Relevancy and Engagement

Beef Basics

Grade Level
3 - 5

Students explain the value of the beef cattle industry, including the products cattle produce, the production process from farm to plate, and how cattle can utilize and obtain energy from grass and other forage. Grades 3-5

Estimated Time
2 hours
Materials Needed

Activity 1: Snack Time 

  • Paper plate with grass and weeds
  • Paper plate with pieces of beef jerky
  • Chew It Twice activity sheet, one per student 
  • Chew It Twice Activity Poster available for purchase from (optional)
  • Two round magnets per student, one with pompom attached 

Activity 2: Beef By-products

Activity 3: Pasture to Plate


bull: intact male cattle

by-product: an incidental or secondary product made in the manufacture or synthesis of something else

calf: a young cow or bull

cellulose: the main component of green plants like grass and shrubs; not digestible by humans but very nutritious to ruminant animals

cow: female cattle

digestion: the process of breaking down food by mechanical and enzymatic action into substances that can be used by the body

edible: suitable or safe to eat

heifer: female cattle that have never had a calf

inedible: not possible or safe to eat; not edible

rangeland: large, mostly unimproved section of land that is primarily used for grazing livestock

ruminant: an animal that uses a series of stomach compartments and chews its cud in order to digest plant cellulose

Background Agricultural Connections

The average American consumes 55 pounds of beef each year.1 As a country, we devour nearly 50 billion hamburgers annually.2 Not only is beef an important part of the American diet, but it also plays a significant role in our economy. Beef cattle are raised in every state across the nation. Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri rank as the states with the highest inventory of beef cattle.3

Why such a high demand for beef? In addition to being prized for its delicious taste, beef provides many nutrients essential to the human diet. Humans need complete proteins with balanced amino acids in order to build muscle, nerves, and organ tissue. Animal proteins are one way to fill this nutritional need. Beef is a good source of ZIP: zinc (a mineral that ensures proper functioning of the immune system), iron (a mineral that helps red blood cells carry oxygen to body cells and tissues), and protein (a nutrient that builds, maintains, and repairs body tissues); as well as B12 (a vitamin that promotes healthy skin, nerves, and red blood cells).

Cattle are ruminant animals. Their four-compartment stomach allows them to graze pastures and rangelands, eating grass and plants (that humans are unable to digest) in areas where it would be difficult or impossible to grow other food crops. These grazing animals convert plant cellulose into high-quality food for humans. Because of this ability, as well as their generally calm and manageable demeanor, people have relied on cattle as a food source for thousands of years.

In the United States, cattle were introduced in the early 1500s, coming from Mexico through Texas and California. The English later brought large numbers of cattle when they founded the Jamestown Colony. 

Rangelands cover approximately 26 percent (about 587 million acres) of land across America. This land is generally too arid and mountainous to be suitable for cultivation but can sustain grazing of domesticated animals when well managed. The pasture or range is one of the most important resources to a beef producer because it provides the food and water that the animals need at little cost and effort. Producers are allowed to use public lands for grazing and work with the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to ensure that the land remains healthy.

Typically, cattle are turned out to graze on their allotted land late in the spring. Mothers will raise their calves on the open range throughout the summer. The producers will keep a close eye on their cattle, monitoring their growth and health during this time period. Sometime in the fall, the cattle will be rounded up. At this point, the cattle that will be saved for breeding stock are separated from the cattle that will go into beef production. The breeding stock includes pregnant mothers who will give birth in the spring and then be returned to the range to complete the cycle all over again.

Some of the animals designated for beef production will be sold to stockers (also called backgrounders). Stockers are cattlemen who raise weaned steers and/or heifers until they are ready to be sent to market or to a feedlot. Most beef cattle will spend four to six months at a feedlot where they are fed a grain-based diet that helps them gain weight quickly. During this “finishing phase,” the cattle’s health is monitored on a daily basis. When market weight is reached, the animals are sent to a processing facility. The average beef animal weighs 1,200 pounds (544 kg) and yields approximately 520 pounds (236 kg) of meat. While beef cattle are primarily raised for meat, they also provide valuable by-products such as medicine, paint, adhesives, soap, cosmetics, detergents, and hundreds of other products. Including by-products, as much as 99% of the animal is used. 

