Raising Your Own Beef: When Is Your Steer Ready To Butcher?


cross bred beef animal

Wow, you’re so close to the best beef you’ve ever had! And the best part is, you raised it yourself!

Your steer is growing well and you’ve noticed he’s looking pretty big lately. Now it crosses your mind “how do I know when this guy is ready to put in the freezer?”

Your steer is finished (ready to be butchered) when he has fully filled out his brisket (fatty area between his front legs as viewed from the front) and has fat rolls at his tail head. Steers on full feed (all they can eat grain with hay) will be butcher ready at 14-18 months of age. Steers on grass only will take 26-28 months to be butcher ready.

Congratulations! Raising your own beef is huge!

To make sure you and your family get the best eating experience and make the best use of that beautiful steer you are raising, you’ll need to have him butchered at the right time.

Cost To Butcher Your Own Beef will walk you through figuring up the expenses of getting your steer into the freezer!

Now the question is: how do you tell when he’s ready? I’ll go over the places you need to look at on the steer to see if he is finished or not and we’ll go over how to add finish if you need to.

Wondering how to feed your cattle up to this point, read my article Beginning With Beef Cattle: How To Care For Your New Herd.

Note: for the rest of the article I am going to use steer for the beef animal you are raising for freezer beef.

Really, non breeding stock heifer should be listed as well. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use steer.

Steer ready to butcher? 3 things to look at

There are three things to look at, broadly speaking when you want to determine if your steer is ready to butcher or not.

  • Age of the steer
  • Fat at the brisket
  • Fat at the tail head

When a steer’s body is done putting marbling in the meat, marbling is the little fat streaks that are mandatory for great eating steaks, his body will start stashing extra fat other places.

That’s the reason why you are looking at the brisket and the tailhead.

These two spots have easily seen changes that are outward signs indicating what is going on inside the body, specifically regarding the marbling of the meat.

In case you are not aware, you can butcher your steer anytime throughout it’s growing out time on your farm.

The readiness factors listed here are for a steer in ideal butchering condition, which will get you the highest quality meat for your freezer.

If you decide to butcher him sooner, realize you will not get the marbling in the meat.

Another important thing to realize is that you have a range of time when your steer is at his best, beef wise. You don’t need to worry that you’ll miss the day. There is no specific day, it’s a range of time.

You’ve got some wiggle room in the butchering window. When he’s finished, getting him to the butcher soon is best, it saves you extra time feeding him. But it doesn’t have to be today!

graphic showing rear view of finished vs not finished steer
Here’s a fun graphic showing the back side of a finished vs not finished steer. The finished steer will have much better eating quality, fat equals flavor! The steer on the left is going to be disappointing to eat, give him more time to reach his full potential.

Age of the steer to finish will vary with genetics and feed

Here is where genetics come into the game. The importance of your steer’s genetics regarding his age at finishing, cannot be overstated.

Some steers will be easy to finish, some difficult and some near impossible. It all depends upon what you are working with and how you are raising your animal.

Generally speaking, a large framed steer is going to take longer to finish than a smaller framed steer. Short and wide will finish faster than tall and wide or short and thin.

Keep in mind the finishing time of the steer is determined by diet as well.

The best genetics in the world, well suited to your type of cattle raising will not overcome lack of plentiful, high quality forages.

A gentle reminder: cattle do not grow overnight! Finishing a steer is a long term commitment that can not be rushed, have patience.

It can be challenging to let the steer grow for a few more months to get the finish you need. Want great beef? Be willing to wait for it, you’re on nature’s time now.

You’ll be glad you waited the extra time it takes for the steer to develop the oh so important finish.

It means the difference between the best beef ever and disappointment, seriously. If those are my choices, I’m definitely going with the best beef ever!

This is a video made by Tom Pemberton showing the farm shop’s butcher, Christopher, giving the specifics on how to know when a steer is ready to butcher. They start talking about what to look for specifically at 1:50 if you want to skip the intro.
An interesting note for anyone considering raising their own beef: these cattle being raised for the farm store, meaning high quality beef, are half beef, half dairy. So far, the U.S. has yet to catch on to the huge potential of beef/dairy cross calves for beef. Look at these beauties!

Grass fed and finished steer will take 26-28 months

If you are finishing your steer on grass alone, it will take around 26-28 months, to go from baby calf to butchering size and condition (fat covering).

If you purchased him as a feeder, ask the farmer how old the calf is or you’ll need to give it your best guess. It’s not vital information, so don’t worry if you need to guess.

The body shape (genetics) will determine how much feed he needs per day. Lots of frame equals lots of calories needed for maintenance and daily repair, both of which come before growth.

If you are shooting for grass fed, you’ll need to get the right genetics to get the best results. Lankier (taller and/or thinner) animals will take longer than the 26-28 months.

Supplementally fed steer will grow faster

If you are going to feed your steer some higher energy feeds, he will finish faster. Most people feeding steers are using some grain, if not primarily grain, to finish their beef.

I’m not recommending grain, merely stating that most beef producers are feeding it.

There are some programs to finish steers that have zero or very little forage intake included.

While this sort of a ration would be fine for a pig or a chicken, it is a disaster in the making for your steer. His digestive system can not handle a heavy load of grain.

Please go cautiously here: grain, should you decide to use it, is not a panacea. There are some huge potential side effects for you to be aware of.

The biggest problem is that since cattle are not biologically designed to eat grain, it messes with their digestion.

