

It is necessary that all the animals, such as corrals, pens, pastures, stables, are clean and in the ideal storage capacity. All of these areas must be provided with shade, which can be artificial with shades or natural, from the use of trees.

Staff education and training

This is a fundamental issue in the sense of seeing the quality of beef cattle breeding. The training of employees, regardless of their role within the farm, is essential for animals’ performance and to avoid accidents at work. Engaged people are responsible for the success of the farm. To work with animals, it is necessary to understand their behavior and, through rational management, try to meet the needs to express their natural behaviors.

The beef cattle industry is quite complicated and requires trained professionals to be ahead of the flocks. With the aid of new breeding techniques, genetic improvement, nutrition, and optimization of the facilities, it was possible to increase the efficiency of meat production and the improvement of quality aspects. New challenges still need to be overcome, but the need to increase food production means that new technologies are launched every day. Therefore, much study and dedication are still needed to improve beef cattle’s productivity indexes in Brazil and worldwide.

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