Thursday, July 9, 2009

Beef Is Humane, Even Beef From Feedlots

Recent anti-food sources have attacked beef on the grounds that steers and heifers are "finished" in a feedlot prior to slaughter. Though they were raised for the first year of their life in pasture, their last few months are spent in a small pen on top of their own manure, and fed a feed ration that is not consistent with how their digestion system evolved, leading to sickness.

These criticisms have some points. Cattle do prefer pasture than pens filled with their own feces, but consider this...

(1) Cattle abolutely love the feed they are given, more than the grass. Though they do not receive the grass, they get something better.

(2) I estimate that the body of a feedlot cow consumes about 24 square feet of ground space, while the animals are given 250 square feet of space. That is a lot of space. This is not a factory farm in the sense that hog farms are factory farms. Cows receive 250/24 = 10 times more space than their body consumes, whereas pigs receive only 8/5 = 1.6. The reason is that the cattle are outside, not inside expensive buildings, so the cost of space is lower and thus there is no need to cram animals inside a small space.

(3) When cattle are given both feedlot feed (consisting of hay, corn, and the like) and grass, they mostly use the pasture for a clean spot to rest. Clean grass is better than manure for lying.

(4) The feedlot feed does produce more sickness than grass, but the frequency and intensity of this sickness is often exaggerated. Only about 2% of cattle experience any problem with the feed provide in feedlots, and the mortality rate due to this feed is only 0.69%. The "unnatural" cattle feed in feedlots has a very, very small effect on animal welfare.

(5) However, most feedlots are located in dry, moderate-temperature regions. The reason is that productivity plummets when it is cold and wet or hot and wet. Consequently, cattle manure dries quickly, and is more like dirt than manure. Yes, they lie in their own manure, but it is very dry, like dirt. Not so bad. Furthermore, there is an approximately 0% chance any of this manure gets into the beef when the animal is harvested.

Given feedlot cattle receive a delicious feed they love and ample space, it is not unreasonable to believe that cattle in feedlot might be quite happy.