[Arrival at the CAFO – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation for a cow]
The feed mill’s pulsing din is the sound of two giant steel rollers turning against one another twelve hours a day, crushing steamed corn kernels into warm fragrant flakes. (Flaking the corn makes it easier for cattle to digest it.) This was the only feed ingredient I sampled, and it wasn’t half bad; not as crisp as Kellogg’s flake, but with a cornier flavor. I passed on the other ingredients: the liquefied fat (which on today’s menu is beef tallow, trucked in from one of the nearby slaughter-houses), and the protein supplement, a sticky brown goop consisting of molasses and urea. The urea is a form of synthetic nitrogen made from natural gas, similar to the fertilizer spread on George Naylor’s [one of the people visited by the author to research this book] fields.
Before being put on this highly concentrated diet, new arrivals to the feed yard are treated to a few days of fresh long-stemmed hay. (They don’t eat on the long ride and can lose up to one hundred pounds, so their rumens need to be carefully restarted.) Over the next several weeks they gradually step up to a daily ration of thirty-two pounds of feed, three quarters of which is corn – nearly half a bushel a day.
What got corn onto the menu in this and almost every other American feedlot is price, of course, but also USDA policy, which for decades has sought to help move the mountain of surplus corn by passing as much of it as possible through the digestive tracts of food animals, who can convert it into protein.
We’ve come to think of “corn-fed” as some kind of old-fashioned virtue, which it may well be when you’re referring to Midwestern children, but feeding large quantities of corn to cows for the greater part of their lives is a practice neither particularly old nor virtuous. Its chief advantage is that cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of evidence suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day-hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.
Yet the USDA’s grading system has been designed to reward marbling (a more appealing term than “intramuscular fat,” which is what it is) and thus the feeding of corn to cattle. Indeed, corn has become so deeply ingrained in the whole system of producing beef in America that whenever I raised any questions about it among ranchers or feedlot operators or animal scientists, people looked at me as if I’d just arrived from another planet. (Or perhaps from Argentina, where excellent steaks are produced on nothing but grass.)
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market. Of course, it was the same industrial logic – protein is protein – that made feeding rendered cow parts back to cows seem like a sensible thing to do, until scientists figured out that this practice was spreading bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), most commonly known as mad cow disease. Rendered bovine meat and bonemeal represented the cheapest, most convenient way of satisfying a cow’s protein requirement (never mind these animals were herbivores by evolution) and so appeared on the daily menus of Poky and most other feed yards until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the practice in 1997.