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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.


Fatter, firmer, tastier? August 20, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Grassfed beef stymies your average cook. Grill a steak or braise a shoulder the way you’re used to, and it comes out all tough and gamey. This presents a challenge to ranchers who’ve bet the farm (so to speak) on selling grassfed beef. They can’t make a living by just raising the damn animals and getting them to market. Now they have to teach people how to cook too.

Supposedly if you do it right you can get wonderful results with grassfed beef. Myself, I stick to the stuff you can’t mess up: hamburger. I leave preparing the more delicate cuts to the experts, like JD Fratzke at The Strip Club in St. Paul, who wowed me with a New York Strip years ago.  (Let it be noted that I can mess up just about anything in the kitchen, including frozen pizza. Perhaps the beef is not the problem.)

Culinary confessions aside, though, a little irony occurred to me as I was thinking about the health and flavor benefits that reportedly accrue to grassfed beef. Because grassfed cattle follow their natural diet and typically have the freedom to graze, grassfed beef is leaner than grain-finished beef, which comes from cows that get less exercise and more cheap calories. That’s supposed to be good for us healthwise, because there’s less fat in grassfed beef than in the conventional grain-finished product. And it’s supposed to taste better if you manage to cook it right – more earthy, more robust, more, well, beefy.

Funnily enough, it’s the exact opposite for pork. Pastured pork (there is no such thing as grassfed pork, since pigs can’t survive on grass) usually has more fat and calories than conventional pork. That’s because the breeds chosen for conventional pork production are super-lean, allowing pork to market itself as a healthy option and “the other white meat.” In contrast, pastured pork producers use a variety of breeds that are hardy enough for outdoor living and have higher fat percentages.

So grassfed beef is relatively lean while pastured pork is relatively fatty. Yet both grassfed beef and pastured pork are marketed as tastier than their conventional counterparts. And on the pork side, I’d have to agree. Conventional pork chops rank right up there with conventional chicken breasts and conventional Styrofoam cups in terms of flavor profile, but pastured pork can be just heavenly!

Tie stalls: the next target? August 13, 2012

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First there were veal crates. People found out that veal calves were being kept in small crates that didn’t allow them to so much as turn around, and people stopped eating veal. If you waxed poetic about the joys of your grandma’s veal scaloppine, your more socially responsible friends turned to you, horrified, and proceeded to tell you everything you didn’t want to know about those poor calves. Eventually a cottage industry in “rose veal,” that is, veal from calves raised outdoors on pasture, grew to satisfy the desires of customers who wanted their ethics and their veal both.

Then there were gestation crates. People found out that in the conventional pork industry, sows were being kept for most of their lives in crates so small that, again, they couldn’t turn around.  The way to get around that one was, similarly, to eschew conventional pork for pastured pork. But pork isn’t a little asterisk in meat industry sales reports like veal. It’s big business and it’s the lifeblood of huge companies like Smithfield. So to avoid losing market share to farmers raising pigs outdoors, some big players have promised to phase out gestation crates themselves, so no bacon-lover has to compromise his principles to enjoy his breakfast.

What I’m wondering is, how come no one has found out about tie stalls yet? Tie stalls are a type of housing used by some dairy farms. They’re just what they sound like: individual stalls in which cows are confined by tying them to a post. Here’s a pic from the USDA’s website. Cows can get up and lie down easily in (well-designed) tie stalls, but they can’t turn around. That makes them not much different from the crates that have tarnished the reputations of veal and pork producers. Yet no one’s yet made a fuss about them.

I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that many tie-stall dairies are not the corporate behemoths everyone loves to hate, but are actually small family farms using old barns that have been in the family for generations. That is, they’re the kind of farms that people love to love. Also, I’ve heard that many tie-stall dairies do untether their cows to graze for a few hours a day in good weather, so to the extent that that’s true, it sets these farms apart from conventional veal and pig producers, whose animals are confined 24/7. But I haven’t seen any hard data on what percent of tie-stall operations allow grazing, and in any case, it’s not like you can find out whether your Cheez Whiz came from a tied-up cow by reading the label.

So will tie stalls become the next target of farm animal welfare activists? Despite the factors that distinguish them from veal and sow crates, I think it’s only a matter of time.

