Happy cows come from California.” So reads the tagline of a famous ad campaign run by the California Milk Advisory Board, featuring cows casually chatting in a wide-open field. Cows from California, the thinking goes, must be like everyone else from California: happy and laid back. But what makes a cow happy? If you don’t live on a farm (and most Americans do not), your answer might be based on the assumption, like the commercial suggests, that a cow is just like you.
And yet most of us don’t really want to live on pasture; we prefer to live indoors, venturing into nature if and only when we please. It is perhaps not a stretch, then, to imagine that cattle might prefer the comfort of shelter and richer diets over constant exposure and the ever-present need to forage for food. Nonetheless, in discussions of livestock welfare, “free range” remains the gold standard, while feedlots sit as harsh symbols of cruelty and confinement on the opposite end of that spectrum. Add in climate impact, localized pollution, and massive land use, and industrialized beef production comes out looking like a triple threat — to health, the environment, and our humanity.
Over the years, this understanding has driven lots of changes in the way meat is marketed, with labels like “grass fed,” “pastured,” and “organic” wielding outsize influence on the ethical decision-making that takes place in the supermarket. The problem is that those labels, despite their appeal to many consumers, don’t necessarily guarantee a better life for the animals we eat. Free-range grazing systems can subject an animal to abuse, particularly if they aren’t properly managed. Cows on pasture can become sick from an unbalanced diet, face threats from predators, suffer severe weather conditions, or fall sick and be left untreated.
As far as livestock welfare goes, beef cattle in the United States have it pretty good. A typical cow raised for beef lives about 16 months and experiences a decent amount of mobility relative to hogs and hens. It’s true that quality of life can vary wildly depending on the farm, but that fact has little to do with organic regulations or other distinctions that tend to hinge more on virtue signaling than on animals’ actual lives. And it is none other than the feedlot — the apparent antithesis of those virtues — that holds the potential to furnish welfare in ways that systems boasting those virtuous labels do not.
The vast majority of American beef — well over 90 percent — comes from cattle “finished” in a feedlot, the part of the beef production system where cows are fed corn or other grains to fatten them up for slaughter. Although all beef cattle are technically grass fed (they spend the first part of their lives, during and after weaning, grazing on pasture), grain-finished cattle are transported to feedlots for finishing, where they’re fed a diet that shifts from pasture to a combination of grass, grains, and a fermented, sauerkraut-like mix of crops called silage.
The history of the American feedlot begins in the decades following the Civil War. Before that period, most Americans didn’t eat much beef, as cows were usually kept for milk. But as farming became more mechanized and efficient, shifting from subsistence farming to commodity production, farmers began to produce large surpluses of corn that ranchers could in turn feed to cattle to produce a fatter animal. With the advent of refrigerated train cars and massive migration to cities, ranchers gained access to new burgeoning markets of meat eaters. As the beef industry continued to flourish and corn grown exclusively for feed along with it, a few enterprising cattle farmers opened the first feedlots for fattening and finishing cattle. The feedlot industry continued to grow throughout the 1960s, and today, most of the beef we eat comes from a feedyard.
The vast majority of American beef — well over 90 percent — comes from cattle “finished” in a feedlot.
Feedlots are often mentioned in the same derisive breath as “factory farms” — part of a massive industrial food system that, for most people, is the furthest thing imaginable from a “happy cow.” Cattle on feed live in concrete pens that, if not watched, can easily overflow with manure and mud, with about 250 square feet of room per animal. Critics of industrial farming argue that feedlots are cruel, not only because they force cattle to live in such small, unnatural spaces, but also because they force them to consume a diet equally unnatural and difficult to digest. All that corn-eating makes cattle more stressed, full of environmentally unfriendly belches, and susceptible to gut and health problems that have to be treated with or prevented by antibiotics.
The fact remains, however, that most beef comes from a feedlot and likely always will: grass-finished beef production is simply no match for the feedlot system’s productivity. And while it is true that meat consumption in the United States has shifted toward pork and poultry in recent decades, beef remains an undeniable staple of American diets.
Feedlots, upon closer inspection, offer a lot more than the average urban, coastal, organic-loving customer might realize. Perhaps most important, they possess the capacity to provide the animals they house with nutrition, security, and top-of-the-line veterinary care — features of a decent life that not all farms, it turns out, are equipped to supply.
The ability to express natural behavior has consistently appeared in animal welfare discussions since the codification of the “Five Freedoms” by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979. This framework, which still guides most animal welfare audits around the world, was adapted from the British government’s 1965 Brambell Report, which urged intensive livestock producers to provide animals the freedom “to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves, and stretch their limbs.” These ideas evolved into the fourth of the Five Freedoms: the “freedom to express normal behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind.”
