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.
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
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.
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.
So this is the biography of my
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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.
handles 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.''
second 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.
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.
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.
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.''
''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.''
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
What keeps 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.
asked 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.
F.D.A. 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.
asked 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.''
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.
I had 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.
don't 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.
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.
thought 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.
of 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.
much 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 corn.
if 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.''
you 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.
100-mile 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.
few 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.
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 like myself.
I 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 behavior.
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 shot.''
a 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.''
Much of 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.
of 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 plant.
wasn't 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.
by 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.
the 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
Unless 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.)
paid $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.
Blairs 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 years.
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 money.''
Now you tell me.
While 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.
discovered 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.)
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 envoronment. And
how cheap, really, is cheap feed-lot 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 dow not incur.
how 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, developes 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.
A considerably 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, primodial food chain comprising
nothing more than ruminants and grass and light is somethinhg 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.