One of the things nearest and dearest to my heart–and the heart of every single rancher and farmer that I know–is animal welfare. I’ve seen countless terrible comments, memes, articles, you name it, about the welfare of America’s cattle.
This fire first started when I was a college student. It was the my last semester of school, and I had been spending a lot of time on the ranch and visiting with ranchers and industry professionals while working on my thesis. My major was in Environmental Studies, though with an emphasis in International Policy & Development, and all Environmental Studies majors at the time were required to take Environmental Ethics. Because philosophy is one of my least favorite subjects (so abstract), I left that class until the last minute. I was pretty surprised, though, with what the curriculum ended up including. Yes, we read Peter Singer and books like Omnivore’s Dilemma and Into the Wild. But, we also watched documentaries (a whole other topic!) like Food, Inc., and Earthlings, and the professor was vehemently vegetarian and anti-meat.
I have no problem at all–AT ALL–with vegetarians, vegans, or others who choose not to eat all or certain kinds of meat. None! Some of my very nearest and dearest friends and extended family members do not eat meat. I do have a problem with people who foist their views of any kind onto impressionable students (at a public university, mind you, albeit one known for it’s “hippie” leanings) using sensational media and horrific personal anecdotes instead of facts.
There was one documentary we watched that showed an older steer with big ole horns caught in a chute, and someone de-horning him with something like a monkey wrench. Our professor said “This is something that happens to cattle in this country every day.” Guys, I lost it. Because it’s not. It really, really isn’t, and it was wildly unfair for the professor to say that it was, just like it would be wildly unfair for me to make such an incorrect and awful claim about an industry that I know nothing about, like medecine or makeup, or underwater basket weaving. Presenting that and similar footage as normal, routine, “the way things are” is so damaging. It’s obviously damaging to our industry since that kind of behavior is unacceptable and not tolerated by the vast majority of us. It’s damaging to you, the consumer, because it makes it hard for you to understand the truth, and probably really freaks you out. It’s damaging to society as a whole because we deserve better reporting and easier access to facts to help us make the very best decisions we can.
That is not “the way things are.”
In any industry, the beef industry included, there are bad people, lazy people, who cut corners, do harm, and behave poorly. But saying we all do is like saying every company is Enron. It’s just not true.
The reality is that every day, we check on our animals. Every. Day. Birthdays, Christmas, weekends, rain or shine, well or sick, every day. Sometimes this means getting in a truck and driving out to the pasture and checking on the girls en route to check waters. Sometimes this means saddling a horse and trotting out at sunrise. Sometimes this means jumping in the tractor with a bale of hay to feed and check cattle at the same time. Sometimes this means checking in the truck “real quick” and then calling your wife to bring the horses up and catch one because you found a sick animal that needs doctored immediately.
All the ranchers and farmers I know have a similar battery of stories: staying out all night to try and keep calves alive in a blizzard. Bundling children into pickups late at night because a car ran through the fence on the county road and both mom and dad need to be there to put the cows away and fix the fence by the light of the headlights. Grown men, tough as nails, coming home defeated with tears in their eyes because there was a calf they tried so hard to save but couldn’t. These same grown men having favorite cattle that will eat cake cubes out of their hands in the pasture. These same men taking hours to dig a hole and bury an old, beloved horse or dog who died knowing he was so loved. Feeding and doctoring cattle in all weathers. Hauling water for hours every day in a drought. Cutting fences and desperately trying to save cattle in a wildfire. It goes on and on, and this is not exceptional. This is normal. This is our every day. I’m not saying this to make us sound like heroes or exceptional people. This is what is means to be a rancher, a farmer, a steward.
Our job as the stewards of these lands and these cattle is to make sure everything is as healthy as possible, from the grass the cows eat, to the water they drink, to the dogs we use to help us move them, and to the cattle themselves. When an animal is sick, we treat it. If an animal has been treated and cannot be saved or has had a terrible accident, we humanely euthanize it so that it does not suffer. That is our job.
Want to know what I’ve heard a lot? That this is all well and good for me to say, since I live on a ranch and ranches aren’t the problem, right? It’s the feedlots and the slaughterhouses that are the real issue here.
Nope, nope, nope.
Listen, I feel you. I feel you on so many levels. Seeing cattle in feedlots can be tough. It’s not pretty, it’s a little stinky, and the scale can shock you. Seeing animals slaughtered and rendered in a packing plant is also a little shocking, and can be overwhelming.
But, I’ve visited both of those places, and have friends who live and work in feedlots or who are employees and supervisors in packing plants. And if you have doubts, I urge you to get in touch with a real, live person who can visit with you (I can help!) or, if you drive by a feedlot or have an opportunity to visit a packing plant, look closely.
Because when you look closely in a feedlot, you’ll see happy cattle, eating and running and playing (yes, playing) with plenty of room. You’ll see pen riders on horseback checking cattle, working with the on-staff vet to treat sick ones, and working with their horses to help them learn, too. You’ll see experts and workers of all kinds making sure the cattle ration is correct for each pen, that all the fences, bunks, and waterers are in good working order, and the cattle have everything they need. If you want to read more about caring for cattle in a feedlot, I highly, highly recommend the Feedyard Foodie blog. Anne is a mother, a boss, sharp as a tack, and does a wonderful job showing that part of the beef industry.
When you look closely in a slaughterhouse, you’ll see a lot of efficiency and movement, yes. But you’ll also see people handling the cattle quietly and killing them with dignity and without pain. You’ll see state-of-the-art facilities designed by world-renowned Dr. Temple Grandin, who has incredible insight into how cattle work and how we can make them the most comfortable and calm. You’ll see each part of each animal used for a purpose so that nothing is wasted. Slaughterhouses have many, many stringent rules and regulations they must follow, and have been practically transformed in the last few decades by the work of Dr. Grandin. I highly recommend reading this if you’re wanting to learn more about the slaughter process–don’t worry, there are no graphic images.
If you have questions or concerns about the welfare of our cattle, speak up! Comment here or email me. I’ve also mentioned certain certifications you can look for if you would like to purchase meat that has been verified by an animal welfare organization.