Feedlots, while imposing a relatively moderate form of confinement on beef cattle, undoubtedly restrict “normal behavior.” According to a 2007 survey conducted by agricultural economists F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk, the majority of American consumers explicitly prioritize such natural behavior and outdoor access as their preferred metrics of animal welfare over protection, shelter, and comfort. Nevertheless, the remaining four freedoms explicitly uphold those latter rights: freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury, and disease; and from fear and distress. An uncomfortable truth is that these categories of concern don’t always neatly overlap. In fact, they often conflict — freedom to roam also means freedom to succumb to predation, extreme weather, deprivation, and disease. Livestock confinement first emerged in the late 1940s in part for that very reason.
This trade-off is not easily mitigated by farmers, especially those running small operations. Lusk and Norwood’s survey participants might prefer the idea of small, pasture-based farms, but those systems have the potential to expose their animals to conditions with serious welfare ramifications. Vulnerability to predation has long troubled ranchers, and continues to do so as predators like bears, wolves, and mountain lions are reintroduced, particularly in the American West. Cattle left to pasture are often exposed to extreme heat or cold — conditions that are exacerbated by a paucity of shade or shelter. (Of course, feedlots clustered in the Midwest and Texas also expose cattle to hot summer days, often without shade.) When grazing lands are overstocked, poor nutrition and even starvation can result. Pasture, meanwhile, may offer the more “natural” choice of diet, but it can also result in “pasture bloat,” which, if not treated promptly, tends to result in swift death. Poor water quality, failure to provide preventive health care, and lack of consistent monitoring all further increase the incidence of injury and illness.
Freedom to roam also means freedom to succumb to predation, extreme weather, deprivation, and disease.
On a feedlot, in contrast, precise control over the animal’s diet and medical care offers a stable and predictable environment, which in turn can mean healthy animals, even if those animals themselves might prefer more room to roam about. Large “corporate” feedlot systems are also more likely to have the resources to pay for the kind of robust health program needed to provide good and consistent care. An enormous operation like Cactus Feeders in Amarillo, Texas, with 527,000 head of cattle across nine feedyards, employs several full-time veterinarians. Tiffany Cattle, a smaller, family-run operation in Herington, Kansas, with 32,000 head at two locations, relies on both an on-call veterinarian and their own staff, who play a role not dissimilar to a nurse practitioner’s.
That is not to say that individual feedlot operators don’t impinge on their animals’ lives in meaningful ways, nor that welfare cannot be improved across the system as a whole. But intensive livestock operations have developed and consolidated in such a way as to maximize the potential for the vast numbers of cattle that pass through them to live a life (albeit delimited) as free of harm as possible.
In the famous “Is it local?” scene from the television series Portlandia, a young hipster couple interrogates a waitress about whether the chicken on the menu lived a good life, eventually departing for the farm to find out for themselves. The farm turns out not to be what they expected, and the couple eventually forgets why they came. In the end, the question of whether Colin the Chicken was truly happy remains unanswered.
Most consumers similarly express this desire for transparency: to know where their meat comes from and how it was raised. But transparency does not always deliver animal welfare. For transparency to have a meaningful impact on our food system, we need to learn to ask the right questions and be willing to follow the evidence where it leads.
Tiffany Cattle, a finishing operation I visited last December, is a corporate feedlot, at least in the legal sense, but it’s a family farm too. Shawn and Shane Tiffany are brothers who grew up working at the feedyard before entering into a somewhat unique arrangement to buy out the previous owner over time. Unlike some other feedlots, the Tiffany brothers don’t actually own most of the cattle they’re feeding. Tiffany Cattle’s feedlots are just one way station in a beef production ecosystem — from cow-calf producer to feedyard operator to the company that slaughters and processes the meat for distribution — that relies on everyone in the system to do their job well.
“By and large,” Shawn says, “the cattle we feed belong to family farmers throughout the Midwest.” The many cows at Tiffany Cattle are all headed to different processors, each of which, it turns out, has different animal handling requirements. A conventional cow at Tiffany Cattle will get a growth hormone in addition to its antibiotic and feed, whereas one moving through its “all-natural” system won’t get that hormone and, as a result, will take several weeks longer to reach slaughter weight. The feedlot’s consulting nutritionist, who has a PhD in ruminant nutrition, oversees the dietary requirements for every animal there. “Everything is very highly monitored — every micronutrient, the fat, the protein, all of those things in the diet to help those cattle perform and put on weight efficiently,” says Shawn Tiffany. Every nutrient has a purpose. Cattle are fed capsaicin, for example, to help dissipate the heat in the summer months.
Feedlots, upon closer inspection, offer a lot more than the average urban, coastal, organic-loving customer might realize.
