We follow the cow’s journey from the mountain pasture to the feedlot and eventually the slaughterhouse. Along the way, we hear from animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin and cattle handlers who all want a fairer, more humane market – and one not so monopolized by large corporations.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
When I was a kid growing up in the small ranching town of Walden, Colorado, I spent a whole lot of time in the school library. One time, I asked the librarian to help me find books from the point of view of animals. She sent me home with titles like The Incredible Journey and Watership Down, and these books really got me looking deep into the eyes of the cows that lived across the street from me. I started feeling weird about how much I loved my mom’s delicious meatloaf. For the first time, I wondered: how did a cow go from wandering in the meadow to that sliceable, juicy loaf on my plate? Somehow it had to die, and I didn’t like that idea. So at the age of 14, I went vegetarian and talked my best friend into it too. We’d stand on the other side of the fence and cheer on the cows.
“Go on a diet! You’ve got to fight it! Don’t get fat! Or you’ll get ground up flat!”
It was a short-lived phase, but as I got older, I kept thinking about that strange in-between time – after my ranching neighbors rounded up those cows and before they ended up on my plate. I remember when I worked on the Grizzly Ranch, our family friend, Judy Elliot, told me she sometimes broke down in tears when she had to load the cattle onto the trucks to send them to the feedlot. “I know them all by number!” she said. If Judy was sad about where they were headed, that worried me.
So when I went to college, I became a vegetarian for real. Some ranchers I knew were offended by that decision. Couldn’t I see how well they took care of their cattle? And I did. But it was after they left the ranch I was concerned about. I kept reading more about animal welfare in the meat industry. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle depicted cruelty to animals in 1906 Chicago slaughterhouses. The American public was shocked by that novel, but afterwards, not a lot seemed to change. I’ve been wondering, why not?
I recently chatted with Dena Jones from the Animal Welfare Institute, an organization that’s been advocating for livestock since way back then. She tells me Congress didn’t get around to passing the Humane Slaughter Methods Act until 1958.
“The law did pass in the late 1950s,” Dena says. “However, there was no enforcement mechanism, so nothing really changed although some of the bigger companies began doing it voluntarily. And what they did voluntarily was stop using things like sledge hammers to individually just batter each animal until they were unconscious, but instead started going towards the use of the captive bolt, which is the way most cattle in the United States are still rendered insensible to pain.”
But her group wanted to see the federal government truly enforce these new rules. It took decades but, “in the 1970s, the law was amended, and it was placed into the Federal Meat Inspection Act,” Dena says. “And the enforcement mechanism, although a lot of people if they’re not very aware of it, they probably think it’s not good enforcement. But in fact, it is. It allows inspectors to stop slaughter if they observe instances of the law being violated, which means multiple attempts to render an animal insensible to pain before the animal is shackled and hoisted and cut.”
The ability to stop slaughter is a powerful tool, Dena says, because they can’t make money, and when it comes to raising beef, it’s all about profits. So hitting meat packers where it hurts works. Dena says this enforcement method continues to do the trick. She’s been working on this stuff for 30 years and says the treatment of animals is the best she’s ever seen.
As a consumer, I’ve noticed that too. These days, I eat some meat, but I still try to get it humanely handled. I even led the charge to open a food co-op in my town of Laramie so our community could have easier access to locally grown meat. My husband and I own a coffee shop, and the sausage in our breakfast burritos, the bison in our reubens, we’re on a first name basis with the ranchers who produce them. But still, I can’t help feel a shadowy in-between time – after the cows leave the pasture, where do they go exactly? How do they end up on my plate? I decide it’s time to go see with my own eyes.
The Squeeze Chute
It’s the dead of winter when I make the trip out to D&D Feedlot on the South Platte River in eastern Colorado. It’s been really cold, double-digit below zero at night. I pull up to the barn and Chelsea Deering comes out to greet me, decked out head to toe in insulated gear. She takes us right into the hospital barn where she has a couple cows lined up to get shots.
