Posted Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 at 12:51 pm on AltDaily.com
by Amelia Baker
Growing up, I didn’t realize that feedlots existed.
My homeland was a sleepy farm town where cows roamed the vast green fields dusting the landscape of our borough. That’s right, it wasn’t even a city, it was a borough. The borough of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania to be exact; a small community of less than 5,000 in Southwestern PA very near the border of West Virginia.
You need to know this to fully understand why and how my family purchased meat. Every year, at the annual Greene County Fair the festivities included much of what you would expect from a fair; rides, carnies, candy apples, funnel cakes. But, we had a few extras in the mix to make our fair special. Every night of that first week in August when the fair lit up the countryside, you could go to one of the many barns onsite and bid on an animal. I can’t quite remember the full lineup, but I know options definitely included lamb, steer (both dairy and beef), and pig.
I know what you’re thinking, but stick with me on this one. I have a point.
My parents would join forces with three other families and we would head to the steer (aka cow) auction which always happened on Thursday night at the fair. We would sit in the grandstands and as the show steer came out with their owners. My parents and the other families they were in cahoots with would huddle-up and decide on their top choices. As the auctioneer rattled off strings of sentences and what sounded like a bunch of drivel, auction paddles would raise and steer would sell.
For an entire year, we would have some of the freshest, best beef. That’s right; one-fourth of a cow fed our family of five for an entire year. To me, feedlots didn’t exist. Our meat was bred from loving farm families (of which we knew), grass-fed, and free-range.
I jumped right in and mentioned feedlot, grass-fed, free-range, and such but didn’t really tell you what these things mean in the steer community. Let me take you through a day in the life.
Normally, it would take a cow three to four years to grow to the twelve hundred or so full-grown pounds meriting it worthy for slaughter. For all intents and purposes, my family sharing a cow with four other families would mean that we were sustainably harvesting our beef. Naturally, cows like to eat grass. They have this cycle where they eat grass and other herbivorous goodies, their manure fertilizes the land, and the cycle starts over again.
Cows have this fermentation chamber, the rumen, which breaks down grass. It’s their destiny to eat flowing fields of green, but today, cows don’t eat grass. They eat corn. They eat corn because we have so much flippin’ corn surplus that our government had no idea what to do with it so they subsidized it making it the cheapest feed on the market. Cows can’t even break down corn so they also have to be fed a mixture of other cow bits and pharmaceuticals that allow their complex digestion track the faint ability to break down this ridiculous mixture of food.
Besides the fact that it’s bovine nature to graze fields of grass not be stuffed full of corn, cow, and drugs; our cows don’t actually get the chance to forage. They are confined into pens where they live shoulder to shoulder, knee deep in their own feces. And, with their new diet, they reach slaughter weight in about 18 months or so instead of four years.
A system, which for so long, has been an ingenious display of the ability of nature to cyclically sustain itself has been exposed to industrialization. This new, fancy system has now created a shortage of fertilization which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers and has also created a significant pollution problem. By this, I mean that it’s created a giant surplus of concentrated waste that has been subjected to drugs which washes into our waterways and harms our plant and marine life.
For all of my youth, I had no idea (and either did my family) that I was supporting natural, sustainable beef. Now that I’m aware, I am ever so grateful to have had those experiences as a young child. Though it’s slightly more difficult to find a Greene County-like steer auction, they exist in our fine Hampton Roads metropolis. If you’re in the market for beef, take a look at the package, but beware of tricky wording like vegetarian diet because corn is a veggie.