In the area immediately surrounding our farm most of the agriculture is the raising of beef cattle. The soil is too rocky and the hills too steep to allow our area to be economically competitive in growing most crops, but these slopes grow grass just fine. The fields on our own farm have been used primarily to support cattle for at least the last 50 years. Before that there was a wider variety of uses, but these others were mostly abandoned as cattle became the mainstay of the local farms.
For these operations, the farmers are in the grass business every bit as much as the cattle business. Grasses only grow from the spring through the fall, but since cows need to eat during the winter also, farmers must harvest enough grasses to provide for the snowy months. During the summer, usually late May to early November, cattle are brought to the grass, to feed on pasture. This reduces the work of the farmer tremendously, as the cows harvest their own food. The farmer does have to fence off the paddocks, ensure water supplies, and move cattle between the fields, but this is less intensive than preparing for the winter months. To provide for the winter food needs, the farmer needs to maintain other grassy fields for hay, cutting and baling the growth and setting it aside to be doled out as needed to keep the animals well-fed through the winter. The same fields can be used for both haying and pasture, but can really only provide for one of these in a given year.
It doesn’t seem like that much would be required to grow grass, just to cut down any trees, and then let the cattle come through to eat as they would. But in actuality good pasture is a crop like any other, except that it is a perennial crop that only needs to be replanted every few decades rather than each spring. The usual way of establishing pastures is quite similar to planting row crops. One plows up a field to prepare the soil and kill off competing plants, and then the seeds of a variety of grasses and forbs are planted, with names like alfalfa, orchard grass, Timothy, fescue, and clover. These fields often are helped by the addition of trace nutrients as well as fertilizers. Once the fields grow in, they can be maintained for many years. The degradation of pastures and hay fields may be caused by nutrient depletion, erosion, or changes in the species composition of the grasses present. When cows are allowed too much space, they work through and eat only the choicest morsels, leaving all of the less palatable plants standing. Over time, these undesirable plants can come to dominate the entire fields, to such an extent that the fields must be plowed and replanted. This is part of why the best practice is to rotate the cows through the season, to allow intensive grazing for only a short time on each part of a field.
Once the growing of the grasses is accounted for, one has to look at the business of actually raising beef cattle. Every year there is a seasonal ebb and flow that takes advantage of the natural cycles of the region. In order to keep the cows producing a calf each year (which they need to do to stay efficient), they have to be bred during the early summer to calve the next spring. A mature cow then has a calf that is only 2-3 months old when she gets pregnant again. Cows may continue to breed for 10 years or more before age catches up with them. During the winter, the herds are almost completely made up of pregnant females, with just a few bulls that are only there to sire the next generation. In the spring all of the cute little calves are born, drinking only milk for their first weeks of life, transitioning over the summer months to the adult diet of grasses. As soon as the fields are showing good signs of growth in the late spring, the herd is released out to pasture for the summer. The calves put on an amazing amount of growth throughout their first year of life. In the late fall, at around the same time as the pastures go dormant for the winter, the vast majority of the calves are sold off. The calves that are kept by the local farmers are generally the best females, which become the next generation of mothers.
Putting all of this together, the local farmers need to grow enough grass to maintain a mother cow for the entire year to produce an 8 month old calf for sale in the fall. In the Gatineau Hills, that means about 2 acres of fields for each cow during the pasture season, and around 3 acres worth of hay for the winter months.
So most beef cattle across North America live in a fashion similar to this, at these smaller farms known as cow/calf operations. It is generally accepted that this is a relatively good life for a cow, living in relatively uncrowded conditions and eating grasses as they have evolved to do. When those calves are sold off in the fall, this is where the methods of grass finished and feedlot finished beef diverge, with two very different outcomes.