Think of the beef you eat for dinner.  What do you know about it?  How do you know if it’s safe for consumption, and not swimming in E. coli bacteria?  Do you know what the cow ate while it was living?  Do you know how humanely it was treated?  Do you know how the owner felt about his cattle?

In light of the recent multi-million pounds of beef recalls, I thought this would be an interesting post.  If you have followed my blog for any length of time, then you know we like beef.  You may even know that we like to buy our beef direct from the rancher.  But do you know why? 

Let me tell you….

Did you know that the average beef cow spends only 1 year acting like a cow, and grazing the open range?  After that, he is herded tightly into a livestock semi-trailer and hauled off to a feedlot, where he will spend the remainder of his life–anywhere from 3-6 months on average.  Have you ever seen a feedlot?  Let’s just say, it is hardly the relaxing, peaceful picture of cows grazing in green pastures, as many of the grocery store beef labels would lead you to believe!  Rather, it is a picture of death, sickness, and the stench is overwhelming for miles around!   While they come in different sizes, they all consist of a system of cattle pens and chutes.  The cattle are herded off the truck and into a pen with lots of other cattle.  Some feedlots may have as many as 250,000 cattle crowded into a few hundred acres of pens. 

Each feedlot has its own system of pen sizes and sorting, but it is not uncommon to see anywhere from 50 to several hundred cows/steers crowded into a single pen.  Generally speaking, there is no shelter, the ground is dead, pathogen-infested, highly unsanitary muck, mud, and manure, often left over from the last batch of cattle to be housed there.   There is usually a head-gate style feeder on one side or the other where the cattle can stick their heads through to eat their “scientifically” produced rations. 

Feed bunk pic found at http://www.livestocktracker.com/

While these rations are advertised to contain the perfect balance of vitamins, nutrients, and other essential components for a healthy cow, in fact, it typically consists, in large part, of synthetic or processed additives, genetically modified, mostly nutritionless corn for fattening the cows, soybeans in some form, and ground up and processed beef and chicken parts and chicken manure.  Yes, you read that correctly.  In order to deal with the tremendous amounts of waste product from massive, commercial animal industries, they grind up the waste, “sterilize” it, and feed it to HERBIVORES!!  An herbivore is designed to eat grass and plants!  Not animal parts and manure!!  To help prevent disease in the feedlot, the ration contains antibiotics.  Then, in order to make this unpalatable and disgusting mix appeal to the cows, it is loaded with molasses to disguise the undesirable tastes and smells.  The rations these animals are fed is so foreign to their bodies, that it completely changes the dynamics of the micro-organisms in their gut.  It is believed that if the cattle were not sent to the processer when they are, then they would die anyway within another 6 months.  They can only survive a short while on this ration, and absolutely cannot thrive. 

All you have to do is look around and use common sense to know that these cattle cannot possibly be “happy cows” as many commercials would lead you to believe.  Herbivores have an instinct to spend their day grazing fresh, green forage, and playfully romping around the fields.  Cattle then like to lay around and chew their cud.  Yet, they are packed so tightly into these unsanitary pens, with flies swarming and biting all around, and muck stuck to their coats and weighing so heavily on their tails that they cannot even use their God-given “fly-swatter” to shoe the flies away.  Almost every picture you see of a feedlot cow is covered in grime and muck of some sort.  And our society wonders why we have so many problems with illness-causing pathogens in our meats? 

It is not uncommon for a cow to be near death shortly before it comes to his time for processing.  Sadly, instead of dealing humanely with the “downer” cow, because law requires the cow be standing in order to be processed for human consumption, some feedlot operators will do ANYTHING it takes to get that cow up!  Just google for PETA videos and you will see more than you ever cared to!   And while I am no fan of PETA, I can certainly appreciate some of the animal treatment issues they bring to light!

The simple fact is, when a company is dealing with hundreds to hundreds-of-thousands of animals per year, multiple contracts with ranchers, beef raisers, and retail outlets, and then, when you consider that each piece of meat you eat has likely traveled well over 1500 miles from ranch to feedlot to processor to retail outlet to you, it is much easier to realize the enormity of the danger of this type of meat.  It is also easier to realize how absolutely impossible it is to give these cattle any type of humane quality of life!  At that scale, it is all about profit and efficiency. 

I also want to mention briefly that an operation of that scale has a LOT of waste!  In order to handle just a portion of it, they build “manure lagoons,” which are essentially holding ponds full of water to dump the manure and urine wastes into.  It is nothing more than a disgusting sewage pit, and it kills any sort of plant or animal life near it.  If one of these lagoons happens to overflow, it contaminates nearby crop fields, leaches into our ground water, and can pollute nearby rivers and streams with its toxic sludge. 

