U.S. Beef Production... from Calf to Feedlot to Slaughter to Supermarket
Beef Production in the U.S. is unique in that the CAFO only comes into play during the latter months of the cows life. Typically beef cattle are born on an independent ranch somewhere in the west.
The Cow-Calf Operation
They usually spend the first six months of their lives in a real pasture with their mothers, enjoying a diet of real grass which nature designed them to eat and digest. In the scheme of industrial beef production, the ranch is called a cow-calf operation. It is an operation since the calf wasn't conceived the way nature intended. It was the product of artificial insemination; mother and father never got to look each other in the eye.
Except for a particularly bad day in his second month of life, when the calf got branded and castrated, he had it pretty good on the ranch.
He's half a year old... Time for Backgrounding
His next bad day was at around his six-month birthday when he got weaned from its mother and moved to a pen, his first experience at being penned up. The now six-hundred pound calf will spend the next couple of months in the pen learning to eat from a trough and being given his first introduction to corn.
This step of the journey to Safeway, Kroger’s or whatever is called "backgrounding" and is intended to ease him into the next stop, the feed lot.
He is stressed from being separated from mom, being confined to a pen and odds are he will get sick from the change in diet. For the calf, it's all downhill from here to the end of its life.
Corn, Drugs, Supplements and Hormones Welcome to the Feedlot
This is the essence of how industrial beef production has changed our food. A couple of generations ago, cattle weren't slaughtered until they were five years old or so; today it is fourteen to sixteen months and 1,100 pounds.
The secret to this accelerated weight gain is corn, lots of corn, protein and fat supplements, a sedentary lifestyle and a stream of pharmaceutical drugs to compensate for the loss of their immune system. Without the drugs, this type of beef production would not be sustainable; the animals would all be dead before they ever made it to market weight.
As to the feed lot, think of mile after mile of enclosed pens with stout metal fences, no shade or shelter, each holding 100 or more cows, all standing and sleeping in their own manure.
Filth, stench, dust and disease characterize the "modern" feed lot. They can be smelled long before they come into sight.
Since the cows were not fed or watered on the long truck ride to the feed lot and have lost about a hundred pounds during the trip, for the first few days they must be fed a diet of good, fresh hay after which they are transitioned to a daily diet of 32 pounds of feed, most of which is corn, a little alfalfa and silage, mixed with liquefied fat and protein supplements, liquid vitamins, synthetic estrogen, and antibiotics.
All this is mixed and poured into the feeding troughs. Mounting evidence shows that most of the problems associated with eating meat are, in reality, eating corn-fed meat. Furthermore, the same growing evidence indicates a linkage between the use of agricultural antibiotics and the rise of antibiotic resistance in humans.
Finally, the media is starting to expose what goes on in the "feedlot pharmacies" of America. It used to be that cattle in the feedlots were fattened up on corn but, in case you missed it, corn prices have risen.
So instead of sitting by and watching their profit margins fall, beef producers turned to the pharmaceutical industry. Merck and Eli Lilly came to the rescue with Zilmax and Optaflexx, a couple of drugs known as beta-agonists.
This class of drugs was originally developed to treat respiratory problems in humans by forcing the muscles around the airways to relax and thus increase airflow. So why give them to cattle?
It turns out that in cattle these drugs cause their metabolism to deposit protein instead of fat. Lean muscle weighs more than an equivalent volume of fat so the result is heavier weight going the feedlot and commanding higher prices at slaughter.
As with all drugs, there is a downside, several in the case of cattle. It makes the animals look like bovine Charles Atlas'es, impairs normal animal movement and changes the taste of the beef. Now, if antibiotic residue remain in the beef (or pork) and end up in the country's water supply, why wouldn't beta-agonists do likewise.
Yes there are beta agonist residues in the meat of drug fed cattle and there are side effects and adverse effects from these drugs; among them are tremors, muculo-skeletal coordination problems, cognitive issues and high arterial blood pressure.
Zilmax, Optaflexx and Ractopamine are added to cattle feed because they can add 24 to 33 pounds to the animals final weight in the final weeks before slaughter. 25 million pounds of Zilmax alone have been added to cattle feed since it was approved in 2003.
The good news is that due to increased, but belated publicity, consumers are becoming aware of the pharmaceutical contaminants in beef and pork and voting with their food dollars. Sales of factory farmed beef and pork have been falling for several years.
Lastly, Merck has suspended its sales of Zilmax as a feed additive, at least temporarily, and many European and Asian countries are starting to ban the imports of U.S. beef that has been treated with these drugs.
Fourteen months old and 1200 pounds Time to Die
The fateful day of the animals slaughter can be likened to the movie "Dead Man Walking" only we would rename it "Dead Cow Walking".
In this final stage of beef production, the cows are lead single file through a chute into a "knocking box" where a large pneumatic gun shoots a steel bolt into the cow's skull right between its eyes.
If all goes as planned, the cow is either killed or rendered unconscious. Too often, the animal is only stunned and regains consciousness while it is being bled, skinned and dismembered...alive and aware.
Faster, Faster; Oops!
According to industry wide audits conducted by Temple Grandin, Doctor of Animal Science and Professor at Colorado State University, numerous slaughterhouses stated that they could not reliably knock the cow out with one shot and due to the speed of the line; there is usually no second chance.
If nothing else, U.S. beef production is like a NASCAR race track. The line is moving at such a rate as to slaughter 400 head/per hour which doesn't leave much time for "do-overs".
