• Posted by Philip Daughtry on October 30th, 2008, 2:38 PM

    Photos of Alderspring Ranch by Melanie and Caryl Elzinga

    As a lad raised in a coal mining village in northern England, I was addicted to cowboy movies and, later, western novels. In my desire to cowboy up after immigrating to the U.S., I hightailed it out of New York City after high school and eventually hired on at ranches in Colorado, eastern Washington, even as far south as Belize. My last paid gig was skiploading grub to feedlot cattle outside Fort Collins, Co.. This is where I had the realization that cowboy work was really about growing beef, a plot point missing from the Gary Cooper and Hopalong Cassidy movies that got me in the saddle in the first place.

    I loved working on ranches when it involved a horse, but as my roping skills were marginal at best and I lacked the required gear, I usually ended up fixing fences or spending endless weeks behind a giant Massey Ferguson tractor rig discing acreage to grow wheat or corn. Still, I got to wear the hat (that’s me on the left) and felt loose enough in the saddle to not hang on. I met some wonderful characters and even rode a steer in the Bickleton Frontier Days rodeo in Washington alongside a toothless Yakama bronc rider, both of us drunk, both of us bucked off, both of us quickly sobered. Years later, a Mormon did my family tree and provided evidence that my Dad was correct when he told me I was related to Frank and Jesse James  (my middle names is James). I look like Frank, Jesse’s half brother, a fact that, along with a nickel, will not get you a cup of coffee, but my ancestry tickles my personal myth and provides a deeper connection to America than just a green card.

    But this piece is intended to expose some of my experiences with meat.

    On that Fort Collins feedlot, two events transpired that were and still are revealing. Cattle are ruminants, which means they eat grass. Cattle can’t grow corn and are not designed to digest it either. Think of it this way, a cow is the four legged equivalent of a Guinness company’s brewing vat where yeasts convert sugar to booze. Corn is a mighty rich feed and produces quantities of energy in the beast that creates an enormous amount of gas, called “bloat,” which  kills the steer unless the seething armies of microorganisms are controlled by massive doses of antibiotics. These injections subdue the fermentation process by  controlling assorted microbes and bacteria and allow the animal to live and grow to market weight in 14 to 16 months, compared to the old grassy days when it might take a steer twice as long to reach slaughtering size.

    The “corn-fed” meat itself looks appealing to people whose exposure to beef is restricted to supermarket displays;  the steaks tend to be marbled and folks snap ’em up. To quote Slate’s Mark Schatzker “marbling, schmarbling”—appearance and “corn-fed” are what we have been conditioned to assume means good, when the truth is its all about taste. Some of the best (grass-fed) beef actually looks a bit dowdy, until you get your teeth into it and then it’s a tender, juicy, flavorful carnivore’s delight.

    Back at the feedlot, my boss ran the imprisoned herd through a chute while he stood by a big tank and shot them with a pistol-attachment loaded with antibiotics and complained about his chemical bill. Besides the antibiotics, the cost included the inorganic fertilizer that cattlemen spray fields with to grow the feed. And, of course, people eat the whole chemical kaboodle.

    A week before I quit the cattle concentration camp, we also dosed the stock with some added growth hormones (estradiol, estrogen, progesterone), whose impact on consumers might make menopause a cross-gender phenomenon and hyperactive disorder our national childhood disease. According to Sustainable Table cattle are also dosed with three synthetic hormones, Zeranol, Trenbelone and Melengesterol, all of which keep several countries from importing U.S. beef.

    It was the cattle’s response to this hormone overload that made me quit working the feedlots. The cows moaned and drooled like laid-off oil lobbyists and began to drink gallons of water, and quickly put on water weight at what was then 33 cents a pound. At a hundred extra pounds or more per head on the hoof, that means mucho PROFIT. You can see the results of hormone boosting when you put a cheap beef patty in a pan and it turns gray, water pours out, and the burger turns out like George Bush’s foreign policy: stale and hard to digest.

    But the beef lobby is hard at work keeping these concerns out of the headlines, and the U.S. State Department has declared: “the world’s scientific community has agreed these additives are safe when used according to label directions in food producing animals.” Whoever those three guys are, they certainly do not represent the “world’s scientific community” any more than Monica Goodling represents unbiased hiring practices.

    There are oodles of papers and info on this stuff (just Google “beef hormones” and you get enough data to make vegans want to shoot cowboys). But hang onto your pommel, because there is good meat to be had. Meat that can, in fact, be a healthy contribution to the diet. (Meat is OK in measured amounts. The Inuit didn’t make it from the Paleolithic to here on bean sprouts.)

    First of all the grading of beef by the USDA is as phony as the standards we have for rating dirty movies. Two of the best meat vendors, whose steaks I’d ride backwards through tall cactus for, such as Niman Ranch and Alderspring Ranch (whose photos you are looking at), believe that “marbling” is not the primary indicator of prime beef. (At any rate, only about 3% of the beef rated by the USDA even gets the top grade.)

    Healthy grazing is what good meat is about, and rich taste comes from mostly grass-fed and unadulterated critters raised with humane care.  Good beef is raised in harmony with an ecosystem, which means open space, natural grasses, and fresh water. As a consequence, we need to cut back on our meat consumption in order to reconcile the availability of open grazing land and water with demand for meat. For example, California is a leading meat producer but only because the state cattle biz is allowed to use over half of our water, which is then mostly wasted because the pastures and hayfields are top watered so it evaporates (although grass is much the healthier option it still requires a good deal of water to produce). Meanwhile, there is a growing “water shortage” because of the beef lobby and because many Americans think protein is spelled M-E-A-T.

    Grass-fed cows also don’t generate as much methane gas as corn-fed—cattle are a significant contributor of this ozone destroyer, and corn ferments in cows like moonshine in a still—and organic waste (cow manure) doesn’t have to pollute our water table if it is not concentrated in feedlots, but rather used to fertilize pasture or farmland. An important aspect of this would be to encourage small farms and dairies, as giant corporate farms produce massive contaminants and have virtually dismantled small farm culture and everything communal that characterized it.

    As it exists today, the cattle biz contributes to environmental disaster and testament to this is the vast spoiled acreage of  the West. I regulate my steak intake to  once a month (compared to wolfing down 20-ounce bunkhouse steaks almost daily when I was 19, working the herd and scarfing down ten more potatoes than a pig). Though slightly enlightened of past bad habits, I ain’t handin in my spurs.

    Sustainable ranching is a great way to keep some lands open and out of the hands of developers, lawyers, mining outfits and coffee shops. My hope is that our future is about re-inhabitation, coming back to the land with an eye to sustainability and harmony. The cowboy can keep his sombrero, his horse, saddle and spurs and know he has become a friend to the earth. But this can’t occur on the grand, money grubbing scale of the present, which is destroying healthy communities and potentially the human immune system to boot. If it is true that “you are what you eat,” I want to be made of a landscape I know and love.

    Philip Daughtry is a writer, gardener, amateur cook and professional eater who lives in Topanga, California. His most recent book of stories is The Centaur’s Son.

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