Cows in the news July 30, 2012

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Some cows are getting more comfortable these days, some less. The “less” is easy to explain: the same heat wave that’s making all of us sweat is making cows, who don’t sweat anywhere but their noses and can’t dissipate heat very well, miserable. Cows start feeling the burn at about 80 degrees, so you can imagine what day after day in triple digits does to them.

Which gives us yet another argument for allowing cows to graze pasture rather than keeping them confined in feedlots, as most conventional dairies and beef finishers do. Pastures with shaded or breezy spots or watering holes allow cattle to cool themselves off. (Have to be careful about the water, though: thousands of pounds of cow mucking around in a riverbed can turn a pristine creek into a foul mess.) Bare dirt lots sectioned off as feedlots give cows no respite from the beating sun. Compounding the problem, sunlight reflecting off the dirt or concrete floors of feedlots warms things up even more. Barns with partial roof cover and misters to spray the cows with water can help.

While Midwestern cows are struggling through the dog days of summer, though, their cousins in the Pacific Northwest are living it up. Several Oregon farms have recently installed waterbeds to allow their cows to recline in comfort. Laugh all you want, but lameness is one of the biggest problems affecting modern dairy cows, who have to support their increasingly heavy bodies on unforgiving concrete. Straw bedding gets wet and dirty; sand bedding is expensive and leaves farmers with the problem of disposing of used sand. Enter the waterbed. If you drive by a dairy farm and glimpse a bunch of cows bouncing up and down inside the barn, you’ll know why.

Separation anxiety July 2, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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As a new mom, I’ve quickly learned what “separation anxiety” means. It means that as soon as I leave the room, my daughter starts bawling and saying “mommy, mommy, mommy.” For young calves, though, separation anxiety is of a whole other order. At most beef cattle ranches, calves follow their moms around for six months, give or take. When ranchers eventually force them to split up, pulling the calves and moms into herds of their own, the bellowing and whining on both sides of the fence are deafening, and last for a few hours to a few days, depending on how much they miss each other.

Dairy farmers manage the separation of mom and calf quite differently from cattle ranchers. Dairy calves, unlike beef calves, can’t possibly be allowed to nurse for anything like a normal length of time. The whole point of a dairy farm is to sell the milk that cows produce, and every drop of milk that goes into a calf’s mouth is a drop not sold. All dairies, from the biggest conventional CAFOs to the smallest family farms, separate calves from their moms very young, and when I say very young, I mean usually within the first twenty-four hours after birth. However, all the research that I’ve seen on this topic, including that published by proponents of animal welfare like Bernard Rollin, states that early separation is actually much less stressful than letting them stay together longer, only to split them up after they’ve bonded. Pairs that are split within the first day of the calf’s life don’t usually show much sign of caring.

But isn’t there something shameful and underhanded about taking advantage of our knowledge that moms haven’t yet bonded to their calves in the first hours after birth to snatch their babies away “before they know any better”? Or is this just sentimentalism on my part?

Grassfed vs. pasture-raised June 25, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Savvy consumers know that many of the marketing claims on food packaging are misleading, if not downright false. “Organic” doesn’t mean, for example, that your vegetables are pesticide-free or that your meat is from animals raised outdoors. “Natural” doesn’t have anything to do with how the animal providing your meat lived, but merely with how the meat is processed after it died. “Humanely-raised” doesn’t even mean that your meat comes from an animal that’s raised humanely, as the Humane Society’s lawsuit against Purdue for using exactly that label on their chicken demonstrates.

But one of the terms that I’ve always thought of as reliable is “grassfed.” Only applicable to ruminants, who can derive all their nutrition from grasses, you see it on beef or dairy products. And although, like many marketing terms, it’s not monitored by the USDA and therefore isn’t verified by anyone checking out the farms that use it (unless those farms voluntarily subscribe to an independent certification program) I’ve trusted that most farms that use the term are doing so in good faith.

But there is a catch, which I discussed with Patricia Whisnant, the head of the American Grassfed Association. Theoretically, it would be possible for a farmer or rancher to feed his cattle grass – even to feed them entirely on grass and nothing else – and still confine them in feedlots. After all, the term “grassfed” technically refers to what the animals eat, not to how they are raised. The logical inference that a consumer would make – that if animals are fed grass, they must be out on pasture eating it – doesn’t necessarily hold.