The industry defends their beef production methods by saying it is just common in the industry. In fact courts have ruled that no matter how cruel or inhumane practices are in the factory farming business, if it is common to the industry it is somehow OK. (p. 232-233 of Johnathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals)
The next step in beef production is a "shackler". He is the guy that attaches a chain around one of the animals hind legs and hoists it into the air. Hanging from one leg, the animal moves down the line to a "sticker" who cuts the carotid arteries and jugular vein in the neck.
It moves along the line to a "bleed rail" where as much as possible of its five and a half gallons of blood are drained. The cow should be a carcass by the time it gets to the "head skinner" where skin is peeled off the animals head.
The number of cows still conscious at this point is very low but not zero, according to Jonathan Foer, author of Eating Animals.
Next in the line are the "leggers" who cut off the lower portions of the animals legs. Even at this step in beef production, some occasionally come back to life; not something any of us would want to see.
Finally the animal is completely skinned, gutted, and cut in half where it finally looks like the side of beef we usually see hanging in freezers.
You can't make this stuff up. For the real inside story, spend a few bucks and get the book, Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz. She is a winner of the Albert Schweitzer Medal for outstandning achievement in animal welfare and is Chief Investigator for the Humane Farming Association.
Ms. Eisnitz has appeared on countless mainstream TV and radio shows and her front page article in the Washington Post on slaughter house atrocities was one of the highest reader-response pieces in the history of the paper. The Washington Post reporter called her the "most courageous investigator I've ever seen". Click the link below or the book image above to get her book.
As far as cleanliness, when the cows first enter the chute, they are covered in feces and dirt from lying in their manure filled pens. It is not reasonable to assume that some of that pathogen filled crap doesn't end up in the beef at the end of the line.
Hello e-coli and mad-cow disease. Anytime you hear a meat packer bragging about irradiating its beef, you can interpret that to mean it is a product of animal factory beef production that has a good chance of carrying infectious bacteria.
Studies have shown that slaughterhouse workers who do this day after day become desensitized to the animals pain and suffering and tend to develop cruel tendencies. It has been shown to carry over to the worker's family life and even their outlook on life.
Why is corn bad for cows?
With beef, it is instructive to look at how cows are designed to eat and what they are supposed to eat.
Because cattle and other similar animals spend their lives grazing and eating grass, they were given a unique digestive tract designed to digest grass. Below is a short video from Channel 2 in St. Louis that highlights the difference between grass-fed and feed-lot beef very clearly.
These animals are called ruminants mainly because they ruminate. They have a four chambered stomach that digests grass in successive stages.
In the first two compartments of the stomach, the grass is mixed with saliva and is separated into liquid and solid layers. The solid clumps join together and form a cud, which would be called a bolus if we were talking about humans.
The cud is then regurgitated where it is slowly chewed to further mix it with saliva and break it down to smaller particle sized bits. That's why every time you see a cow in a field it looks like it is always chewing gum.
After the grass is suitably liquid, it passes into the third stomach chamber where the water and many of the inorganic minerals are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Next it goes to the final chamber which is most equivalent to the human single chambered stomach. The material is then transported to the small intestine where digestion and absorption continues.
Finally it off to the large intestine where fermentation continues and then it’s on to the exit door.
That's how it works when the cow eats grass as it was designed to do; this is beef production nature's way. On a normal grass diet, it takes a steer around five years or so to reach a slaughter weight of 1200 pounds or more.
The Systems Approach
Waiting four or five years for a calf to reach maturity and the proper weight for butchering wasn't fast enough for the corporations running the factory farms. Here's where corn, soy and other grains enter the picture.
Switching from grass to corn and restricting its movements results in a cow reaching the 1200 pound slaughter weight in a little over a year. Today the CAFO cows are ready for slaughter at the ripe old age of 14 to 16 months. No one can say beef production isn't efficient.
The Grazing System
When it comes to animal feeding programs, the industry talks about systems. First is the way it used to be until about 75 years ago, that is called the grazing system. That is where happy cows peacefully graze on pasture land or open range, eating grass with no integration of crop grains like corn.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, about 9% of worldwide beef production is still done by the "grazing system". Tendergrass Farms in Floyd, Virginia is still in that 9% and the Tendergrass banner link above will take you there.
Integrated Livestock-Crop Farming System
Next we have the "integrated livestock-crop farming system" where beef production is combined or integrated with growing crops. The animals are fed a combination of pasture grasses and crop residue, the stuff left in the field after the crop is harvested.
Again, according to the FAO, worldwide this is the largest category of livestock production.
Industrial Beef Production System
Finally we come to the "Industrial Beef Production System", what we refer to as the CAFO or factory farm.
This is a mass production approach to fattening up livestock without the need for pastures, grazing lands or range. The animals are fed corn or other crop grains in stalls, pens or feedlots where the animal density is extremely high.
The CAFO is typically owned and run by corporate food producers who control every aspect of the animals life and almost always include large regimens of veterinary drugs, growth hormones, food additives and supplements.
This is where the healthy choices for life come in. It is important to our health to understand what the CAFO does to cattle and what consuming the factory farm meat does to us.
We'll close out this page with a short video that sums it all up.
Watch "Family Farmer Blues" courtesy of wilytraxmusic.com, published March 4, 2013 under standard You Tube License with embed code provided.