  1. Tell your students that there are two primary products that cattle produce. Ask if they can tell you what they are. If they need a hint, tell them that both products fall in the category of "food." (Cattle produce milk and meat)
  2. Explain that there are different breeds or varieties of cattle just like dogs, cats, and other animal species. For example, some specific dog breeds have special skills and abilities. Labradors and Pointers are good hunting dogs, Border Collies and Heelers have instinctive animal herding skills, and Hounds are very skilled at tracking scents. Ask your students if they think different breeds of cattle have different traits or characteristics to make them unique in producing either milk or meat. (Yes)
  3. Explain that humans have been selectively breeding cattle for desirable traits since they were first domesticated around 10,000 years ago. Some traits that are commonly selected include hardiness, temperament, and even appearance. Most modern cattle breeds have been specialized to efficiently produce either milk or meat (not both). Based only on the pictures below, see if your students can guess which breed is typically raised for milk and which breed is typically raised for beef. 
Explore and Explain

Activity 1: Snack time

  1. Explain to the students that you have a snack for them. Place a plate of grass and weeds and a plate of beef jerky on a table. Instruct the students to line up behind their choice. 
  2. Discuss their choices. Did anyone choose the grass? Why or why not? 
  3. Explain that people don’t usually eat grass because it contains cellulose that cannot be digested by humans. 
  4. Ask the students to make a list of foods made with beef. Explain to the students that we have foods like steak, hamburgers, beef tacos, etc., because of grass. Discuss the fact that beef cattle graze pastures and rangelands. The cattle eat the grass and convert the plant cellulose into beef. 
  5. Introduce the word ruminant to the students. A ruminant is an animal that has multiple compartments in its stomach. When eating, a ruminant chews their food to soften it, swallows it, and then regurgitates the food to its mouth and continues chewing. This is called chewing the cud or ruminating
  6. Ask each student to follow the digestive process of cattle using the Chew it Twice activity sheet and their magnets. Use the pompom magnet to represent the cow’s food. The other magnet will magnetize the pompom magnet from underneath the paper and will be used to move the “food” through the cow’s digestive system. 

Activity 2: Beef By-products 

  1. Choose items from the Beef By-products List to put on a table. Tell the students that all of these items have something in common. 
  2. Form groups of 4-5 students. Have each group create ten “yes or no” questions in an attempt to discover what all of the items have in common. 
  3. Each group will take turns asking one question each until one group is able to correctly state that all of the items are made from parts of cattle. Explain that meat and milk are the principal products that come from cattle. The items on the table are secondary products, also known as by-products. 
  4. Sort each item by which part of the cow it comes from and/or whether it is edible or inedible. 

Activity 3: Pasture to Plate 

  1. To help students understand how beef gets from the pasture to the plate, watch the video clip from the Field Trip! Series, Beef-Part 1 and read the book Beef Cattle in the Story of Agriculture.
  2. Download, print, and use the attached Round Robin Q&A Cards to review key concepts from the movie and book. 
  3. Explain that the round robin begins with the teacher asking a question. The correct answer is on one of the student cards. That student reads the answer followed by the next question on their card. This process continues until all questions and answers have been read. 
  • Visit the Interactive Map Project website and show the Beef Cow Inventory Map. Identify the top beef producing states and then find where your state ranks in beef cattle inventory.

  • Read the Beef eReader as a class or on digital devices. You may also print student copies of the Beef Reader or Beef Ag Mag for each student or group of students to read.

  • Play the My American Farm interactive game The Steaks Are High.

  • Use the short video A Cow's Digestive System to further explore the unique aspects of a cow's digestive system that allow the animal to live on a diet of grass and other plants.


After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • Cattle have multi-compartment stomachs which allow them to obtain nutrients from grasses, something humans cannot do.
  • Beef cattle are raised in many states across the U.S.
  • Beef cattle are raised for meat. They produce hamburgers, steaks, roasts, and other cuts of beef.
Lynn Wallin
Utah Agriculture in the Classroom
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