Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Discover How Your Beef is Really Raised (2 of 4)

Article by Michael Pollan, originally published in the New York Times (March 31 2002)

Posted by Dr Mercola (April 20 2002)

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 Number 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. Number 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 fourteen pounds of corn and six pounds of hay - and added two and a half pounds every day to Number 534.

While I was on the ranch, I didn't talk to Number 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. Number 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 November 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 November 13 and January 4, the day he boarded the truck for Kansas, Number 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 am, 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 eighteen 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 CPR 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-twenty-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 Number 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 fourteenth-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 fifty-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 twelve 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 fifty 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 Two, when petrochemical fertilizers came into widespread use. Ever since, the USD.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 three fatty acids and fewer omega six, 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 FDA banned in 1997 after scientists realized it was spreading mad-cow disease.

Make that mostly banned. The FDA'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 forty 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 thirteen percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.

New York Times (March 31 2002)

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Bill Totten


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