March 31, 2002
The New York Times
City, Kan., 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
is the biography of my cow.
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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
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.''
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
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.
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.)
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. Almost as soon as I started surveying the
90 or so steers in the pen, No. 534 moseyed up to the railing
and made eye contact. He had a wide, stout frame and was brockle-
faced -- he had three distinctive white blazes. If not for
those markings, Ed said, No. 534 might have been spared castration
and sold as a bull; he was that good-looking. But the white
blazes indicate the presence of Hereford blood, rendering
him ineligible for life as an Angus stud. Tough break.
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
the marketing end of the business out of an office in Sturgis,
where he also trades commodities. In fact you'd never guess
from Rich's unlined, indoorsy face and golfish attire that
he was a rancher. Ed, by contrast, spends his days on the
ranch and better looks the part, with his well-creased visage,
crinkly cowboy eyes and ever-present plug of tobacco. His
cap carries the same prairie-flat slogan I'd spotted on the
ranch's roadside sign: ''Beef: It's What's for Dinner.''
morning on the ranch, I helped Troy Hadrick, Ed's son-in-law
and a ranch hand, feed the steers in the backgrounding pen.
A thickly muscled post of a man, Hadrick is 25 and wears a
tall black cowboy hat perpetually crowned by a pair of mirrored
Oakley sunglasses. He studied animal science at South Dakota
State and is up on the latest university thinking on cattle
nutrition, reproduction and medicine. Hadrick seems to relish
everything to do with ranching, from calving to wielding the
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. Why? 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.''
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.''
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 U.S.D.A.'s grading system
continues to reward marbling -- that is, intermuscular fat
-- and thus the feeding of corn to cows.
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.
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.
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 F.D.A. is now
considering tightening its feed rules.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
a feedlot animal healthy -- or healthy enough -- are antibiotics.
Rumensin inhibits gas production in the rumen, helping to
prevent bloat; tylosin reduces the incidence of liver infection.
Most of the antibiotics sold in America end up in animal feed
-- a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged, leads
directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant ''superbugs.''
In the debate over the use of antibiotics in agriculture,
a distinction is usually made between clinical and nonclinical
uses. Public-health advocates don't object to treating sick
animals with antibiotics; they just don't want to see the
drugs lose their efficacy because factory farms are feeding
them to healthy animals to promote growth. But the use of
antibiotics in feedlot cattle confounds this distinction.
Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals,
yet the animals probably wouldn't be sick if not for what
we feed them.
Metzen what would happen if antibiotics were banned from cattle
feed. ''We just couldn't feed them as hard,'' he said. ''Or
we'd have a higher death loss.'' (Less than 3 percent of cattle
die on the feedlot.) The price of beef would rise, he said,
since the whole system would have to slow down.
''Hell, if you gave them lots of grass and space,'' he concluded
dryly, ''I wouldn't have a job.''
heading over to Pen 43 for my reunion with No. 534, I stopped
by the shed where recent arrivals receive their hormone implants.
The calves are funneled into a chute, herded along by a ranch
hand wielding an electric prod, then clutched in a restrainer
just long enough for another hand to inject a slow-release
pellet of Revlar, a synthetic estrogen, in the back of the
ear. The Blairs' pen had not yet been implanted, and I was
still struggling with the decision of whether to forgo what
is virtually a universal practice in the cattle industry in
the United States. (It has been banned in the European Union.)
regulators permit hormone implants on the grounds that no
risk to human health has been proved, even though measurable
hormone residues do turn up in the meat we eat. These contribute
to the buildup of estrogenic compounds in the environment,
which some scientists believe may explain falling sperm counts
and premature maturation in girls. Recent studies have also
found elevated levels of synthetic growth hormones in feedlot
wastes; these persistent chemicals eventually wind up in the
waterways downstream of feedlots, where scientists have found
fish exhibiting abnormal sex characteristics.
is opening an inquiry into the problem, but for now, implanting
hormones in beef cattle is legal and financially irresistible:
an implant costs $1.50 and adds between 40 and 50 pounds to
the weight of a steer at slaughter, for a return of at least
$25. That could easily make the difference between profit
and loss on my investment in No. 534. Thinking like a parent,
I like the idea of feeding my son hamburgers free of synthetic
hormones. But thinking like a cattleman, there was really
no decision to make.
Rich Blair what he thought. ''I'd love to give up hormones,''
he said. ''If the consumer said, We don't want hormones, we'd
stop in a second. The cattle could get along better without
them. But the market signal's not there, and as long as my
competitor's doing it, I've got to do it, too.''
lunch time, Metzen and I finally arrived at No. 534's pen.
