New York Times March 31, 2002
By Michael Pollan
Garden City, Kansas, missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions of cattle.
These feedlots — the nation’s first — began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50′s, and by now developments catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
You’ll be speeding down one of Finney County’s ramrod roads when the empty, dun-colored prairie suddenly turns black and geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see — which in Kansas is really far.
I say ”suddenly,” but in fact a swiftly intensifying odor (an aroma whose Proustian echoes are more bus-station-men’s-room than cow-in-the-country) heralds the approach of a feedlot for more than a mile.
Then it’s upon you: Poky Feeders, population 37,000. Cattle pens stretch to the horizon, each one home to 150 animals standing dully or lying around in a grayish mud that it eventually dawns on you isn’t mud at all.
The pens line a network of unpaved roads that loop around vast waste lagoons on their way to the feedlot’s beating heart: a chugging, silvery feed mill that soars like an industrial cathedral over this teeming metropolis of meat.
I traveled to Poky early in January with the slightly improbable notion of visiting one particular resident: a young black steer that I’d met in the fall on a ranch in Vale, S.D. The steer, in fact, belonged to me.
I’d purchased him as an 8-month-old calf from the Blair brothers, Ed and Rich, for $598. I was paying Poky Feeders $1.60 a day for his room, board and meds and hoped to sell him at a profit after he was fattened.
My interest in the steer was not strictly financial, however, or even gustatory, though I plan to retrieve some steaks from the Kansas packing plant where No. 534, as he is known, has an appointment with the stunner in June.
No, my primary interest in this animal was educational. I wanted to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter.
Eating meat, something I have always enjoyed doing, has become problematic in recent years. Though beef consumption spiked upward during the flush 90′s, the longer-term trend is down, and many people will tell you they no longer eat the stuff.
Inevitably they’ll bring up mad-cow disease (and the accompanying revelation that industrial agriculture has transformed these ruminants into carnivores — indeed, into cannibals).
They might mention their concerns about E. coli contamination or antibiotics in the feed. Then there are the many environmental problems, like groundwater pollution, associated with ”Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.”
(The word ”farm” no longer applies.) And of course there are questions of animal welfare. How are we treating the animals we eat while they’re alive, and then how humanely are we ”dispatching” them, to borrow an industry euphemism?
Meat-eating has always been a messy business, shadowed by the shame of killing and, since Upton Sinclair’s writing of ”The Jungle,” by questions about what we’re really eating when we eat meat.
Forgetting, or willed ignorance, is the preferred strategy of many beef eaters, a strategy abetted by the industry. (What grocery-store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?)
Yet I recently began to feel that ignorance was no longer tenable. If I was going to continue to eat red meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat. I’d try to own it, in other words.
So this is the biography of my cow.
The Blair brothers ranch occupies 11,500 acres of short-grass prairie a few miles outside Sturgis, S.D., directly in the shadow of Bear Butte. In November, when I visited, the turf forms a luxuriant pelt of grass oscillating yellow and gold in the constant wind and sprinkled with perambulating black dots: Angus cows and calves grazing.
Ed and Rich Blair run what’s called a ”cow-calf” operation, the first stage of beef production, and the stage least changed by the modern industrialization of meat.
While the pork and chicken industries have consolidated the entire life cycles of those animals under a single roof, beef cattle are still born on thousands of independently owned ranches. Although four giant meatpacking companies (Tyson’s subsidiary IBP, Monfort, Excel and National) now slaughter and market more than 80 percent of the beef cattle born in this country, that concentration represents the narrow end of a funnel that starts out as wide as the great plains.
The Blairs have been in the cattle business for four generations. Although there are new wrinkles to the process — artificial insemination to improve genetics, for example — producing beef calves goes pretty much as it always has, just faster.
Calving season begins in late winter, a succession of subzero nights spent yanking breeched babies out of their bellowing mothers. In April comes the first spring roundup to work the newborn calves (branding, vaccination, castration); then more roundups in early summer to inseminate the cows ($15 mail-order straws of elite bull semen have pretty much put the resident stud out of work); and weaning in the fall. If all goes well, your herd of 850 cattle has increased to 1,600 by the end of the year.
My steer spent his first six months in these lush pastures alongside his mother, No. 9,534. His father was a registered Angus named GAR Precision 1,680, a bull distinguished by the size and marbling of his offspring’s rib-eye steaks.
Born last March 13 in a birthing shed across the road, No. 534 was turned out on pasture with his mother as soon as the 80-pound calf stood up and began nursing. After a few weeks, the calf began supplementing his mother’s milk by nibbling on a salad bar of mostly native grasses: western wheatgrass, little bluestem, green needlegrass.
