Along the Old Route 66, the current Interstate 40, about 40km west of Amarillo on the Texas Panhandle, just east of the town of Wildorado in Oldham County, you pass a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) called Quality Beef Producers; a feedlot capable of housing up to 50,000 ‘heads’ of cattle at a time.
The Wildorado feedlot takes up some 720 hectares of the 1320 hectares property. The balance is used to grow dryland wheat.
In the late 1920s and -30s, Wildorado was tortured by sandstorms and droughts. The 1950’s saw a seven-year dry spell in large parts of Texas. Another drought ended in 1984. In 1996 a drought again dealt a heavy blow to statewide ranching and agriculture, and again from 1998 until 2002. Rains picked up in late 2002 and 2004 became one of the state’s wettest years on record, but drought returned from 2005 to 2007 and after a short reprieve was back again in 2008. This one was reported finished by January 2010, but the next drought started already in October 2010; 2011 was the driest year ever for Texas, with an average of only 14.8 inches of rain. The main culprit of the intense 2011 dryness was La Niña, a weather pattern where surface temperatures are cooler in the Pacific. This in turn creates drier and warmer weather in the southern USA. The opposite, El Niño, generally brings rain to Texas. An El Niño weather pattern was predicted to bring some relief to the state in the winter of 2012-2013, but it failed to appear. High temperatures related to climate change have exacerbated the drought.
Three months after the nation’s worst ever urban flooding disaster in Houston, caused by hurricane Harvey, parts of Texas were enduring severe drought conditions again.
Roughly one-fifth of the U.S. cattle inventory is within areas facing drought; the dairies and feedlots are a main contributor to water shortages in areas where water is already in very limited supply.
Overcrowded and stinking, Quality Beef Producers is an average US CAFO. The Facebook posts speak for themselves, especially when you take into account that these commentators are not vegan animal rights activists, but just shocked passersby, maybe confronted for the first time in their lives with where their cellophane-packaged supermarket steak or fast-food ‘happy’ meal actually comes from.
One FB post says: “The worse smelling place in the world. U can smell this place a good 10 miles before u get there. If u saw the holding conditions these cows r in U would never consider quality in the name.”
Another person comments: “Just drove past a beef feed lot… I think I’m a vegetarian now….”
Some commentators can’t believe that these circumstances are allowed: “all i can say is… wow. how is this even legal?! the smell is unbearable and the sight itself is even worst. you see cows on top of cows on top of cows.. traumatizing. it made me and my two friends sick to our stomach. it makes me so upset that this is allowed or not being stopped!!!!!!!!”
Others are just horrified: “Just drove by this god forsaken place. Such a horrid site. Seriously cows on top of each other with no place to go or move and to top it off it goes on for a long time this way! If you get your beef from this place better pray you don’t get sick. Shame on Texas.”
It is no different on Yelp:
“If I could give this place negative stars I would. After being flabbergasted by the view of this disgusting inhumane place I had to look it up. I usually read reviews and never write them but this place NEEDS TO BE SHUT DOWN! Inhumane are the only words I have to describe it… thousands of cows tucked in a small muddy gated area all lined up with no room to walk, NO grass, covered in grime, standing on top of each other. Just horrible and disgusting and I truly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to un-see that.”
Another person said: “this place is disgusting. cattle everywhere and no room to walk. these people need to be shut down. how can this even be ok?????? To think that meat ends up on people’s table. cows on top of each other. I can believe the smell. we are 10 miles out and still can smell cow poop.”
The next post: “poor cows. So many cattle crammed in such small areas in their own filth. It was sad and disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Of course there are also the heartless, snickering “wow, one mile of beef” comments.
If you look closer, one that thing you might find surprising is that this concentration camp – designed to fatten cows on mostly corn in four to six months – houses so many, about 25,000, dairy Holsteins. These cows have a bigger frame and that means they take longer to grow than is the practice in this industry.
In the past it used to take five years for a cow to reach its mature weight at which he or she would be slaughtered. Today, with the structures and processes of feed yard economics perfected, that has been reduced to less than 18 months, often just a year.
