Beef Bashing: Who really pays for it?

I get overly wound up about two things, having an ‘expert’ place themselves in a position that infers that they know what they are talking about (i.e. being led by a blind mouse) or being flat-out lied to.  This is in response to the latter as I am hoping that this particular gentleman is not actively participating in the former.

I grew up in cattle country.  I was raised on a 5th generation registered cattle breeding ranch.  While the operation of this business has drastically changed during these 5 generations some things remain.

In light of all the beef  bashing that is so popular in the wake of the ‘slime’ epidemic I would like to set a few things straight from an opinion that comes from the very foundation of what is being bashed.  The traditional American rancher/farmer is striving to produce a product that is not only safe for their own family but yours.  This is the old west, where your handshake really is your word and lawyers are avoided to settle confrontations.  I would like to point out that our 30ish year old neighbor still feeds his cattle with a team of horses.  Yes it still occurs, now the iron and the wagon are fabricated from an old pickup box but the premise remains.  My niece and nephew still go trick or treating at all the neighbors and they do not bring home wrapped candy, they bring home brownies and homemade popcorn balls and caramel covered apples.  I am not trying to paint a picturesque scene, just trying to give the mindset of those who have been taken advantage of by the big businesses of commercial packing plants (ConAgra), feedlots, Monsanto, all of the above and many unnamed.  I must make a distinction here too, there are still family owned packing plants and feedlots and their sense of business has been just as offended as my family’s.

We produce a product.  We raise cattle, we breed them and then help them deliver their babies.  We are there every step of the way.  Most of our cattle are sold to other ranchers as breeding stock but in the process of raising breeding stock culling occurs. Culling is keeping the best and selling the rest.  And by the rest I mean they go to market, either we fatten them or a feedlot buys them to fatten.  Here is where our control ends.  It no longer belongs to us.  We do not put antibiotics in their food.  They do not get steroid shots, they eat grass and alfalfa hay and we even buy them nutrition, yes they get their vitamins.  Our cattle feed us and allow us to live a lifestyle of being self-employed, they take care of us and we return the favor in kind.

In production of  any product, especially one that is being sold by the pound, certain things are pursued in order to maximize profits.  Cattle today are bigger now than when my father was in 4-H 40 years ago.  His show cattle backs barely reached his waist, as mine 20 years later where at his shoulder.  They were bred for size, they were not given antibiotics or steroids.  Culling kept the larger framed cows and bulls, breeding bigger animals to bigger animals.  It would be like only breeding the women’s volleyball team to the football team, so of course cattle size has increased with the ability to artificially inseminate cattle to any bull in the country, kind of like being able to breed all the top women’s volley ball players to a select few in the NFL. I use the volleyball women’s team as an example as they are a group of women that make me feel small at the university level and I am 5’9”.

The other huge change in this time is corn.  Cattle are no longer fattened in the pasture and taken to market.  They go to a feedlot and are fed an almost corn only diet.  Have you seen the movie Super Size Me? Well just apply that to cattle.  They are put in confinement so they get no exercise and are fed straight corn, so of course they are heavier today than they were in the past.

Whenever I set out to write about something that I know nothing about, I go to a source. What I am writing about here is a personally relevant issue.  While I am now a Medical Anthropologist working on my PhD, I am still grateful to those cows who helped me get here.  I am uncertain where others are about their writing techniques but there is always more than one side to a story and well I hope this reminds us that the enemy is not always the enemy and those that are affected most by the tossing around of accusations are not always the ones that deserve it. I have been in the corporate slaughter houses as a member of the National Livestock Judging team, Tom Philpott has not.

The bashing affects the cattle market, plummeting prices, that the real ranchers are paid.  This is fantastic for the corporations you think you are punishing.  The rancher takes the blow and the feedlot pays less for the cattle that they are corrupting, but the price of meat at the grocery store stays the same.  Profits are increased for those you may think you are punishing and the one that pays for the bashing are the ones that shouldn’t.

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