Apart from the trauma of the April day when he was branded and castrated, you could easily imagine No. 534 looking back on those six months grazing at his mother’s side as the good old days — if, that is, cows do look back.
(”They do not know what is meant by yesterday or today,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, with a note of envy, of grazing cattle, ”fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure, and thus neither melancholy or bored.” Nietzsche clearly had never seen a feedlot.)
It may be foolish to presume to know what a cow experiences, yet we can say that a cow grazing on grass is at least doing what he has been splendidly molded by evolution to do. Which isn’t a bad definition of animal happiness.
Eating grass, however, is something that, after October, my steer would never do again.
Although the modern cattle industry all but ignores it, the reciprocal relationship between cows and grass is one of nature’s underappreciated wonders.
For the grasses, the cow maintains their habitat by preventing trees and shrubs from gaining a foothold; the animal also spreads grass seed, planting it with its hoofs and fertilizing it. In exchange for these services, the grasses offer the ruminants a plentiful, exclusive meal.
For cows, sheep and other grazers have the unique ability to convert grass — which single-stomached creatures like us can’t digest — into high-quality protein. They can do this because they possess a rumen, a 45-gallon fermentation tank in which a resident population of bacteria turns grass into metabolically useful organic acids and protein.
This is an excellent system for all concerned: for the grasses, for the animals and for us. What’s more, growing meat on grass can make superb ecological sense: so long as the rancher practices rotational grazing, it is a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food on land too arid or hilly to grow anything else.
So if this system is so ideal, why is it that my cow hasn’t tasted a blade of grass since October?
Speed, in a word.
Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and the modern meat industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef calf’s allotted time on earth. ‘
‘In my grandfather’s day, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter,” explained Rich Blair, who, at 45, is the younger of the brothers by four years. ”In the 50′s, when my father was ranching, it was 2 or 3.
“Now we get there at 14 to 16 months.”
Fast food indeed.
What gets a beef calf from 80 to 1,200 pounds in 14 months are enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements — and drugs, including growth hormones. These ”efficiencies,” all of which come at a price, have transformed raising cattle into a high-volume, low-margin business. Not everybody is convinced that this is progress. ”Hell,” Ed Blair told me, ”my dad made more money on 250 head than we do on 850.”
Weaning marks the fateful moment when the natural, evolutionary logic represented by a ruminant grazing on grass bumps up against the industrial logic that, with stunning speed, turns that animal into a box of beef. This industrial logic is rational and even irresistible — after all, it has succeeded in transforming beef from a luxury item into everyday fare for millions of people. And yet the further you follow it, the more likely you are to wonder if that rational logic might not also be completely insane.
In early October, a few weeks before I met him, No. 534 was weaned from his mother. Weaning is perhaps the most traumatic time on a ranch for animals and ranchers alike; cows separated from their calves will mope and bellow for days, and the calves themselves, stressed by the change in circumstance and diet, are prone to get sick.
On many ranches, weaned calves go directly from the pasture to the sale barn, where they’re sold at auction, by the pound, to feedlots. The Blairs prefer to own their steers straight through to slaughter and to keep them on the ranch for a couple of months of ”backgrounding” before sending them on the 500-mile trip to Poky Feeders.
Think of backgrounding as prep school for feedlot life: the animals are confined in a pen, ”bunk broken” — taught to eat from a trough — and gradually accustomed to eating a new, unnatural diet of grain. (Grazing cows encounter only tiny amounts of grain, in the form of grass seeds.)
It was in the backgrounding pen that I first met No. 534 on an unseasonably warm afternoon in November. I’d told the Blairs I wanted to follow one of their steers through the life cycle; Ed, 49, suggested I might as well buy a steer, as a way to really understand the daunting economics of modern ranching.
Ed and Rich told me what to look for: a broad, straight back and thick hindquarters. Basically, you want a strong frame on which to hang a lot of meat. I was also looking for a memorable face in this Black Angus sea, one that would stand out in the feedlot crowd.
Rich said he would calculate the total amount I owed the next time No. 534 got weighed but that the price would be $98 a hundredweight for an animal of this quality. He would then bill me for all expenses (feed, shots, et cetera) and, beginning in January, start passing on the weekly ”hotel charges” from Poky Feeders.
In June we’d find out from the packing plant how well my investment had panned out: I would receive a payment for No. 534 based on his carcass weight, plus a premium if he earned a U.S.D.A. grade of choice or prime. ”And if you’re worried about the cattle market,” Rich said jokingly, referring to its post-Sept. 11 slide, ”I can sell you an option too.” Option insurance has become increasingly popular among cattlemen in the wake of mad-cow and foot-and-mouth disease.