Listening to Shawn Tiffany describe his farm, I’m struck by the similarities between the practices at his feedlot and the values espoused by the local food movement. Unlike an artichoke or strawberry farm, in which neat little rows are kept almost pristinely unto themselves, Tiffany Cattle is part of a highly interdependent system. Their feed is all locally produced, either right there on the farm, where GMO corn is grown in a cover cropping system, or on farms located within 100 miles of Herington. Their cow manure is sold to local farms, including organic ones, which rely solely on manure for fertilizer. While the beef may end up all over the country and in markets as far-flung as China, the beef production itself is local. Shawn Tiffany even tours the country talking to farmers about the benefits of cover cropping, a practice that fell out of favor with his father’s generation but was once universally seen as fundamental to maintaining good soil health.
“We employ a lot of new technology but a lot of natural solutions as well,” says Shawn Tiffany. In the last two years, for instance, they’ve adopted the practice of releasing small, predatory wasps (about the size of a gnat) weekly, from the spring to the warmer months, to make sure there are little to no pesky flies during the summer. Ultimately, the “well-managed” feedlot is only as good as its cowboys, the cattle handlers who have that well-honed instinct to know when an animal may not be well. The Tiffany Cattle cowboys, many of whom have worked there for decades, “go into every pen, every day, identifying cattle that [might] need help.” It’s the cowboys who ensure that the feedlot stays clean and dry, the two things animal behavior expert Temple Grandin says are essential to maintaining low stress levels.
What a feedlot like Tiffany demonstrates is that technology and care can, and often do, go hand-in-hand to improve both the quality of our food and the life of the animals we eventually eat. Ultimately, whether free range or feedlot finished, the welfare of livestock depends on the humans entrusted with their care.
What is “natural” does not always coincide with what is humane, nor does it have much to do with life on a farm. After all, what is normal behavior for a breed of cattle prized for its docility, on pasture or on a feedyard? Whether it’s the massive Cactus Feeders or the famed Polyface Farm of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, agriculture itself isn’t natural; it’s human engineering. From Kansas calf rancher Debbie Blythe choosing a breeding bull for better marbling to scientist Alison Van Eenennaam genetically engineering a hornless dairy cow, we humans are constantly modifying these animals to produce better tasting, healthier, more efficient, and cost-effective food.
Healthier, lower-stress animals mean tastier meat, so there’s plenty of economic incentive for farmers to do right by their livestock. Most sincerely believe that animal welfare is a deep responsibility, an obligation of stewardship. But farmers face many difficult and simultaneous challenges — fluctuating markets, severe weather, increasing consumer demand for transparency, and pressure to keep up with technological changes, not to mention the responsibility of figuring out who will take over the family farm at a time when the younger generation either doesn’t want to or doesn’t have the experience. In the difficult business of animal husbandry, a farmer is sometimes just doing his or her best to balance welfare with many other significant competing interests.
In this sense, animal welfare can take on the guise of an engineering problem: one that science and technology, and the production systems that are best positioned to deploy them, can help solve. Indeed, scientists have bred low-fat CRISPR pigs that suffer less in cold temperatures and chickens that develop fewer leg problems., Shane Tiffany describes the cattle tags that could one day be used to detect a fever before the animal shows signs of sickness, though he is careful to note that these tags aren’t yet cost-effective enough to implement on his farm. Any such investment in animal welfare ultimately has to matter to the consumer. We’re the ones paying for it.
Ultimately, whether free range or feedlot finished, the welfare of livestock depends on the humans entrusted with their care.
While the distributed nature of this reality does make regulating for animal welfare difficult, a few workarounds have emerged. Norwood and Lusk, for instance, recommend the “Animal Welfare Approved” label in their book Compassion, by the Pound. They do note, however, that other humane labels have had considerable problems with fraud and a lack of oversight. When I mentioned this label to Shawn Tiffany, he had no objections to it, but said he sees it more as a brand than an industry game-changer.
Perhaps a more efficacious move to improve animal welfare would be to direct our attention toward feedlots with the intent to improve rather than disparage. Because they indisputably dominate the beef production system, and will almost certainly continue to do so for the foreseeable future, even modest measures could have a significant impact on the well-being of beef cattle at large. Moreover, with their technologically enhanced feeds, shelter, and care, feedlots already inherently possess the tools of their own betterment.
There’s a limit to how much we can improve the life of the animals we eat. But the feedlot standard — approximately four months of confinement, a meticulously engineered diet, constant care, shelter, and dry ground — has a lot going for it. Cows, in the end, are not just like us. If we’re going to continue to eat them — and it looks like we are — they’ll be better off if we can make peace with the systems that are best positioned to mitigate their pain and distress, and improve their comfort and well-being, as they make their way from farm to plate.
Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 8
Featuring pieces by Charles Mann, Steven Pinker,
Varun Sivaram, Jonathan Symons, Tisha Schuller,
and Ted Nordhaus.
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