If you’ve ever driven Interstate Five through Central California, you know it bisects some of the most fertile and diverse farmland in the world. The San Joaquin Valley is home to bumper crops of cotton, grapes, garlic, almonds, walnuts, potatoes, and berries, just to name a few. Heading north just after Highway 33, about halfway between Sacramento and LA, it’s best to push the recirc button on your car’s A/C. Just trust me on this one.
The eastern horizon begins to resemble the set of a Spielberg-scale war epic. There is concertina wire-topped fencing. The hills are stripped of all vegetation and pockmarked with hoof prints. There are hill-high berms of manure surrounded by moats of frothy urine. Chemical warfare-strength ammonia dust billows across the freeway with each passing semi. Even at highway speeds, it takes minutes to drive past upwards of 250,000 head of cattle packed into an 800-acre shithole of lifeless soil. Welcome to the town of Coalinga. Welcome to the Internet infamous, “Cow-schwitz.”
Coalinga has another name, Harris Ranch. It’s one of the largest feedlots in the United States. Basically, a feedlot is a factory farm for cows. Animals are brought in off the range and concentrated into fenced paddocks. They’re fed a conveyor belt diet of grains and growth hormone for weeks or months before being shipped off to slaughter. Feedlots allow ranchers to produce a lot more beef. And Harris Ranch is no exception. It sells a mind-boggling 150,000,000 pounds of red meat every year to the likes of In-N-Out Burger, Costco, and California school lunch programs.
The feedlot became popular in the 1950s and 60s. With soaring beef demand, surplus subsidized grain, and cheap growth hormones and antibiotics, American ranchers turned away from the millennia-old habit of raising free-range cattle on open grassland, and instead replaced it with faster, more predictable, and more profitable mechanized feedlots.
The concept caught on quickly. Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust notes that by 1962, one-third of all cattle came through large feedlots. By 1973, it was two-thirds. Today, more than 95% of America’s beef cattle live out their last weeks—and sometimes months—in corn concentration camps.
I’m not going to go into it here, but Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking Omnivore’s Dilemma points out all the latent consequences of America’s obsession with force-feeding corn to cows. Let’s just say there were enough no-nos to fill a New York Times Best Seller.
So, how can I suggest that feedlots are anything less than the seventh level of animal husbandry hell?
Believe it or not, when it comes to factory farming, beef has it better than almost any other mass-produced farm animal in America. Although I absolutely advocate for 100% grass-fed, 100% grass-finished beef, and it’s the only thing we regularly sell in our shop, it’s important to note that when compared to high-density pig or chicken farming, beef is getting all the bad press.
It all starts with mother’s milk.
Beef cattle nurse their calves for the first eight to nine months in bucolic green pastures until the calf’s stomach mature enough to digest grass or grain. It’s only after this weaning phase that ranchers even consider sending their cows to a feedlot. Feedlot cows are then slaughtered at about 15 months, roughly a year earlier than grass-finished cows. Regardless, all cows spend at least 60-70% of their lives in natural, grass-rich pastures, even if most of them end up at a Harris Ranch.
Compare that to “factory farmed” pigs and chickens, and the differences are striking.
Piglets only enjoy a few weeks of nursing before they are prematurely weaned (5-8 weeks) and permanently moved to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In colder climates, piglets are born and raised indoors for their entire lives, even during the nursing phase. Pork doesn’t live as long as cattle, slaughtered between the ninth and twelfth month. Sadly, even the luckiest pigs live 85% of their lives in abysmal factory farm conditions.
Chickens have it worse. Being birds, there isn’t any mother’s milk to keep them in the fields. Instead, meat chicks are born out of a handful of enormous hatcheries in the Midwest. Within days, or even hours of birth, the chicks are crammed into cardboard boxes and shipped live (you read that right) to poultry farms across the country. Upon arrival, the vast majority spends their entire 9-15 weeks of life inside poorly ventilated, mile-long barns, sometimes in cramped single cages, never experiencing natural light.
Grass- and corn-finished cows also get to stand on real dirt their entire lives, even if it might be knee-deep in shit. This may not sound like a huge benefit, but factory-raised pigs and chickens often suffer unnecessary pain and deformities because they spend their entire lives on manmade surfaces. Concrete or wire mesh floors are designed to make over-crowded CAFOs easier to clean, but they also result in split hooves and lacerated feet.
So, despite the horrific and putrid conditions of Coalinga’s Harris Ranch, it’s a Bovine Four Seasons when compared to the Concentration Camp CAFOs that confine feathered and porky brethren.
The point is, that beef antagonists often criticize feedlots as the worst examples of factory farming, when in reality, cows get more sun, more space, and the longest lives of any domesticated animal raised for its meat.