Use common sense here, a small amount of grain will not grenade your steer’s digestive system. Strictly speaking, he doesn’t need it, like you eating potato chips or cake.

Keep the amount small and while it’s not the best decision for your health, it’s not the worst either. Feeding your steer is the same.

Grass Fed Vs Grain Fed Beef goes over the basics of growing out cattle with and without supplemental feeding (feeding anything other than grass or other forages).

Look at the steer’s brisket for finish

For anyone who’s new: the brisket is located between the front legs of the steer.

You’ll need to see the steer from the front to evaluate the brisket properly. The brisket should be full, you should be able to see a filled out padding of fat.

If you do not see a full brisket, your steer has not yet reached the ideal fat covering and marbling for his body.

He needs a few more months of a high quality diet to deposit that last bit of fat needed for great eating beef.

Look at the steer’s tailhead for finish

For the beginner: the tailhead is where the tail meets the body.

What you are really looking for here is fat rolls, ideally three of them. The fat rolls at the tailhead show the finish of the steer in the same way that the full brisket does.

This is another overflow of stored energy stash that is easy to see on the live animal.

If your steer has the finish at the tailhead, he’s good to go.

If not, you can still eat him, of course. However, the meat will not be marbled to the extent that you want it to be for outstanding flavor and eating quality.

Here’s an interesting article on How to calculate target slaughter weights, with multiple charts and graphs and easy to understand instructions if you are looking for more of a math based answer.

What if my steer isn’t ready?

Ideally, you’ve been monitoring the body condition of your steer and specifically checking for finish for the three or four months leading up to the butchering appointment.

If the time has slipped by and you didn’t check your steer’s body condition lately, get out there today.

If your steer does not have the finish you need you have a few options, depending upon how close you are to your appointment date.

Push back the butchering appointment

If you are a month away from the appointment and your steer is not finished, you don’t have the time to fix much now. Call the butcher and see if you can reschedule.

If you can’t reschedule, you can still butcher this steer. You’ll just be short on marbling, which means short on juiciness and tenderness of the meat.

3-4 months to change the finish on the steer

If you have checked your steer and not liked the finish you are seeing, if you have 3-4 months left before the butchering date, you have time to adjust his ration to help him put on fat.

The easiest way to do this is grain. I know for some cattle raisers that is not what you want to hear. If you need him to finish on time and he is not eating plentiful, well growing grass, he’s not going to finish on time.

Let me be clear, your steer does not need grain, ever. Push back the butchering appointment.

If you decide to keep the appointment time, you need him to put on weight faster than he is now.

I’m figuring you do not have the forage to support that growth, otherwise he’d be eating the grass now, right? Now that you are in a tight spot, supplemental feeding, in one form or another, is your option.

You can really up your game and feed him very high quality hay (introduced slowly of course) and see if that will work as an alternative to grain.

Look at the hair coat to determine steer health

Look at the hair coat on your steer.

What do you see, shiny or rough? In the summer, when he has shed out this is the easiest to see, but even a full winter coat should look shiny.

What does hair have to do with anything? Glad you asked: the hair coat is a way to measure how close you are to giving your steer is his ideal diet.

If he has a shiny slick coat of hair, whatever you are feeding him and however he is living are suiting him well.

If he has a rough hair coat, something is off.

If your steer didn’t finish on time and he has a rough hair coat, you should not be surprised. His condition has been telling you he needed something other than what he is getting.

You just didn’t notice or you didn’t figure out what he needed to help him grow at his best. That’s why he didn’t finish on time.

Can I butcher my steer at home?

Sure. For the most part, it’ll be no different than processing your own deer.

There is one exception: weight. A beef carcass is going to be incredibly heavy, especially compared to a deer.

Remember, to gut the steer you are going to want to have the carcass hanging, that means chains and a loader tractor.

In case you haven’t considered it…

Once you get the carcass eviscerated, you’ll need to remove the hide, head, feet and tail.

With all of these gone, the total weight will drop down quite a bit, but you’ll still need a way to safely hold up the entire weight of the steer until you get down to the hanging weight.

The next biggie is ageing in a cool, protected area. Then on to cutting and wrapping.

If you are not set up to handle all of this yourself, reconsider butchering at home.

Before you get started, call around to the local butcher shop and see if they will age, cut and wrap for you if you butchered the steer at home. Get specific, do you eviscerate or do they and so on.

If they will pick up where you left off, they can bail you out if you decide you’re in too deep once you get going. If not, reconsider the big job you are taking on if you have no experience home butchering larger animals.

You can raise heifers for beef

As I noted above, all calves raised for beef are not steers.

Since not all heifers born to your herd will meet your replacement stock standards, you’ll have some heifers to sell or raise as beef animals.

When you are looking to grow your herd and about half of the calves born from your herd are heifers, good news, you can expand your herd numbers more quickly.

However, half the calves will continue to be heifers when you don’t need more cattle.

Of course, some can be kept as replacements, but not all of them will make the cut. Now that you have the herd numbers where you want them, you can be more selective.

Any heifer that does not make the potential breeding stock selection will be raised for beef.

For the heifers you decide to raise as future freezer beef, they will need to meet the same finishing standards as a steer to get the same quality of beef.

As far as the eating quality goes, no worries. Heifers raised for beef will be just as good as steers.

Another question folks commonly ask about is dairy beef. Read Raise Dairy Beef and Do Jerseys Have Good Beef? both articles I wrote to help people decide if dairy beef will work for them.

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