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Hoofing it in the wrong direction September 10, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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If you’ve poked around this blog a bit, it comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of raising food animals in ways that allow them to express their natural behaviors – to be themselves, so to speak. That often means raising them in settings that mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Thus I find pasture most appropriate for many species (although the best indoor options, like deep-bedded pens for pigs, can sometimes be perfectly fine).

The conventional livestock industry that has best approximated raising animals naturally has long been the beef industry. Most beef cattle are raised on the range for most of their lives. Calves still suckle their mothers for several months as they graze the land with the herd. It’s not until cattle reach twelve to eighteen months of age that they are moved to feedlots where they are confined in small, barren spaces and fed grain to fatten up for a few months before going to slaughter. It’s because humans leave beef cattle well enough alone for most of their lives that knowledgeable vegetarian spokespeople tell omnivores that if they insist on continuing to eat conventional meat, beef is the best option.

Unfortunately, that piece of advice may not hold true for much longer. This summer’s Midwestern drought is making what was once a relatively rare practice – raising beef cows in confinement from the day they’re born – look more attractive by the day. So called drylot cow/calf production allows famers to keep cows inside on concrete or on fenced-in plots of dirt (which turns into dust or mud, depending on the weather) their entire lives. That means they don’t have to pay for pasture, which is getting more expensive and, in any case, is of little value when there’s not enough rain to sustain its fertility. Now, farmers who confine cows for their whole lives have to pay the extra cost of their feed, which in normal circumstances is enough to put farmers off the idea. But as pasture becomes more spendy (or is simply unavailable) buying feed becomes a relative bargain.

If the bulk of ranchers move to raising beef cattle in confinement, they will have completed the transition to modern, CAFO-based livestock farming that started with the chicken nearly a century ago, trickled through to the pig and to the dairy cow, and now characterizes every species raised commercially for food except the beef cow. Will it happen? Here’s hoping not.

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