By MICHAEL POLLAN
The New York Times magazine - March 31, 2002
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.
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.
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.
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.''
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
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
Rich 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.''
My 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 artificial-insemination
Hadrick and I squeezed into the heated cab of a
huge swivel-hipped tractor hooked up to a feed mixer: basically,
a dump truck with a giant screw through the middle to blend
ingredients. First stop was a hopper filled with Rumensin,
a powerful antibiotic that 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.
As 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.
Hadrick's e-mail updates
grew chattier as time went on, cracking a window on the
rancher's life and outlook. I was especially struck by
his relationship to the animals, how it manages to be at
once intimate and unsentimental. One day Hadrick is tenderly
nursing a newborn at 3 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.
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
I spent the better part of a day walking around
Poky Feeders, trying to understand how its various parts
fit together. In any city, it's easy to lose track of nature
-- of the connections between various species and the land
on which everything ultimately depends. The feedlot's ecosystem,
I could see, revolves around corn. But its food chain doesn't
end there, because the corn itself grows somewhere else,
where it is implicated in a whole other set of ecological
relationships. Growing the vast quantities of corn used
to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities
of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities
of oil -- 1.2 gallons for every bushel. So the modern feedlot
is really a city floating on a sea of oil.
I started my tour at the feed mill, the yard's thundering
hub, where three meals a day for 37,000 animals are designed
and mixed by computer. A million pounds of feed passes
through the mill each day. Every hour of every day, a tractor-trailer
pulls up to disgorge another 25 tons of corn. Around the
other side of the mill, tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped
tanks, into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied
fat and protein supplement. In a shed attached to the mill
sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen; next
to these are pallets stacked with 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.
The 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
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 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.
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on
a factory farm, there is no other kind. Calories are calories,
and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories.
Of course the identical industrial logic -- protein is
protein -- led to the feeding of rendered cow parts back
to cows, a practice the F.D.A. banned in 1997 after scientists
realized it was spreading mad-cow disease.
Make 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.
F.D.A. 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.
Until mad-cow disease, remarkably
few people in the cattle business, let alone the general
public, comprehended the strange semicircular food chain
that industrial agriculture had devised for cattle (and,
in turn, for us). When I mentioned to Rich Blair that I'd
been surprised to learn that cows were eating cows, he
said, ''To tell the truth, it was kind of a shock to me
too.'' Yet even today, ranchers don't ask many questions
about feedlot menus. Not that the answers are so easy to
come by. When I asked Poky's feedlot manager what exactly
was in the protein supplement, he couldn't say. ''When
we buy supplement, the supplier says it's 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.
Compared with ground-up cow
bones, corn seems positively wholesome. Yet it wreaks considerable
havoc on bovine digestion. During my day at Poky, I spent
an hour or two driving around the yard with Dr. Mel Metzen,
the staff veterinarian. Metzen, a 1997 graduate of Kansas
State's vet school, oversees a team of eight cowboys who
spend their days riding the yard, spotting sick cows and
bringing them in for treatment. A great many of their health
problems can be traced to their diet. ''They're made to
eat forage,'' Metzen said, ''and we're making them eat
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.
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 abscessed livers.
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.
I 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.
if you gave them lots of grass and space,'' he concluded
dryly, ''I wouldn't have a job.''
Before 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.)
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.
I 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.''
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
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.
I 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.)
Staring 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.
I 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.
Most 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.
So 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
For 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.
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.
A 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.
That 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
What 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.''
Listening 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?
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
''Anyway, 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.''
For 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.
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
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.
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
Two 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,
For 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 a profit.
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.)
I 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.
The 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.
''Some 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.
The manager 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.
Eventually 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
I 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.)
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.
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, 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.
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, 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.