“So we’ve got a couple of respiratories here. So when we run through, I just temp everybody. And then anything that needs to, we go ahead and treat,” Chelsea says. “We have just a drug protocol that we kind of go by. I did doctor him. He was just kind of crummy looking in the pen. So he temped about 104.7. So I just doctored him quick and I’ll just give him a tag and clip his other tag and then I’ll let him out.”
Chelsea’s dog Tough helps herd the cow back out into the feedlot. Then the next in line gets in.
“And the chute, does it kind of do the squeeze thing that we hear about?” I ask her. “It’s calming?”
“Yup, it’s called the squeeze chute.” She pulls a handle to demonstrate how it works. The machine makes a loud clanging noise. “That releases. That squeezes. That’s why they call them a squeeze chute.”
But even with a firm squeeze, this guy gets grumpy about Chelsea’s doctoring. He lets out a deafening roar.
“He’s not a very happy camper!” Chelsea shouts over him.
The cold wind gave him a bad ear infection.
“I gave him biomicin, which is just a basic oxytetracycline,” Chelsea says. “It’s good for anything from ear infections to pink eye to foot rot to respitories. It covers a wide range of things.”
Pneumonia, heart failure, bloats, liver failure: it’s a long list of illnesses that feedlot cattle suffer from, and it’s because they live close together where disease can spread easily. But since the pandemic, D&D hasn’t been buying as many cows because the big meat processors aren’t paying enough for them. So there’s not nearly as many in the feedlot as there used to be, only around 5,000. They used to have more than twice as many in the pens.
After she’s done, Chelsea mounts her horse to take the cows back out to join the rest of the herd. We agree to meet at the horse barn. When we get there, three horseback riders come trotting up – Chelsea and two other cowgirls, Maddy and Jenny. The three of them are an all-lady team of cattle handlers. It’s lunchtime, so we head to Lou’s Cafe in the tiny town of Proctor. Over burgers, Chelsea says she didn’t intentionally hire only women. It just worked out that way.
“But it just seems like there’s a lot more young women out there looking for a chance. They’re looking to get their foot in the door in agriculture because they weren’t raised in it. So they don’t have an in. And I’m like, I love to be that in, because it’s so much fun. I don’t care if they don’t have a lick of cattle experience. They just have to know how to ride and that’s a must. They have to have good horsemanship skills, but other than that, we can teach everything else,” Chelsea says.
She says women seem especially interested in learning humane animal handling techniques, how to read cows and settle them down when they get anxious. Jenny agrees. She grew up in Wisconsin around farms and always knew she wanted a job where she could spend all day on a horse.
“I enjoy agriculture, working with animals, the fact that you feed people,” Jenny says. “Sometimes farmers, ranchers, we get a bad rap, but we really do care about what we do.”
Jenny says cows have subtle body language; they speak with their ears and eyes.
“You can tell. They come in – they call it high headed, and their head is up there, they’re kind of flying around, they’re spooked, they’re scared. And it’s just a normal response,” says Jenny. “So what we’ll do with settling is you put them in a smaller controlled area like an alley. And then you can walk them by you. Well, that’s the goal that you’re getting to, but a lot of times, they’ll run by you. But you keep walking them by you, and you use your body language in the alley to get them so eventually they walk by you instead of running by you.”
We pay our tab, thank Lou for lunch and climb back into the truck to tour the pens. Jenny says cows that have never interacted with humans – who come straight from life on a pasture – get especially stressed out. That’s most of the cows raised in the West on cow/calf operations. See, here’s the thing. After cattle leave the ranch, it’s all about increasing profits, and feedlots are a middle man. They buy cows from ranchers, feed them a special grain-and-vitamin diet to get their weight up as quickly as possible, and then sell them to the slaughterhouses. After that, the meat goes into the global meat supply. Each cow is only at the feedlot a short time. But Maddy says while the cows are here, they watch them carefully for signs of stress or illness. She points out the window at the cows in the pens.
“A big thing is their headset. So as you can see if you’re looking around right here, everybody’s kind of looking at us. Their ears are alert. Their eyes are bright. They’re kind of looking around. Healthy cattle are always doing something, whether that means that they’re looking at you or they’re swinging their tails or chewing their cuds or anything like that. If you see a steer that’s just kind of standing there, not doing anything, that should be cause for alarm,” Maddy says.