Hadrick and I squeezed into the heated cab of a huge swivel-hipped tractor hooked up to a feed mixer: basically, a dump truck with a giant screw through the middle to blend ingredients.
First stop was a hopper filled with Rumensin, a powerful antibiotic that No. 534 will consume with his feed every day for the rest of his life. Calves have no need of regular medication while on grass, but as soon as they’re placed in the backgrounding pen, they’re apt to get sick.
The stress of weaning is a factor, but the main culprit is the feed. The shift to a ”hot ration” of grain can so disturb the cow’s digestive process — its rumen, in particular — that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics.
After we’d scooped the ingredients into the hopper and turned on the mixer, Hadrick deftly sidled the tractor alongside the pen and flipped a switch to release a dusty tan stream of feed in a long, even line. No. 534 was one of the first animals to belly up to the rail for breakfast. He was heftier than his pen mates and, I decided, sparkier too. That morning, Hadrick and I gave each calf six pounds of corn mixed with seven pounds of ground alfalfa hay and a quarter-pound of Rumensin. Soon after my visit, this ration would be cranked up to 14 pounds of corn and 6 pounds of hay — and added two and a half pounds every day to No. 534.
While I was on the ranch, I didn’t talk to No. 534, pet him or otherwise try to form a connection. I also decided not to give him a name, even though my son proposed a pretty good one after seeing a snapshot. (”Night.”) My intention, after all, is to send this animal to slaughter and then eat some of him. No. 534 is not a pet, and I certainly don’t want to end up with an ox in my backyard because I suddenly got sentimental.
As fall turned into winter, Hadrick sent me regular e-mail messages apprising me of my steer’s progress. On Nov. 13 he weighed 650 pounds; by Christmas he was up to 798, making him the seventh-heaviest steer in his pen, an achievement in which I, idiotically, took a measure of pride. Between Nov. 13 and Jan. 4, the day he boarded the truck for Kansas, No. 534 put away 706 pounds of corn and 336 pounds of alfalfa hay, bringing his total living expenses for that period to $61.13. I was into this deal now for $659.
Hadrick’s e-mail updates grew chattier as time went on, cracking a window on the rancher’s life and outlook. I was especially struck by his relationship to the animals, how it manages to be at once intimate and unsentimental. One day Hadrick is tenderly nursing a newborn at 3 a.m., the next he’s ”having a big prairie oyster feed” after castrating a pen of bull calves.
Hadrick wrote empathetically about weaning (”It’s like packing up and leaving the house when you are 18 and knowing you will never see your parents again”) and with restrained indignation about ”animal activists and city people” who don’t understand the first thing about a rancher’s relationship to his cattle. Which, as Hadrick put it, is simply this: ”If we don’t take care of these animals, they won’t take care of us.”
”Everyone hears about the bad stuff,” Hadrick wrote, ”but they don’t ever see you give C.P.R. to a newborn calf that was born backward or bringing them into your house and trying to warm them up on your kitchen floor because they were born on a minus-20-degree night. Those are the kinds of things ranchers will do for their livestock. They take precedence over most everything in your life. Sorry for the sermon.”
To travel from the ranch to the feedlot, as No. 534 and I both did (in separate vehicles) the first week in January, feels a lot like going from the country to the big city. Indeed, a cattle feedlot is a kind of city, populated by as many as 100,000 animals. It is very much a premodern city, however — crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air.
The urbanization of the world’s livestock is a fairly recent historical development, so it makes a certain sense that cow towns like Poky Feeders would recall human cities several centuries ago. As in 14th-century London, the metropolitan digestion remains vividly on display: the foodstuffs coming in, the waste streaming out. Similarly, there is the crowding together of recent arrivals from who knows where, combined with a lack of modern sanitation.
This combination has always been a recipe for disease; the only reason contemporary animal cities aren’t as plague-ridden as their medieval counterparts is a single historical anomaly: the modern antibiotic.
I spent the better part of a day walking around Poky Feeders, trying to understand how its various parts fit together. In any city, it’s easy to lose track of nature — of the connections between various species and the land on which everything ultimately depends.
The feedlot’s ecosystem, I could see, revolves around corn.
But its food chain doesn’t end there, because the corn itself grows somewhere else, where it is implicated in a whole other set of ecological relationships. Growing the vast quantities of corn used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil — 1.2 gallons for every bushel. So the modern feedlot is really a city floating on a sea of oil.
I started my tour at the feed mill, the yard’s thundering hub, where three meals a day for 37,000 animals are designed and mixed by computer.
A million pounds of feed passes through the mill each day.
Every hour of every day, a tractor-trailer pulls up to disgorge another 25 tons of corn. Around the other side of the mill, tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks, into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplement.