But if a farmer is going to feed his cattle grass, wouldn’t it make sense for him to let them harvest their own grass by grazing instead of going to the trouble to confine them, harveste the grass separately with his own labor, then feed it to them? Not necessarily. The thing is, grazing cattle expend more energy than feedlot cattle, because they’re walking around more. So a farmer could fatten his cows faster (and thereby make more money) by keeping them confined than by letting them graze – even if what they’re fed is 100% grass.

Are farmers actually perverting the term “grassfed” by applying it to feedlot cattle? Whisnant doubts that it’s happening on any large scale, but acknowledges that the term is open to abuse. In light of that possibility, I’d plump for terms like “pasture-raised” as an alternative or addition to “grassfed” to guarantee to the consumer that animals are being raised in their natural environment.

Of course, the best way to get such a guarantee is to get to know your farmer and visit your farm. When that’s not feasible, though, I prefer to buy products that are certified by third parties I trust, like Animal Welfare Approved, or from companies that tell their story in more detail, like Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, PA. The blurb on their yogurt cartons says it all:

With our herd of Jersey and Guernsey cows, we strive to create the ideal Biodynamic farm – a self-sufficient system that builds and sustains soil fertility through crop rotation and farm composts. The cows graze from early spring through late fall, coming in only for milking. When necessary to meet demand, we purchase additional milk from neighboring Biodynamic and organic farms. These farms treat their land and animals as we do, with sound Biodynamic and organic practices and plenty of loving care.

I’d be willing to bet that if I made a trip out to Phoenixville, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Healthy or happy – but not both? May 28, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Baby calves give bunnies and puppies a run for their money on cuteness. But they present the dairy farmer with a not-so-cute dilemma. Unlike beef calves, dairy calves can’t be left with their moms to grow up – the milk their moms produce has to be sold for human consumption. So the farmer must figure out how to raise them (that is, how to raise the female calves that he’s keeping for his future dairy herd). There are two main options: putting each calf in an individual hutch, and housing groups of calves together in pens. Unfortunately, from the calf’s perspective, neither is ideal.

Calves in hutches spend their babyhood – from the day they are born to about eight weeks of age – profoundly alone. What passes for “companionship” for these calves is the sight of other calves in nearby hutches and the vet or farmer handling them for examinations and shots. However, hutches are popular with farmers, because they prevent disease from spreading from calf to calf.

On the other hand, the alternative, grouping a few calves together in pens, at least gives calves some real companionship. It’s as simple as the fact that they can nose and rub other calves. But this very contact introduces a pathway for disease. It may not be much fun living out your youth alone, but it’s also not much fun to suffer bouts of pneumonia or diarrhea, both of which occur more frequently with group-housed than with single-housed calves.

If we take a cool-headed look at the research that’s been done on this question, it would seem to suggest that individual hutches are better for calves. Not only do they do a better job of keeping calves healthy, but a review of recent work in this area notes that “The social skills of individually penned calves can equal that of group reared calves if they are able to have visual contact with their peers.”* Which leads one to believe that it can’t be so bad for them to be alone.

But I’ve got to admit that one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had at a farm was visiting newborn calves in hutches. At Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas, Minnesota, Barb Liebenstein runs a 480-head conventional dairy farm as part of the Land O’ Lakes co-op. When I visited, Barb had calves from two to four days old in her hutches. Barb and I walked over to one for a closer look, and as soon as we approached, the little one scrambled up on her unsteady legs, took a few steps forward, gave us each an inquisitive glance, and nuzzled her head against Barb’s hand. Even one nuzzle would have been touching, but what stayed with me long after I left the farm was how this calf just couldn’t get enough. Every time Barb took her hand away after a couple of rubs, she stretched out her neck and flipped Barb’s hand up with her nose for more. Seeing this calf beg for a shred of physical closeness from the only living being who happened to be within range… well, you’d have to have had a heart of stone to be unmoved. The irony of the fact that she was begging for the favors of the person who was ultimately responsible for her isolation wasn’t lost on me either.