My first impression was that my steer had landed himself a
decent piece of real estate. The pen is far enough from the
feed mill to be fairly quiet, and it has a water view -- of
what I initially thought was a reservoir, until I noticed
the brown scum. The pen itself is surprisingly spacious, slightly
bigger than a basketball court, with a concrete feed bunk
out front and a freshwater trough in the back. I climbed over
the railing and joined the 90 steers, which, en masse, retreated
a few steps, then paused.
on the same carrot-colored sweater I'd worn to the ranch in
South Dakota, hoping to jog my steer's memory. Way off in
the back, I spotted him -- those three white blazes. As I
gingerly stepped toward him, the quietly shuffling mass of
black cowhide between us parted, and there No. 534 and I stood,
staring dumbly at each other. Glint of recognition? None whatsoever.
I told myself not to take it personally. No. 534 had been
bred for his marbling, after all, not his intellect.
know enough about the emotional life of cows to say with any
confidence if No. 534 was miserable, bored or melancholy,
but I would not say he looked happy. I noticed that his eyes
looked a little bloodshot. Some animals are irritated by the
fecal dust that floats in the feedlot air; maybe that explained
the sullen gaze with which he fixed me. Unhappy or not, though,
No. 534 had clearly been eating well. My animal had put on
a couple hundred pounds since we'd last met, and he looked
it: thicker across the shoulders and round as a barrel through
the middle. He carried himself more like a steer now than
a calf, even though he was still less than a year old. Metzen
complimented me on his size and conformation. ''That's a handsome
looking beef you've got there.'' (Aw, shucks.)
at No. 534, I could picture the white lines of the butcher's
chart dissecting his black hide: rump roast, flank steak,
standing rib, brisket. One way of looking at No. 534 -- the
industrial way -- was as an efficient machine for turning
feed corn into beef. Every day between now and his slaughter
date in June, No. 534 will convert 32 pounds of feed (25 of
them corn) into another three and a half pounds of flesh.
Poky is indeed a factory, transforming cheap raw materials
into a less-cheap finished product, as fast as bovinely possible.
Yet the factory metaphor obscures as much as it reveals about
the creature that stood before me. For this steer was not
a machine in a factory but an animal in a web of relationships
that link him to certain other animals, plants and microbes,
as well as to the earth. And one of those other animals is
us. The unnaturally rich diet of corn that has compromised
No. 534's health is fattening his flesh in a way that in turn
may compromise the health of the humans who will eat him.
The antibiotics he's consuming with his corn were at that
very moment selecting, in his gut and wherever else in the
environment they wind up, for bacteria that could someday
infect us and resist the drugs we depend on. We inhabit the
same microbial ecosystem as the animals we eat, and whatever
happens to it also happens to us.
about the deep pile of manure that No. 534 and I were standing
in. We don't know much about the hormones in it -- where they
will end up or what they might do once they get there -- but
we do know something about the bacteria. One particularly
lethal bug most probably resided in the manure beneath my
feet. Escherichia coli 0157 is a relatively new strain of
a common intestinal bacteria (it was first isolated in the
1980's) that is common in feedlot cattle, more than half of
whom carry it in their guts. Ingesting as few as 10 of these
microbes can cause a fatal infection.
the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their
way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs,
since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment.
But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer
in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment
acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can
survive our stomach acids -- and go on to kill us. By acidifying
a cow's gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food
chain's barriers to infection. Yet this process can be reversed:
James Russell, a U.S.D.A. microbiologist, has discovered that
switching a cow's diet from corn to hay in the final days
before slaughter reduces the population of E. coli 0157 in
its manure by as much as 70 percent. Such a change, however,
is considered wildly impractical by the cattle industry.
comes back to corn, this cheap feed that turns out in so many
ways to be not cheap at all. While I stood in No. 534's pen,
a dump truck pulled up alongside the feed bunk and released
a golden stream of feed. The animals stepped up to the bunk
for their lunch. The $1.60 a day I'm paying for three giant
meals is a bargain only by the narrowest of calculations.
