I’ve been having a bit of blogger’s block lately. I have two or three unfinished posts on my jump drive, but instead of finishing one of those, today I decided that I better just start fresh. Something I’ve wanted to do with this blog, but haven’t really yet, is comment on agriculture issues that I see in the news. Today I saw a link on Facebook that included a graphic photo, along with a few comments. The friend who shared it posts a lot of interesting links related to agriculture, but it caught my eye that this one was from the Kansas City Star website. It’s ironic to me that a newspaper in a cow-town, who still prides itself on meat, is now spreading information targeted against the industry that essentially founded the city. To view the photo and accompanying featured articles, you can go to www.kansascity.com/beef. Remember, I warned you it was graphic.
In the comments was a link to a YouTube video featuring Dr. Temple Grandin. Dr. Grandin is a well-known advocate of humane treatment and slaughter of animals and has done a lot of good for the beef industry. The video shows cattle being unloaded and handled and actually being slaughtered. After somewhat nervously deciding to watch it, I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable I was with the process. It may seem a little extreme, and not for the faint of heart, but after seeing the process I actually feel better about the beef I eat.
The first thing I noticed about the KC Star photo is that every animal in it is a Holstein, which happens to be the dairy breed that we raise and milk. Holsteins are the black and white cows used in most advertising and media that involve cows, regardless of whether the product being referenced is beef or dairy. Ironically, in any instance where I’ve seen public comments about Holsteins being used for beef, many insult their meat as being good for nothing but fast food hamburgers.
Personally, I think that’s pretty unfair. I’ve talked before about how many Holstein bull calves are raised for beef, and it would appear that this is the story of the steers in this picture. The beef that we eat at home is from bull calves that we keep, castrate, and feed out. In fact, one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten was a filet from a Holstein steer. Holsteins are far from the most efficient cattle to be used for beef because of their large frames (and appetites), but when cared for correctly, they produce very high quality meat.
The majority of our bull calves are raised at other farms, though. We aren’t in the beef business at this time. I do, however, get questions regarding what happens to our cows at the end of their productive lives, and the answer is that most are sold for beef. Also, it is likely in the case of a milk cow that the animals will be used primarily for ground beef and byproducts, which is where Holsteins get the above mentioned reputation. This isn’t due to their level of care, but rather that something has caused them to not be profitable dairy animals, and most likely that same something (or maybe another something) has had an impact on their overall well-being, including the quality of their meat.
This week we sent five of our cows to a nearby auction. We love these animals, so why would we cull (sell) them? There are many reasons, and this group is a great example.
One of them was a young cow who was almost sold much earlier for kicking in the milk parlor. She actually broke one of our employee’s fingers, but she milked pretty well and had calmed down some. However, during David’s one and only breeding attempt, she managed to crack his ribs. She did not become pregnant from that attempt, and we felt that it was not worth the risk of another attempt to keep her in the herd. This is kind of a rare case, but safety of ourselves and our employees must always come first.
Two of these cows were older and had lost a lot of strength, particularly in their legs. We elected not to re-breed them after they calved because the risk was too high that they wouldn’t have the strength to carry a calf to term. Now late in their lactations, their milk production was no longer keeping up with the costs of feeding and caring for them.
The last two were average aged cows whose milk quality was not meeting standards. They had high somatic cell counts (a measure of white blood cells in their milk, indicating possible infection) and had each been treated for mastitis several times. Most likely this also means that they weren’t feeling well most of the time. Mastitis is uncomfortable for the cows.
It’s never an easy decision to make; we strongly dislike selling cows, but sometimes it’s the right thing for both the business and the animal.
I guess the point of my post is this: I truly believe that most farmers and agricultural professionals support and participate in the humane treatment and slaughter of livestock.
As for forming your own opinions, I simply ask that when you see stories like the one in the Kansas City Star that you look also to the other side, to farmers like us, but also to scholars and scientists like Dr. Temple Grandin. I would wager that Dr. Grandin has more education and more experience in the livestock industry than anyone involved in the KC Star’s project. She certainly has more education and experience than I do, and as a farmer, I trust her assessment of the improvements the industry has made.