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.
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
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.
grass, however, is something that, after October, my steer would never
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
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
So if this system is so ideal,
why is it that my cow hasn't tasted a blade of grass since October?
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.
we get there at 14 to 16 months.''
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
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.
York Times March 31, 2002