It doesn't take into account, for example, the cost to the
public health of antibiotic resistance or food poisoning by
E. coli or all the environmental costs associated with industrial
you follow the corn from this bunk back to the fields where
it grows, you will find an 80-million-acre monoculture that
consumes more chemical herbicide and fertilizer than any other
crop. Keep going and you can trace the nitrogen runoff from
that crop all the way down the Mississippi into the Gulf of
Mexico, where it has created (if that is the right word) a
12,000-square-mile ''dead zone.''
can go farther still, and follow the fertilizer needed to
grow that corn all the way to the oil fields of the Persian
Gulf. No. 534 started life as part of a food chain that derived
all its energy from the sun; now that corn constitutes such
an important link in his food chain, he is the product of
an industrial system powered by fossil fuel. (And in turn,
defended by the military -- another uncounted cost of ''cheap''
food.) I asked David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes
in agriculture and energy, if it might be possible to calculate
precisely how much oil it will take to grow my steer to slaughter
weight. Assuming No. 534 continues to eat 25 pounds of corn
a day and reaches a weight of 1,250 pounds, he will have consumed
in his lifetime roughly 284 gallons of oil. We have succeeded
in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once
a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need:
another fossil-fuel machine.
in June, No. 534 will be ready for slaughter. Though only
14 months old, my steer will weigh more than 1,200 pounds
and will move with the lumbering deliberateness of the obese.
One morning, a cattle trailer from the National Beef plant
in Liberal, Kan., will pull in to Poky Feeders, drop a ramp
and load No. 534 along with 35 of his pen mates.
trip south to Liberal is a straight shot on Route 83, a two-lane
highway on which most of the traffic consists of speeding
tractor-trailers carrying either cattle or corn. The National
Beef plant is a sprawling gray-and-white complex in a neighborhood
of trailer homes and tiny houses a notch up from shanty. These
are, presumably, the homes of the Mexican and Asian immigrants
who make up a large portion of the plant's work force. The
meat business has made southwestern Kansas an unexpectedly
diverse corner of the country.
hours after their arrival in the holding pens outside the
factory, a plant worker will open a gate and herd No. 534
and his pen mates into an alley that makes a couple of turns
before narrowing down to a single-file chute. The chute becomes
a ramp that leads the animals up to a second-story platform
and then disappears through a blue door.
is as close to the kill floor as the plant managers were prepared
to let me go. I could see whatever I wanted to farther on
-- the cold room where carcasses are graded, the food-safety
lab, the fabrication room where the carcasses are broken down
into cuts -- on the condition that I didn't take pictures
or talk to employees. But the stunning, bleeding and evisceration
process was off limits to a journalist, even a cattleman-journalist
know about what happens on the far side of the blue door comes
mostly from Temple Grandin, who has been on the other side
and, in fact, helped to design it. Grandin, an assistant professor
of animal science at Colorado State, is one of the most influential
people in the United States cattle industry. She has devoted
herself to making cattle slaughter less stressful and therefore
more humane by designing an ingenious series of cattle restraints,
chutes, ramps and stunning systems. Grandin is autistic, a
condition she says has allowed her to see the world from the
cow's point of view. The industry has embraced Grandin's work
because animals under stress are not only more difficult to
handle but also less valuable: panicked cows produce a surge
of adrenaline that turns their meat dark and unappetizing.
''Dark cutters,'' as they're called, sell at a deep discount.
designed the double-rail conveyor system in use at the National
Beef plant; she has also audited the plant's killing process
for McDonald's. Stories about cattle ''waking up'' after stunning
only to be skinned alive prompted McDonald's to audit its
suppliers in a program that is credited with substantial improvements
since its inception in 1999. Grandin says that in cattle slaughter
''there is the pre-McDonald's era and the post-McDonald's
era -- it's night and day.''
recently described to me what will happen to No. 534 after
he passes through the blue door. ''The animal goes into the
chute single file,'' she began. ''The sides are high enough
so all he sees is the butt of the animal in front of him.
As he walks through the chute, he passes over a metal bar,
with his feet on either side. While he's straddling the bar,
the ramp begins to decline at a 25-degree angle, and before
he knows it, his feet are off the ground and he's being carried
along on a conveyor belt. We put in a false floor so he can't
look down and see he's off the ground. That would panic him.''
to Grandin's rather clinical account, I couldn't help wondering
what No. 534 would be feeling as he approached his end. Would
he have any inkling -- a scent of blood, a sound of terror
from up the line -- that this was no ordinary day?
anticipated my question: ''Does the animal know it's going
to get slaughtered? I used to wonder that. So I watched them,
going into the squeeze chute on the feedlot, getting their
shots and going up the ramp at a slaughter plant. No difference.