After all that bitter cold, this morning there was cause for alarm, Jenny says.
“We had a dead today. But I’m pretty sure it’s a bloat that we tried to pull the other day, but we couldn’t get him down to the hospital so we had to stab him.”
It’s just a fact, dead cows are part of the job at the feedlot. But Chelsea and her crew do everything they can to minimize that. One big complaint about feedlots is how often cows end up standing around in deep mud and manure. Chelsea points out how clean their pens are.
“We actually have a guy that cleans our pens on a regular basis, and he is a Steady Eddy,” Chelsea says.
And so because of him and his commitment to keeping those pens as clean as possible, we really don’t have that much trouble with it. I mean, you look at these pens, even though we’ve had cold weather and snow, these pens are in good condition.”
But Jenny says there’s some things they don’t have much control over. Like the behavior of the truck drivers that drop the cows off. She says the truck ride is especially frightening for cattle and it needs to be quiet during the drop off. But the truck drivers…
“Some of them come in whooping and hollering. There’s no need for it, there’s no need for it. You know, you can use a flag whip or a rattle paddle. Just a little bit, honestly. Just the noise – chchchch – works. I’m not going to say that I’ve never raised my voice around cattle because then I would be a liar,” Jenny says with a laugh. “Because they can be frustrating creatures to work with. But a lot of times, if you just remain calm, they’ll remain calm.”
Chelsea says when she first started working here, she saw a guy drag a cow by its legs with a chain. She said to herself, “That will never happen again under my watch.” She says it’s a technique she knows other feedlots use and she doesn’t like it.
“I had a friend who left here and she worked at ranches and feedlots all over. She sent me a picture one day of them dragging a Holstein out of a mud hole because he just got stuck. I was like, we’re so blessed. We really have a phenomenal crew, all the way around.”
Chelsea says she gets a lot of freedom from the owner and her manager to let her use the humane techniques she prefers. And she says that gentler touch goes a long way.
“A stressed out animal is not going to have the same immune system that a content animal has. And so yeah, I think there’s a push for good proper handling techniques to try to avoid any issues that would cause that animal to get sick or injured.”
Driving home after visiting D&D feedlot, my feelings are mixed. I can see that Chelsea, Jenny and Maddy are doing their best to make cattle comfortable and that they’re techniques for settling cattle really work. I think D&D might be a place Judy wouldn’t have cried to send her cows. But what about all the feedlots that don’t have a crew like them?
Bad Becoming Normal
I decide to reach out to the person who developed these calming techniques. You might know her.
“My name is Temple Grandin, and I’m a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.”
In our Zoom meeting, Temple apologizes for under-dressing even though she’s wearing her signature embroidered western pearl button shirt with a silk scarf tied at the throat. It’s not the first time I’ve interviewed her, but still I’m a little star struck. Temple has written all sorts of books and articles, and a movie was made about her childhood struggle with autism. Then in high school, her life turned around when she went to stay on her aunt’s ranch in Arizona.
“I had horrible panic attacks when I was a teenager. I was out at my aunt’s ranch and we were driving back from town and the next door neighbor was working cattle in a squeeze chute, vaccinating some feeder calves. And I noticed that some of the cattle kinda calmed down when they went through the squeeze chute. So I went and tried it. So then, of course, I built a device I could get into that applied pressure that was similar to a squeeze chute,” Temple says.
Now Temple’s device is used as a calming method to help lots of people who need it. But the whole experience really got Temple looking at things through the eyes of the livestock, and she didn’t like what she saw.
“Well, I thought it was really bad – screaming and yelling at cattle, every animal getting zapped multiple times with electric prods, getting the cattle running as fast as they can run, slamming the squeeze chute on them. It was really bad.”
This was back in the 1970s before they started really enforcing those new humane slaughter policies. Livestock were treated like this under the assumption that animals aren’t sentient. Temple recognized that wasn’t true. They just experience the world differently.
