New York Times
Discover How Your Beef is Really Raised Part 1 of 4
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.
Continued in the next issue of the newsletter
New York Times March 31, 2002