If they knew they were going to die, you'd see much more agitated
the conveyor is moving along at roughly the speed of a moving
sidewalk. On a catwalk above stands the stunner. The stunner
has a pneumatic-powered 'gun' that fires a steel bolt about
seven inches long and the diameter of a fat pencil. He leans
over and puts it smack in the middle of the forehead. When
it's done correctly, it will kill the animal on the first
plant to pass a McDonald's audit, the stunner needs to render
animals ''insensible'' on the first shot 95 percent of the
time. A second shot is allowed, but should that one fail,
the plant flunks. At the line speeds at which meatpacking
plants in the United States operate -- 390 animals are slaughtered
every hour at National, which is not unusual -- mistakes would
seem inevitable, but Grandin insists that only rarely does
the process break down.
the animal is shot while he's riding along, a worker wraps
a chain around his foot and hooks it to an overhead trolley.
Hanging upside down by one leg, he's carried by the trolley
into the bleeding area, where the bleeder cuts his throat.
Animal rights people say they're cutting live animals, but
that's because there's a lot of reflex kicking.'' This is
one of the reasons a job at a slaughter plant is the most
dangerous in America. ''What I look for is, Is the head dead?
It should be flopping like a rag, with the tongue hanging
out. He'd better not be trying to hold it up -- then you've
got a live one on the rail.'' Just in case, Grandin said,
''they have another hand stunner in the bleed area.''
what happens next -- the de-hiding of the animal, the tying
off of its rectum before evisceration -- is designed to keep
the animal's feces from coming into contact with its meat.
This is by no means easy to do, not when the animals enter
the kill floor smeared with manure and 390 of them are eviscerated
every hour. (Partly for this reason, European plants operate
at much slower line speeds.) But since that manure is apt
to contain lethal pathogens like E. coli 0157, and since the
process of grinding together hamburger from hundreds of different
carcasses can easily spread those pathogens across millions
of burgers, packing plants now spend millions on ''food safety''
-- which is to say, on the problem of manure in meat.
these efforts are reactive: it's accepted that the animals
will enter the kill floor caked with feedlot manure that has
been rendered lethal by the feedlot diet. Rather than try
to alter that diet or keep the animals from living in their
waste or slow the line speed -- all changes regarded as impractical
-- the industry focuses on disinfecting the manure that will
inevitably find its way into the meat. This is the purpose
of irradiation (which the industry prefers to call ''cold
pasteurization''). It is also the reason that carcasses pass
through a hot steam cabinet and get sprayed with an antimicrobial
solution before being hung in the cooler at the National Beef
until after the carcasses emerged from the cooler, 36 hours
later, that I was allowed to catch up with them, in the grading
room. I entered a huge arctic space resembling a monstrous
dry cleaner's, with a seemingly endless overhead track conveying
thousands of red-and-white carcasses. I quickly learned that
you had to move smartly through this room or else be tackled
by a 350-pound side of beef. The carcasses felt cool to the
touch, no longer animals but meat.
two, the sides of beef traveled swiftly down the rails, six
pairs every minute, to a station where two workers -- one
wielding a small power saw, the other a long knife -- made
a single six-inch cut between the 12th and 13th ribs, opening
a window on the meat inside. The carcasses continued on to
another station, where a U.S.D.A. inspector holding a round
blue stamp glanced at the exposed rib eye and stamped the
carcass's creamy white fat once, twice or -- very rarely --
three times: select, choice, prime.
Blair brothers, and for me, this is the moment of truth, for
that stamp will determine exactly how much the packing plant
will pay for each animal and whether the 14 months of effort
and expense will yield a profit.
the cattle market collapses between now and June (always a
worry these days), I stand to make a modest profit on No.
534. In February, the feedlot took a sonogram of his rib eye
and ran the data through a computer program. The projections
are encouraging: a live slaughter weight of 1,250, a carcass
weight of 787 pounds and a grade at the upper end of choice,
making him eligible to be sold at a premium as Certified Angus
Beef. Based on the June futures price, No. 534 should be worth
$944. (Should he grade prime, that would add another $75.)
$598 for No. 534 in November; his living expenses since then
come to $61 on the ranch and $258 for 160 days at the feedlot
(including implant), for a total investment of $917, leaving
a profit of $27. It's a razor-thin margin, and it could easily
vanish should the price of corn rise or No. 534 fail to make
the predicted weight or grade -- say, if he gets sick and
goes off his feed. Without the corn, without the antibiotics,
without the hormone implant, my brief career as a cattleman
would end in failure.
and I are doing better than most. According to Cattle-Fax,
a market-research firm, the return on an animal coming out
of a feedlot has averaged just $3 per head over the last 20
pens you make money, some pens you lose,'' Rich Blair said
when I called to commiserate. ''You try to average it out
over time, limit the losses and hopefully make a little profit.''
