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More and more countries are coming out of poverty and joining the industrial, beef-eating world, which makes a rapid increase in beef demand inevitable. As developing countries become more urbanized and their citizens enjoy a substantial income increase, individuals tend to buy the foods that were out of reach when they were poor, beef being one of the most popular. For this reason, beef demand has been growing most rapidly in Asia and the developing countries.
The largest consumers of beef on a per capita basis are Argentina with an average 65.6 kg per year and Uruguay at 52.4 kg. But overall, the United States consumes the most beef, followed by the European Union, Brazil, China, and Argentina.
Due to the economic downturn, there has been a reduction of beef consumption and production in 2010, but rates are expected to start to recover in 2011. Even as beef consumption is expected to double by 2050 however, beef may no longer be a "mass product" and may instead become "the caviar of the future," according to Henning Steinfeld of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations because the resource requirements for the production of beef are three to five times higher than those of chicken and pork.
After birth, calves remain in the company of their mothers (dams) until they are six to 10 months old, grazing in the pasture on a natural grass diet. The calves are then weaned from their mothers, and if big enough, go right to a feedlot, are sold at auction, or if they are on the smaller, lighter side, are sent to a backgrounder or stocker for additional grazing.
By the time they are 12 to 18 months old, the vast majority of cattle in the United States are sent to a factory farm or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) to be finished on a grain diet for three to four months. Grains that are fed to the cattle range from high quality cereal grains, like corn, barley, and wheat, to lower quality grains such as legume hays (alfalfa, clover, soybeans), grass hays (fescue, blue grass, coastal Bermuda), or a mixture of these. Once the cattle reach market weight, they are sent to the slaughterhouse.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are large, high-density facilities where hundreds to thousands of cattle are confined in small spaces so that producers can achieve economy of scale. In the first part of the 20th century, most animals were raised on family farms, but by 2003, just four industrial producers produced 82 percent of the cattle in the United States.
This transition from small family farms to agribusiness has many causes, but a big impetus for the change was cheap corn made plentiful by the development of nitrogen fertilizers and government subsidies that guaranteed a set price for corn. With the ever-increasing supply of corn, growers began feeding it to cattle, whose stomachs had not evolved to digest it.
By 2005, CAFOs were responsible for 40 percent of world meat production and they are the fastest growing form of global meat production.
Cattle, which had previously been raised in pastures, began to be raised in giant feedlots in the 1960s. The cattle fed on grain accumulate more fat and have more marbling, which gives steak more flavor and succulence, so some countries, like Japan, develop a preference for meat that is grain finished.
Finishing cattle on grain is quick and cheap, and requires less work for large beef producers that want to maximize profits and efficiency. Cattle that are grass-fed take longer to reach market weight, require more work, and are dependent on particular climate conditions.