CattleCon- Like ComiCon With Manure
When I started the cow gig, I decided I wanted to learn to do it right. I wanted to treat my cows with dignity and respect, give them amazing lives, and understand every nuance of how and why they do what they do. The obvious choice was to attend the largest beef producers event in the country....CattleCon. 9000 attendees that all have something to do with Beef being whats for dinner. We attended, and here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of what we have learned.
1) As direct-to-consumer, grassfed farmers we are outliers (see also, Outsiders)- In the US very few farms raise their beef from calf to cull. There are cow-calf operations, and there are feeder yards. That's how daddy did it, so that's how we still do it. Cow/Calf ranchers sell their calves to feeder yards at about 500-750 pounds, usually at an auction house. Stockers have about 15 seconds to buy them at the lowest possible price, take them to their yard and fill em up as fast as possible. When they "finish" (aka fatten up) they are sold at auction again. They want this to happen as quickly as possible. Time and feed is money--you can guess how they manage this.... When they fatten up, the cows go back to auction, where they are bought by the big meat packers, who have darn near a monopoly on the market. You know what this means? Stockers are squeezed, while Cargill and their Brazilian owned competitors drive the price through the floor. Meanwhile, the price of beef in the supermarket hasn't changed in 30 years. Care to guess who is making all the money? (Also don't forget that in the US, we no longer require "the man" to tell you the country of origin on your beef)
2) There are some pretty messed up methods for managing cattle issues. I'll give you one example--There was a really interesting contraption that caught my eye. It was designed to get fly and insect treatment to cows without having to handle them. SWEET! So we stopped by and talked to them. The system used the movement of the contraption, caused by the cows to send the medication to the roller on which the cow would scratch. Here's the catch....it needs an carrier that will stick to the cows. The carrier they recommended----EFFING DIESEL FUEL!! I kid you not. Needless to say, that conversation ended quickly. It is not just that though. Big Pharma has their hands in everything with cows too. Trying to find the right balance of ethical care and nonsense additives is really tough. I will strive to find it, but they sure do love the fancy marketing dances (they were really good at the two-step).
3) No one that ranches cattle likes the taste of grassfed beef. If you ask them, they've also never tried grassfed beef. Holly did this a few times, it was funny. Turns out corn drives america. Did you know that its not natural for cows to eat corn? (Fair warning I didn't investigate the source a lot) But, because corn marbles the meat quickly, and we have lots of corn in the areas where there a lots of cows, we've decided---what the hell, lets do it. Friends, understand that while it works, pumping a cow full of corn is having the same affect as pumping your kid fully of corn syrup. It gets fat--not healthy fat.
4) There are good farms and bad farms--the same is true of farmers. I think you know this. We had lots of opportunity to talk to people who seem to do it right. I am also of the opinion that its not what are farmer knows that makes them good or bad (though the $$ speaks louder than my opinion, I suppose), rather its their motivation. There are plenty of people that we talked to that have one mission--stay afloat. The harder the evil empire squeezes them, the smaller their margins get, and the smaller the focus on animal welfare. At CattleCon, there was plenty of demonstration on handling cows in a way that doesn't stress them out, isn't violent or forceful, and still gets the desired goal in the end. That is what we will be doing. We will be obtaining certification that suggests that we know how to do that, and my goal is to be able to live that when I am handling your beef.
5) I have highlighted the doom and gloom, the stuff that really makes me worried about our food system, and frankly should worry you too. But you know what---the people that are at the bottom of the process, the ones that are feeding cows, handling cows, pulling calves--they do it, for the most part, because they love it. They are fourth, fifth, sometimes sixth generation. When they talk about their operation they do so with pride. They also were the most welcoming to us at CattleCon. They were from Saskatchewan, California, Florida, South Dakota. They looked at us like we were crazy, but also with a bit of envy. These guys aren't business guys, they are cattlemen. They wish they could live without "The Man," they can't---or don't know how. I have plenty of "beef" with the way the industry works, and I hope that over the next 20 years, I can drive change and increase opportunities for farmers in South Dakota to sell beef directly to consumers in Ohio (for example). Everyone wins when the free market is open and we can cut the middle man out.
I am sure if this circulated among "real" ranchers, I would find myself in some hot water, but I don't care. People should know the realities of their food. I am not telling you this to increase my profits--hell I can't supply the orders that I currently have with the small herd that I have. I will say this a lot in the years to come. Our food system is broken. It will not fix itself. You will fix it. With your decisions and your consumer behavior. I eat McDonalds like the rest of you, and its hard not to, but man----this isn't crazy talk from a wacky forest hippy. This is coming from someone that never thought twice about this stuff just two years ago, but was just told to douse my cows in diesel fuel to keep insects off of them.