He reminded me that a lot of ranchers are in the business
''for emotional reasons -- you can't be in it just for the
of the packing plant has offered to pull a box of steaks from
No. 534 before his carcass disappears into the trackless stream
of commodity beef fanning out to America's supermarkets and
restaurants this June. From what I can see, the Blair brothers,
with the help of Poky Feeders, are producing meat as good
as any you can find in an American supermarket. And yet there's
no reason to think this steak will taste any different from
the other high-end industrial meat I've ever eaten.
waiting for my box of meat to arrive from Kansas, I've explored
some alternatives to the industrial product. Nowadays you
can find hormone- and antibiotic-free beef as well as organic
beef, fed only grain grown without chemicals. This meat, which
is often quite good, is typically produced using more grass
and less grain (and so makes for healthier animals). Yet it
doesn't fundamentally challenge the corn-feedlot system, and
I'm not sure that an ''organic feedlot'' isn't, ecologically
speaking, an oxymoron. What I really wanted to taste is the
sort of preindustrial beef my grandparents ate -- from animals
that have lived most of their full-length lives on grass.
I found a farmer in the Hudson Valley who sold me a quarter
of a grass-fed Angus steer that is now occupying most of my
freezer. I also found ranchers selling grass-fed beef on the
Web; Eatwild.com is a clearinghouse of information on grass-fed
livestock, which is emerging as one of the livelier movements
in sustainable agriculture.
that grass-fed meat is more expensive than supermarket beef.
Whatever else you can say about industrial beef, it is remarkably
cheap, and any argument for changing the system runs smack
into the industry's populist arguments. Put the animals back
on grass, it is said, and prices will soar; it takes too long
to raise beef on grass, and there's not enough grass to raise
them on, since the Western range lands aren't big enough to
sustain America's 100 million head of cattle. And besides,
Americans have learned to love cornfed beef. Feedlot meat
is also more consistent in both taste and supply and can be
harvested 12 months a year. (Grass-fed cattle tend to be harvested
in the fall, since they stop gaining weight over the winter,
when the grasses go dormant.)
All of this is true. The economic logic behind the feedlot
system is hard to refute. And yet so is the ecological logic
behind a ruminant grazing on grass. Think what would happen
if we restored a portion of the Corn Belt to the tall grass
prairie it once was and grazed cattle on it. No more petrochemical
fertilizer, no more herbicide, no more nitrogen runoff. Yes,
beef would probably be more expensive than it is now, but
would that necessarily be a bad thing? Eating beef every day
might not be such a smart idea anyway -- for our health, for
the environment. And how cheap, really, is cheap feedlot beef?
Not cheap at all, when you add in the invisible costs: of
antibiotic resistance, environmental degradation, heart disease,
E. coli poisoning, corn subsidies, imported oil and so on.
All these are costs that grass-fed beef does not incur.
does grass-fed beef taste? Uneven, just as you might expect
the meat of a nonindustrial animal to taste. One grass-fed
tenderloin from Argentina that I sampled turned out to be
the best steak I've ever eaten. But unless the meat is carefully
aged, grass-fed beef can be tougher than feedlot beef -- not
surprisingly, since a grazing animal, which moves around in
search of its food, develops more muscle and less fat. Yet
even when the meat was tougher, its flavor, to my mind, was
much more interesting. And specific, for the taste of every
grass-fed animal is inflected by the place where it lived.
Maybe it's just my imagination, but nowadays when I eat a
feedlot steak, I can taste the corn and the fat, and I can
see the view from No. 534's pen. I can't taste the oil, obviously,
or the drugs, yet now I know they're there.
different picture comes to mind while chewing (and, O.K.,
chewing) a grass-fed steak: a picture of a cow outside in
a pasture eating the grass that has eaten the sunlight. Meat-eating
may have become an act riddled with moral and ethical ambiguities,
but eating a steak at the end of a short, primordial food
chain comprising nothing more than ruminants and grass and
light is something I'm happy to do and defend. We are what
we eat, it is often said, but of course that's only part of
the story. We are what what we eat eats too.
Pollan, the author of ''The Botany of Desire,'' is a contributing
writer for the magazine. His last cover article was about
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