Now, let me show you where our beef comes from…

I do my research to find a natural, grass-fed beef rancher.  One of my favorite websites for this is www.eatwild.com.  I call around and ask questions about the size of the operation, the treatment and diet of the cattle, any medications and such that might have been used, any certifications the rancher or operation might have, price per pound, whether I could tour the ranch, etc.  With almost every call I have made, I have been able to talk directly to the rancher himself.  The ranches may be large acreage-wise, but the cattle operation aspect of it tends be sized in such a way that is just a family-run and managed business.  The phone numbers listed are often their home phone line.   If a rancher ever discouraged me from touring his ranch and seeing the cattle, I would take that ranch off my list.  I consider it very important that they be willing.

So, once I make my decision, I place the order for my beef.  Ranches work differently in this area, and it often depends on the processor they use.  Generally, however, they have a favorite processor they use in a nearby town to reduce any stress on the cattle in shipping.  Then, we go from there. 

This weekend, we got to go visit the ranch where we bought our recent dexter beef from.  I had already met the rancher, but I wanted to see the cows first-hand.  Oh, what a difference from the feedlot! 

The dexter herd (22 cows) grazing in a roughly 13-acre pasture.

These were happy cows!  The rancher had about 150 acres of grazing land, divided into about 13 different pastures.  He rotated the cattle to a new pasture about 1-2 times per week, depending on pasture conditions.  He currently has only about 22 cattle, with one herd bull, but is working his way up to about 30 cattle.  We were able to walk out to the cow pasture and actually pet the cows.  It was obvious from the moment we walked up that these cows were used to people and receiving some attention!  They actually RAN (a funny site with cattle!) from the far side of the field to meet us at the gate.  Several young heifers stuck their noses right up to the fence for pets.  Even the bull was inquisitive and close enough to pet.  Unfortunately, we were all having so much fun asking questions and petting cows and calves, S totally forgot to take a single picture up close!  He and his wife run the ranch, and he is in charge of hauling the beef to the processer and making the sales.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  The calves are born and raised in the same herd, on the same ranch, grazing and acting like cows should act, until it is almost their time to become someone’s dinner. 

I was so impressed with the ranch.  It was nothing fancy at all, rather just simple, clean, and humble.  I had no reservations about letting the kids play around the holding  pens. 

In the case of this particular ranch, apparently the processor gives very short notice to the rancher when he is ready for the next cow.  Because the rancher has to be ready when the processor calls, for now, he has decided to bring the dinner-to-be cow/steer up to a holding pen for a short period of time.  He is able to sort him while the herd is in a pasture close to the pen, which reduces stress and simplifies the process. Then, the cow has free-choice mixed-grass hay 24-7.  We noticed a lot of old hay scattered around the ground outside the pen, and asked about it.  The rancher explained that he had gotten a delivery of hay earlier this summer that wound up moldy.  He refused to feed it to the cattle, and instead decided to scatter it around the ground to allow it to compost and help prevent erosion of that sandy area.  Although the holding pen is small and consists of dirt (no fresh grass grazing), I was still impressed with how clean it was.  There was absolutely no muck or mud, and probably only 2-3 piles of manure.  He cleanes it daily, and tends to the cow regularly to ensure it’s safety and comfort.  He never feeds preventative antibiotics or needless hormones.  He simply tries to treat his cattle with respect and give them the attention and care they deserve.  Notice in the pic below, there is no yucky muck clinging to this guy’s hide. 

A steer in the holding pen, waiting his turn. He looked healthy and perfectly content. Ideally, he would be out grazing with the others, but I understand the circumstances here hinder that.

Eventually, the processor calls, the rancher runs the cow directly from the pen, into a chute, and into the livestock trailer.  He personally hauls him, and that same day the cow is killed and the meat hung to age.  10-14 days later, the rancher personally calls the end-consumer, and arranges pick up or delivery of the meat.  He literally knows everything about that cow from the time of conception to the time of death, and then even follows up to ensure the customer’s satisfaction.  Now that is service!  And I don’t have to worry about supporting an enterprise that pollutes the environment with stench or sludge, feeds cows animal by-prducts, or whose meat contains as much as 500 times the saturated fat of healthy, grass-fed beef!

So, now comes the hard questions….where does your beef come from?  More importantly, which industry are you supporting with your hard-earned money?

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