Several months ago we were in California and while driving back north on Interstate 5 we passed a feedlot or CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) as they are sometimes called. Have you seen a feedlot lately? I'm just guesstimating, but I'd say that this operation covered at least a couple hundred acres and had at least five thousand head of cattle - though I've seen estimates of as many as a hundred thousand head at that particular feedlot. Industrialized meat production in action.
These feedlots or CAFO's are where almost all the beef comes from that is sold in supermarkets in this country. In the traditional beef cattle industry they are considered the most effective and efficient way to put the maximum pounds on cattle in the shortest amount of time. I snapped a few photos as we whizzed by and I noticed that this particular feedlot is much better than some as they provide shade for the animals and the cattle are not so extremely overcrowded, they had a little room to move around. There was a noticeable odor of dust and manure in the air. It made me think about those cattle and their feed and living conditions and how very different the lives of our grass fed beef are. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and I believe it is true. So here are some pictures from the feedlot and some pictures of our grass fed Angus cattle grazing and you can decide. Which is healthier for the cattle? For you and your family? For the environment? Which will taste better?
The thing I noticed most about the feedlot was there was not one blade of grass or anything green that I could see. When I was a child my mother had a close friend who was a dietician and I can still hear her voice saying "something green on everyone's plate at every meal." It was her rule for healthy eating for her family; I think it applies to cattle too. Cattle are ruminant animals, they are designed for that "something green." Grass. If they are fed a diet of grains or starch it literally makes them sick.
You may wonder why cattle in CAFO's or feedlots are fed a diet high in corn if the feedlot owner knows it will make them sick? Good question. The answer is simple - dollars. Feeding a bovine a diet of grain and/or starches and other "residue" is the quickest way to put pounds on the animal. Feedlots are paid per pound of gain on the beef from the time they enter the CAFO / feedlot to slaughter; usually 90 to 180 days. Since the grain and starch diet makes the animals sick, the cattle are also given antibiotics. The antibiotics combat the digestive disorders brought on by the grain feed and also stiumlate the animal's appetite so they will eat more and gain pounds quicker. To further stimulate the cattle's appetite and ability to gain weight quickly, they are often given a hormone implant.
The other thing I thought about - when you are driving 1,150 miles on Interstate 5 you have plenty of time to think - was when my son went to kindergarten. How does that apply to cattle and feedlots you ask? Let me explain.
I will always remember the day my precious firstborn had some funny little bumps on his forehead. I barely noticed them in the morning frenzy as we hurried on our way so he wouldn't be late to school. It happened that this was my day to volunteer in his classroom and he later rotated to my table with his group. I had more time to get a good look at him and noticed his bumps were growing and he was scratching. I took a peek under his shirt and was horrified to discover he had a raging case of chicken pox - and though I rushed him out the door immediately, we had just inadvertently exposed the whole class to his illness. In the weeks that followed almost all of his kindergarten class and his little sister at home came down with chicken pox. That is where the feedlots come in; imagine how many illnesses those cattle are exposed to and spread when they are all mixed together in very close quarters. And those illnesses are in addition to the digestive condition caused by the grain and starch diet. No wonder the animals are fed antibiotics all the time, it is the only way to keep them somewhat healthy. Did you know that over 70% of the antibiotics used in this country are fed to animals? And if you eat those animals that were fed antibiotics you are getting them too. Some researchers have suggested that the massive use of antibiotics in animals is at least partially the cause of the "super-bugs" which are drug resistant which are becoming more and more prevalent.
Our method of raising beef only on grass is certainly not as "efficient" as a feedlot by industrialized beef industry standards. It takes a lot more acreage for a lot fewer cattle and that is expensive. It also takes longer for the cattle to mature on grass without the hormones, steroids and antibiotics the feedlots use. We think it is well worth the extra time and expense to have natural, healthy and delicious meat. What do you think?