Another Nag on Big Ag By
We saw some interesting news this week that made us get right back on the Urban Farmhouse Big Agriculture soapbox. A farmer in California celebrated the birth of cow quadruplets.
At face value, not a big deal, right? Curious, interesting, heartwarming, maybe, but worrisome? It happens. We came across an article from a few years ago that talked up an Iowa farmer who had a cow deliver quads. His made sense, too, as his farm was in “Fertile, Iowa.” Must’ve been something in the water.
There were a few things that made us wrinkle our nose, though: this is becoming more frequent, some cows have delivered multiples more than once, and the odds of it happening at all are ONE IN 179.2 MILLION!
As exciting as it may be for Farmer Brown to have celebrity cowlets, let’s look at the facts:
- A cow is typically of breeding age at about 15 months.
- A cow generally has its first calf at about 24 months.
- Farmers like to give momma cow about a year or so between births.
- Cows quit getting the urge to listen to Barry White and get frisky at about 5 years.
- The average cow has 2 or 3 calves. At a time.
Folks who follow big, commercial farms are asking 2 questions: what are we feeding the cows and what are we shooting them up with?
Cows are ruminants, which mean that they like to forage for grass. Remember our friend Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms? Cows have this very highly developed stomach that allows them to process these grasses. Their stomachs are basically big fermenters. Maybe that’s why they look like they’re smiling. They’re full of pasture beer.
Grass-fed beef is usually pretty lean, and that’s bad for cattlemen. The USDA grades beef by the amount of “marbling”, or fat. The more marbling, the higher the grade. Did you ever wonder what the big deal was about Kobe Beef? Lots of fat.
The other thing that cattlemen want is a big cow, with lots of beef to take to market. A factory farm feeds cattle lots of grains and proteins that help to build big, fatty cows real quick. Most of this is in the form of grain, namely corn. And it’s not the good kind of fat, either. It’s the kind that stomps on your ticker and hangs over your belt. To make things easier, cattle guys search for cheap stuff that bulks up the animals quicker, like starch and sugar. They began feeding them rotten potatoes, and in one experiment candy. Yup, candy. They got candy that couldn’t be sold because the wrapper was jacked up, because it was out of date, or because the recipe was wrong, bought it for pennies, and fed it to the cows. In a study at the University of Illinois, they found that not only did it add quick weight to the cows; if you fed it to them in the wrapper it provided roughage that the cows were missing because the animals no longer had access to grasses and hay.
The Journal of Animal Science published a report on an experiment to mimic the effect of grass in cow stomachs. They surgically implanted plastic scrubbers. The animals with the scrubbers were healthier and showed more weight gain. Pot-scrubbers for cows. Healthier and cleaner? Who knew?
So, fatter cows, but is that bad? Depends on how you like your beef, but bad for the cow. A lack of grasses causes cows to have acidosis, or cow gas. The fermenter won’t work without some good forage, so cows swell up, get ulcers, and have liver problems. Sometimes commercial cows get so bloated that they can’t breathe, and they have to be put down. The liver thing isn’t a concern to Big Ag because there isn’t that big of a market for liver these days. So cows get medicine, and lots of it.
The medicine starts when the cow is a little heifer. It gets antibiotics to get things rolling, and hormones to give it a growth spurt. When it starts getting bigger it gets drugs to combat bloat, more drugs to combat ulcers, and more drugs to combat diarrhea, and more drugs to combat pneumonia.
Did we forget to mention pneumonia? A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, feeds thousands of animals in a very small space. About 25 years ago it was thought that the tipping point for a herd was about 25,000 animals. Polyface has a small herd on 400 or so acres, while new efficiencies at CAFO’s allow for as many as 100,000 animals in a couple of hundred acres. The tipping point is now tipping cows. This leads to a ton of dirt, a ton of waste, and in the dry heat of summer it gets airborne and the cows stand around all day breathing it.
So animals in a feedlot are pretty much sick all the time. It’s to be expected.
Cows are also bred to get big quickly. This builds big cows, but this straight-line breeding causes genetic issues. Have you ever seen an American Bulldog? They huff and snore and are prone to all sorts of respiratory issues. They are like this because they’ve been so selectively bred that nature has washed its hands of them. “Ask Darwin, we’re done.” They don’t look at all like their English Cousins. Big Ag has done this with our chickens, too. If you buy a white egg in a grocery store in the United States, there is a 99% chance that it came from a very carefully genetically modified Frankenchicken known as a White Leghorn. The same holds true for cattle. Frankenmoo.
Big Ag has its hands in this from start to finish. The USDA used anti-trust laws to break up the monopoly of the 4 or 5 companies that controlled 50% of our beef supply. That was in the 1920’s. Today it’s 3 companies controlling over 80%. The former Secretary of Agriculture points out the similarity to the automobile and banking industries, but says that as long as people get their hot dogs, who cares? So today, companies like Cargill, Tyson, and National Beef control all of our steaks, while Monsanto (remember them?) controls 80% of all of the genetically modified crops in America, which is pretty much all our cows eat. Most of the corn and grain that our big farms are producing goes to animal feed, then ethanol, and then for us. Not to start an “Occupy the Barnyard”, but 2% of our livestock farms raise 40% of our chickens, pigs, cows, and even goats, rabbits, and other feed-animals.
So if this concentrated push for more efficient beef production is leading to weird births and sick cows, what could it be doing to us? Back in the 50’s if someone ate something and got sick you could generally trace it directly to an event like a picnic or church social because all of your friends were sick too. These days you get sick and don’t even think about it. What made you sick was raised, processed, shipped, distributed, and marketed all over the world. By the time you connect the dots and say, “Oh yeah, the hamburger!” it’s made hundreds or thousands of people sick all over the place, but you don’t know them. It also impacts the cattle, because like an elementary school, what infects one infects many, really quickly. You also have to consider the fact that as many as 1,000 animals may have fallen into the meat grinder that spit out your burger.
The CEO of National Beef says that he thinks that his cows have it pretty good. Plenty of food, water, and medicines when they’re sick. “All of their wants and needs are really taken care of in a very pampered sort of way…”
If I were a cow, I’d pierce my nose, paint a sign, grab a djembe, and get all activist on a rancher.