While the dairy steers are slower growing than US-bred beef cattle like Herefords and Angus, with cattle supplies extremely tight because of the drought conditions in the southern USA, it is worth purchasing these Holstein steer calves – basically a waste product of the dairy industry as they will never produce milk – from calf raising farms in, primarily, southern California that raise calves for the dairy industry. These farms take the calves from dairies – cows have to give birth to a calf in order for her to produce milk and the fate of these calves is just one of the horrors connected to our thirst for another mammal’s stolen milk – at four days and process the heifers for the dairy industry and the bull calves for the feedlots. It is estimated there are about $50 in costs to ‘process’ a bull calf before it could go to a grower.
The calves are then bought on the weight (typically 136 kg) at the calf-grower’s ranch before they are transported to Texas, 20 hours on the road. Holstein bull calves fetched between $500-$600 per head in 2014, but are now selling for less than $100 – in some cases even dramatically lower.
The four days granted at the farm of birth are not an act of compassion for a baby to stay with his or her mother, but a necessity in order to feed them colostrum, a form of milk generated just prior to giving birth. Colostrum contains antibodies to protect the newborn against disease and nutrients in a very concentrated low-volume form. It has a mild laxative effect, encouraging the passing of the baby’s first stool. Colostrum is crucial for newborn calves and they must receive it within 6 hours of being born, preferably within the first thirty minutes. Livestock breeders commonly bank colostrum from their animals, often frozen, so the babies can be separated from their mothers right after birth and fed colostrum from a bottle in solitary confinement.
If dairy cows take longer to mature why do feedlot operators bother? One significant advantage the Holstein calves offer is traceability. The dairy industry identifies individual calves at birth. This allows US meat processors to service the Japanese export market, which demands it can be proven that cattle are aged less than 21 months at the time of slaughter.
The Holsteins also ‘produce’ marbling. Marbled meat is red meat that contains various amounts of intramuscular fat giving it an appearance similar to a marble pattern. The type of feed influences marbling and that brings us back to the unnatural and unhealthy feed that cows are fed in the feedlots. A high amount of cereal grains, such as corn, will change the color of the carcass fat from yellowish to a desirable white. The degree of marbling is the primary determination of meat-quality grade: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Prime has the highest marbling content when compared to other grades, and brings in the most money at restaurants and supermarkets.
In the words of Quality Beef Producers manager Blake Deyhle: “The Holsteins offer an alternative cattle supply that we can grow into very good carcasses.”
After arriving by truck from the grower, the calves go straight into the pens. The Holsteins are fed three times a day a ration of cottonseed, steam flaked corn, and a mixture of wet and dry distillers grain. A growth promotant/enhancer (anabolic steroid hormone, growth hormone or insulin-like growth factor) – banned in the EU – is used over a 21-day period at the end of the feeding program, besides a continuous flow of antibiotics.
The feedlot aims to ‘produce’ animals weighing about 1400lbs or 635kg at the time of slaughter. Cull cow prices, as the industry calls them, have been on the decline. The USDA reported December 2016 average cull cow price (dairy and beef cows combined) was $61.90 per cwt, down about $20 from the year before and the lowest since 2010. Hundredweight (cwt) is used as a unit of measure in trading livestock, grains and other commodities. In North America, a hundredweight (cwt) is equal to 100 pounds and is also known as a short hundredweight.
A problem with the larger Holsteins is that the hanging rails in many US abattoirs are literally not high enough to hang the carcasses. Another is that the Holstein steers are exceptionally curious and will test the yard infrastructure and even dig holes near water.
Latest USDA estimates put the number of cows and calves in USA feedlots with a capacity of 1000 or more at 10.6 million ‘head’. According to the USDA National Ag Statistics Service there were 641 federally inspected cattle slaughter facilities in the U.S. in 2015. Of those, 470 plants slaughtered fewer than 999 cows per year. Just 53 plants slaughtered 50,000 or more sentient individuals in 2015, including 13 plants slaughtering more than 1 million ‘head’ per year.
The feedlots, the slaughterhouses, the men & women in the business of creating ‘fine carcasses’ and those consuming the final product, represent an attitude toward life and death that exists throughout human culture. The horror the average human sees as an acceptable custom at the heart of the way we live, exists only to satisfy the selfish palate. Fortunately there are more and more people that go through life with open eyes and think about – question – ‘our’ traditions. The day you recognize the horror for what it is, the only thing you can do for the rest of your life, is to extend your compassion to these others and work tirelessly to halt the madness.