“So when I first started in Arizona, back in the ‘70s, I went to every feedyard in Arizona that worked cattle. And I got down inside the chute to see what cattle were seeing,” Temple says. “Now at that time, I didn’t know that most people think in words. So it was obvious to me to look at what cattle we’re seeing. You see, an animal is sensory-based. They’re not word-based.
Cattle are a lot like people with autism, Temple realized. Because they’re so visual, things like hanging chains and long shadows can be terrifying. Temple worked with meat processors to get rid of the brutal treatment and make their environments more friendly. She invented something called a center track conveyor that the animals walk calmly into: it lifts them up under the belly and presses down gently from above and is used to soothe animals just before they’re stunned unconscious before death. She then developed a scoring system for McDonald’s that’s been adapted and is still widely used today. It eliminated the subjectivity of the whole question of animal welfare and gave the entire industry easy to adopt protocols and tools.
“Cattle handling in the early ‘70s was atrocious. Things are a whole lot better now.”
She’d never say so, but I will. Temple single-handedly made our meat system more humane. But she says there’s still lots of work to do.
“We’ve gotten to tolerate too many dirty cattle now, and there’s a lot more cattle they’re putting in the pens, and I think this is something that’s slowly crept up. That’s what I call bad becoming normal.”
I remember the clean, cow faces I saw at D&D, except for the sick ones in the hospital; it makes me think how dirty cows are sicker cows as well. Temple says another big problem is that we’re breeding way heavier cows, and that’s leading to a lot of lameness. And if cows can’t walk into the slaughterhouse, they’re going to be dragged or abused.
She says the climate crisis is creating a whole new problem too: heat stress.
“We need to be putting shade in some of these pens,” Temple says. “Open mouth breathing in cattle is heat stress, period. That’s scientifically validated. Cattle at rest breathe with the mouth shut. And the more they pant and the further that tongue sticks out, their body temperature is rising along with that. Some of these cattle definitely need to have some shade and to provide enough shade so all the cattle can fit underneath the shadow.”
Even at D&D, I didn’t see opportunities to get out of the sun, and man, the eastern plains of Colorado can get downright scorching and are getting hotter all the time.
Temple says the pandemic got the whole country paying attention to the livestock industry. But they might not have recognized a very crucial takeaway: the way we produce meat is just too unwieldy.
“See the thing about big, big is fragile. It’s fragile. Like we learned that during COVID with the pig industry. Horrible, 300,000 pigs had to be destroyed on the farm, waste of food and a lot of bad animal welfare. And we really learned with all the COVID stuff that big is extremely fragile.”
Millions upon millions of pigs couldn’t get processed because they grew so fast that they passed their expiration date. 300,000 pigs a week were killed often using inhumane methods like suffocation, their ventilation systems sealed off. Cows don’t grow as fast as pigs but poultry? Even worse.
A few decades ago, there used to be lots of smaller slaughterhouses around the country, but recently, they’ve all been bought up by four main meat processors. Ranchers call them the Big Four: Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef. Those four process about 80 percent of all the beef in the world. Ranchers have a big beef with these companies because ranchers say these companies are fixing the prices, leaving ranchers with a tiny fraction of the profits from the cows they raised. We’ll hear more about this problem next episode. But some ranchers are in agreement with Temple – the market would be fairer and more humane if more boutique slaughterhouses made a comeback. (And yes, I did just say those two words together.)
“So what can the smaller ranch plants do? Well, they have to be in a niche, like local. Local’s a really good niche. ‘Support local.’ Local is way more expensive because they don’t have the economy of scale. But when things go wrong, local still works.”
Temple says some ranchers are going super local; they’re setting up rotating feedlot pastures on their own property to get that preferred marbled meat. And they can now hire mobile slaughter units that come right to their barn to process their meat. But most grass fed ranchers are relying on their friendly neighborhood USDA-inspected plant. But Temple says these places do have their own animal welfare issues. Often there isn’t enough training and support like there is with the big guys.
“We need to be helping small plants with their stunning problems,” Temple says. “I had one of them call me. They had some special type of pig that was much older with the really hard skull. I talked to them, and they were using the wrong stunner. They were not using a heavy enough stun gun.”