In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen; next to these are pallets stacked with 50-pound sacks of Rumensin and tylosin, another antibiotic. Along with alfalfa hay and corn silage for roughage, all these ingredients are blended and then piped into the dump trucks that keep Poky’s eight and a half miles of trough filled.
The feed mill’s great din is made by two giant steel rollers turning against each other 12 hours a day, crushing steamed corn kernels into flakes. This was the only feed ingredient I tasted, and it wasn’t half bad; not as crisp as Kellogg’s, but with a cornier flavor. I passed, however, on the protein supplement, a sticky brown goop consisting of molasses and urea.
Corn is a mainstay of livestock diets because there is no other feed quite as cheap or plentiful: thanks to federal subsidies and ever-growing surpluses, the price of corn ($2.25 a bushel) is 50 cents less than the cost of growing it.
The rise of the modern factory farm is a direct result of these surpluses, which soared in the years following World War II, when petrochemical fertilizers came into widespread use. Ever since, the U.S.D.A.’s policy has been to help farmers dispose of surplus corn by passing as much of it as possible through the digestive tracts of food animals, converting it into protein.
Compared with grass or hay, corn is a compact and portable foodstuff, making it possible to feed tens of thousands of animals on small plots of land.
Without cheap corn, the modern urbanization of livestock would probably never have occurred.
We have come to think of ”cornfed” as some kind of old-fashioned virtue; we shouldn’t. Granted, a cornfed cow develops well-marbled flesh, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have learned to like. Yet this meat is demonstrably less healthy to eat, since it contains more saturated fat.
A recent study in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the meat of grass-fed livestock not only had substantially less fat than grain-fed meat but that the type of fats found in grass-fed meat were much healthier. (Grass-fed meat has more omega 3 fatty acids and fewer omega 6, which is believed to promote heart disease; it also contains betacarotine and CLA, another ”good” fat.)
A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with cornfed beef. In the same way ruminants have not evolved to eat grain, humans may not be well adapted to eating grain-fed animals. Yet the USDA’s grading system continues to reward marbling — that is, intermuscular fat — and thus the feeding of corn to cows.
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm, there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories. Of course the identical industrial logic — protein is protein — led to the feeding of rendered cow parts back to cows, a practice the F.D.A. banned in 1997 after scientists realized it was spreading mad-cow disease.
Make that mostly banned. The F.D.A.’s rules against feeding ruminant protein to ruminants make exceptions for ”blood products” (even though they contain protein) and fat. Indeed, my steer has probably dined on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse he’s heading to in June. ”Fat is fat,” the feedlot manager shrugged when I raised an eyebrow.
FDA rules still permit feedlots to feed nonruminant animal protein to cows. Feather meal is an accepted cattle feed, as are pig and fish protein and chicken manure.
Some public-health advocates worry that since the bovine meat and bone meal that cows used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs and fish, infectious prions could find their way back into cattle when they eat the protein of the animals that have been eating them. To close this biological loophole, the FDA is now considering tightening its feed rules.
Until mad-cow disease, remarkably few people in the cattle business, let alone the general public, comprehended the strange semicircular food chain that industrial agriculture had devised for cattle (and, in turn, for us). When I mentioned to Rich Blair that I’d been surprised to learn that cows were eating cows, he said, ”To tell the truth, it was kind of a shock to me too.”
Yet even today, ranchers don’t ask many questions about feedlot menus. Not that the answers are so easy to come by. When I asked Poky’s feedlot manager what exactly was in the protein supplement, he couldn’t say. ”When we buy supplement, the supplier says it’s 40 percent protein, but they don’t specify beyond that.” When I called the supplier, it wouldn’t divulge all its ”proprietary ingredients” but promised that animal parts weren’t among them. Protein is pretty much still protein.
Compared with ground-up cow bones, corn seems positively wholesome. Yet it wreaks considerable havoc on bovine digestion. During my day at Poky, I spent an hour or two driving around the yard with Dr. Mel Metzen, the staff veterinarian. Metzen, a 1997 graduate of Kansas State’s vet school, oversees a team of eight cowboys who spend their days riding the yard, spotting sick cows and bringing them in for treatment.
A great many of their health problems can be traced to their diet. ”They’re made to eat forage,” Metzen said, ”and we’re making them eat grain.”
Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination.
But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike that in our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick.
Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.
Cows rarely live on feedlot diets for more than six months, which might be about as much as their digestive systems can tolerate. ”I don’t know how long you could feed this ration before you’d see problems,” Metzen said; another vet said that a sustained feedlot diet would eventually ”blow out their livers” and kill them. As the acids eat away at the rumen wall, bacteria enter the bloodstream and collect in the liver. More than 13 percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.