Beef: Part 1

I sort of wrote about this subject before, so instead of repeating it, I’ll just add on.

But 84% of the slaughter is controlled by 4 companies.

Total U.S. beef consumption for a population of 311,800,000
2002: 27.9 billion pounds
2004: 27.8 billion pounds
2006: 28.1 billion pounds
2008: 27.3 billion pounds
2010: 26.4 billion pounds

A typical life of a cow goes like this: It’s born, when it reaches 400-500 pounds it usually gets sold. It grows to 700-800 pounds. During this time it eats grass, but during its last 120-180 days it gets a high-energy diet consisting of corn in a feedlot. Or that’s what Bill Haw, CEO of Kansas City’s National Farms which is one of the biggest feedlots in the country.


Michael Pollan paints a slightly different picture. He calls them a city of the 14th century, a time before modern sanitation.

“They’re from the time when cities really were stinky. When they were teeming and filthy and pestilential and liable to be ridden with plague, because you had people coming from many, many different places, bringing many, many different microbes into a concentrated area where they could spread them around.”

The only reason we’re not reliving a black plague type nightmare is because antibiotics have been our saving grace.

“Every hour I was on this feedlot, another tanker truck came in filled with liquefied fat. Another one with liquefied protein. Every hour there was another truck with 50,000 pounds of corn. You see all the feedstuff coming into the city, and you see the waste going out. The wastes, by and large, are manure, trucks coming in from farms carrying it away. But a lot of this was pooled in these lagoons, which were just full of this.”

Cows in Manure

Cows standing in manure.

Around six months, a cow has usually seen its last blade of grass. We used to grow a cow for four to five years, but we’ve now cut it down to 14 months, according to Pollan.


Cows have evolved to eat grass. They have a four chambered stomach called a rumen that digests grass in successive stages.

In the first two compartments of the stomach, the grass is mixed with saliva and is separated into liquid and solid layers. The solid clumps join together and form a cud.

The cud is then regurgitated where it is slowly chewed to further mix it with saliva and break it down to smaller particle sized bits. After the grass is suitably liquid, it passes into the third stomach chamber where the water and many of the inorganic minerals are absorbed into the bloodstream. Eventually the grass is turned into a protein.

Next it goes to the final chamber which is most equivalent to the human single chambered stomach. The material is then transported to the small intestine where digestion and absorption continues.

Finally it off to the large intestine where fermentation continues and then it’s on to the exit door.

That’s how it works when the cow eats grass as it was designed to do; this is beef production nature’s way. On a normal grass diet, it takes a steer around five years or so to reach a slaughter weight of 1200 pounds or more.

But after 6 months they no longer eat grass. They’re fed a steady stream of corn. They’re stomachs weren’t designed for corn, so this leads to many of their health problems.

We fix this by adding a steady stream of antibiotics into their diet. That fixes a small portion of the problem because they don’t get sick as much, but they’re digestion is still out of whack. What happens to us when our digestion is out of whack? Exactly. And the same thing happens to them.

As they burp, methane gas is released. Methane gas is a greenhouse gas and it contributes to global warming.

Also in this upset stomach scene, they swallow saliva which keeps their stomach base instead of acidic. This combined with a corn diet, leads to formation of slime which covers the rumen. This prevents gas from being to escape, so the rumen keeps filling with air like a balloon. Eventually it starts to press on the heart and lungs which will lead to suffocation if nothing is done.

They also can get acidosis, which is an acidifying of the rumen. … And when the animals get acid stomach, it’s a really bad case of heartburn, and they go off their feed. Eventually, if you give them too much corn too quickly, it ulcerates the rumen; bacteria escape from the rumen into the blood stream, and end up in the liver, creating liver abscesses which are treated with more antibiotics.

Liver abscesses could end up with a completely shot liver.

But you’ll like what Bill Haw had as a response, “I think what we have found in the industry today is that the liver is not a very economically viable part of the animal. There’s been a willingness to sacrifice the quality of the liver for the overall growth of the animal, which far transcends the value of the liver that may be damaged in the process.”

Isn’t he a peach?

Click here for part 2 and here for solutions to some of these problems.


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