Which meant they had to stun the animal multiple times, a major deduction on Temple’s audit checklist. So yeah, in some ways, big meat processors might actually be more humane than small ones.
“You’re Going To Be Delicious”
The whole question made me realize I need to see it for myself. So I set up a tour of a small processor here in Laramie where I live.
When I walk into 307 Meats’ retail store, I notice the big window looking into a butcher room and the TV screens set up to show employees processing carcasses. Right off the bat, I see these guys are serious about transparency. Kelsey Christiansen owns the place, which opened just days before COVID hit. He comes out to greet me, but before he takes me out on the tour, he has a question.
“Do you want to go to slaughter and see slaughter?”
“I’m happy to go and see that, if it’s happening.”
“Absolutely, just some people are like, uh, no.”
I’m not an easy queasy person. Plus, my feeling is that animal abuse has been possible for so long because meat processing is so hidden from view – yes, by slaughterhouses who have things to hide – but also because we choose to look away.
Today, I’m choosing to look.
Kelsey takes me down the hall and outside where cows get dropped off.
“These are our holding pens,” he says. “There is concrete underneath this bedding. We bed our animals every night. I think that the animals are a lot more calm, and that’s our goal: to make sure that the animals are calm before their slaughter. That increases better meat quality. They have access to clean water all the time.”
While we’re standing there, a truck pulls up with animals to drop off. Kelsey says these cattle were feedlot finished, so they could get that white marbling texture consumers prefer. Grass finished beef has yellow-colored fat that consumers don’t like as much. He runs off to help unload them. Three cows come out of the trailer and into the pens. The area is completely shaded, and Kelsey says they can also mist them to keep them cool in the summer. The animals eye me nervously, but they never make a noise. One of the handlers comes around and talks to them.
“You look good,” she tells the cow, “you’re going to be delicious,” and I laugh.
One of the steers is quickly navigated through the pens using large paddles into the knock box. That’s a nickname for the piece of equipment using Temple’s design to silently squeeze the animal and catch its head where it can be stunned unconscious. Kelsey rejoins me.
“You didn’t hear a lot of mooing,” he points out.
“Once in a while you’ll hear mooing when they’re getting in the knock box. They don’t like the head catch. If you’ve been on a ranch, a lot of cows don’t like the head catch.
“So that’s where they went over here?”
“Yeah, he took him in the knock box there.”
“And that’s where they’re getting stunned?”
“Yep, that’s where he gets stunned. The only exception to that is when we have hogs. We use electrical stunning, so it causes grand mal seizures. And then the sticking part is what renders them dead. The grand mal seizure makes them unconscious and insensible to pain.”
Kelsey says not just anyone can handle the cattle.
We have a pretty extensive animal handling program,” Kelsey says. “And so before a person can unload an animal or touch an animal, they have to go through that program. It was funny. My dad, he was a butcher, right? So he’s out there. He’s helping us and he’s like, ‘I’ll go get some animals.’ I’m like, ‘Actually, you can’t do that, I haven’t put you through my training program yet.’ He’s like, ‘What? You’ve got an animal handling program?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, man. We have to do this. We have to treat them nice. Not like we’re babying them. I’m not gonna carry them in a basket, but animals have a brain of their own, right?’ Sometimes they just don’t want to do what you want to do, and keeping yourself calm and collected and moving them, that’s where we do have a benefit probably over the big plants. The big plants have got to process 7,000 a day, right? I mean, they have margins to make and production numbers to make. And so their systems are set up, though, that the animals flow very easily by themselves. And there’s not a lot of pressure by a human. But that comes at a massive cost, right?”
Next, after the animal is knocked out, it goes to the slaughter room. The animal I saw unloaded from the trailer and sent into the knock box is already hanging from the ceiling, bleeding out. It’s a bit of a shock to me. I think, yeah, I made eye contact with that animal, and now he’s dying.