I’ve also seen group-housed calves. That’s how Michelle and Roger Benrud raise their calves at a dairy about half the size of Barb’s that is part of a Minnesota co-op called Pastureland. Take a look at these pictures of the Liebenstein and Benrud farms and tell me: what do you think?

*Moore et al., “Calf Housing and Environments Series, III: Hutches or Group Pens for Pre-Weaned Calves?” Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension, Ag Animal Health Spotlight Newsletter, December 2010.

McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.

First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat.  Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.

Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.

Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).

Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.

The mystery of the missing dairy calves July 1, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Warning: math ahead!

One of the dairy industry’s biggest PR problems is the mystery surrounding what happens to its calves. What do dairy farmers do with their male calves, anyway? They can’t produce milk. Very few are kept for breeding, given the prevalence of artificial insemination, which makes the semen of one desirable bull available to as many as 60,000 cows (!). Many organizations suspicious of livestock farming would have you think they’re delivered into the notoriously cruel hands of veal operations or are simply left to die. For example, these reports from GoVeg.com, Mercy for Animals and even Wikipedia suggest that most dairy calves are used for veal production. But all the dairy farmers I’ve interviewed, and dairy expert Marcia Endres of the University of Minnesota, claim that dairies commonly sell male calves for beef, not veal. No one admitted to just leaving the animals to die, which in any case would be a financially stupid thing for a farmer to do. So are the animal welfare activists right that most unwanted male calves suffer an ignominious end, or do the practices of small, local Minnesota producers who sell their calves for beef more accurately represent the industry?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a completely airtight answer to this question. The most straightforward way to resolve it would be to see how many male calves are born every year, and how many of those go into beef production vs. veal production vs. “disappear,” i.e. are left to die. However, it seems that no one has tracked the number of dairy calves entering beef production since a 1994 study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The numbers for that study are unlikely to be accurate today, but I’ll note for the sake of completeness that they state that six million dairy calves entered the combined beef and veal industries. Extrapolating from USDA milk production numbers in 1994, those six million calves came from only about 9.4 million dairy cows. Considering that additional female calves were raised to replenish dairy herds, it is extremely unlikely that there would have been any surplus calves to simply leave to die.

Extrapolating from the fragments of more recent data that are available, we can confidently say that at the very least, the majority of male dairy calves are NOT going into veal production. Several websites, including the American Welfare Institute, ATTRA, and Active Farming, quote a number of approximately four million male calves currently born to nine million dairy cows annually. The USDA’s Economic Research Service verifies the nine million number, but I can’t find anything to verify the four million estimate, so let’s use a more conservative – that is, industry-critical – assumption. Of the nine million dairy cows, I’ll assume that 40% are too young to have borne a calf yet. (Cows typically calve for the first time at two years old, and at industrial farms live only about three years after that, bearing one calf per year. So 40% of their lives are non-calf bearing, and 60% are calf-bearing.) That brings the number of cows that are actually bearing calves from nine million to 5.4 million. Of those, half bear female calves, so the number of unwanted male calves could be as low as 2.7 million. Let’s use that number for now.

As I mentioned above, no one is tracking the number of dairy calves that currently enter beef production, but fortunately the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service tracks the number that become veal. In 2009 it was 980,000. Let’s make it easy and call it a million. This number doesn’t include animals that were imported and exported for veal production, but since the USDA stopped separating veal and beef imports and exports in 1989, we can safely assume that those numbers are too small to influence the result significantly. So in the worst case scenario, a million out of the 2.7 million male dairy calves in the US go into veal production, which is about a third of them. And remember that our estimate of 2.7 million calves was conservative; if there are more male calves, then the percent that’s being used for veal will compute out even lower.

Thus we can safely conclude that it is NOT true that most male dairy calves in the US are used for veal. That begs the question whether the remaining two-thirds are used for beef or left to die; but plain old business sense would suggest that farmers are unlikely to waste a resource that could make them a few bucks. My money is on the beef.

Meister Cheese’s New Animal Welfare Certification June 30, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out this article, which I wrote for Heavy Table, on the new “A Triple F” humane certification launched by Wisconsin’s Meister Cheese. Interesting not only in itself, but as food for thought about when companies’ and industries’ self-policing can work.

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