“The animal comes in there after it’s stunned,” Kelsey says. “So we use a captive bolt stunner here. The animal rolls out, and we lift it up by a hind leg and bleed it. The bleeding is actually what renders the animal dead. The stunning just renders the animal unconscious and insensible to pain. After the bleeding is finished, the animal is laid down in the cradle.” Kelsey points across the room at a carcass in the cradle. “The gentlemen skins out the belly, and it moves over to the next station. The next gentleman finishes skinning the animal and then eviscerates the animal, removes all the organs.”
“So that’s what this guy is doing here?”
“Yup, so he just brought out a liver in the tray there. He’s got the intestinal tract. Now what he’s taken out is he’s taken out what we call the pluck. That’s the heart and the lungs.”
After it’s gutted, the carcass is split down the middle by a guy up on a ladder with a tool that looks like a chainsaw. None of this grosses me out, not a bit. The attention to hygiene in the place is hardcore, like a hospital. It’s kind of a fascinating lesson in bovine anatomy. Who knew a cow’s heart was the size of a loaf of bread? Or the eyeball the size of a tennis ball? An animated hive of butchers works shoulder to shoulder, music blasting. What’s astonishing to me is just how quickly the living, breathing cow I met outside is cut and ground and packaged and labeled into an incredible cornucopia of fine meat products.
“This is our production room. And this is the cutting department. There’s like 13 people on the cutting line today. And today, they’re processing pigs. Pigs are not our specialty, but we all love bacon. So I make sure we still process pigs,” Kelsey says and I chuckle because ain’t it true.
To Kelsey, the most important station in the plant is where all this meat gets packaged and labeled. They’re very careful not to lose track of which ranch each and every cut of meat came from. Kelsey descended from a long line of butchers and a big problem he saw was that small local ranchers would go to so much trouble to humanely raise their cattle, to feed them nutritious grasses on mountain pastures, but then, “we lose that origin,” says Kelsey, “where a lot of times when those calves leave the cow-calf producer and go to the feedlot and some of those are bought at sale barns or over at treaty sales, those type of things. So we lose that trackability.”
Kelsey believes there is a need for big meat producers because they feed the world at a price everyone can afford. But more and more consumers want to know where their meat came from and that it was raised humanely. The big packers can’t offer that like he can.
“The JBS plant in Greeley, I’ve been in that plant multiple times in my career at UW,” Kelsey says. “And they’re slaughtering 6,500 to 7000 head of cattle a day, right? Most of that product that leaves there is not actually in the final consumer form. It’s leaving there as major primals. And then it’s going to a further processing facility whether getting into steaks, or it’s going to the grocery store where they’re cutting steaks at the grocery store. Those types of things. And that’s where the chain stops, the chain from the cow/calf producer to the consumer breaks when it goes into the feedlot and into the major packers.”
Kelsey says happier animals mean better meat. He can put that on a stylish label for each and every rancher, unlike the big guys. Kelsey agrees with Temple that big is fragile, but he acknowledges that he’s fragile too. COVID shut him down more than once just like it did the big packers. He wishes there was more support from the government for small processors like him – financial but also, “to be honest with you, with USDA’s big concern about animal handling, I think the USDA should mandate that we have humane handling training.”
After the debacle we all saw with meat processors during the pandemic, there’s a new awareness of the Big Four monopolizing the industry. And that the rancher is getting lost in the meat supply chain, getting very little credit – or profits – for taking good care of animals. A bipartisan effort to pass the Cattle Price Discovery and Transparency Act is building in Washington that would support small and midsize slaughterhouses; it includes Mountain West lawmakers from both parties. Not to mention, a lot of money was set aside in the American Rescue Plan to tackle the problem too.
On my way out, I stop by 307’s retail store and buy my dog some bones and admire the Hawaiian kebabs and jalapeno cheese patties. Both 307 Meats and D&D Feedlot have reassured me there’s a growing middle way for discerning meat eaters, a way to have your burger and eat it too. But I don’t buy anything else quite yet. Does it bother me to think of the cows I met out back? I don’t know, maybe. But if I’m going to buy them anywhere, it’ll be in a place like this.
The Great Individualist photography by Ana Paola Castro-Coupal
This season of The Modern West is sponsored by the LOR Foundation
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