It’s no wonder people think cows are bad.
This was the light bulb that came on after listening to a couple podcasts where there was some discussion over cow size, and it’s attribution to the current agricultural system today. It’s funny how the more I think about these things, the more I see how a lot of the dots start connecting with each other.
I’ve talked about the environmental concerns that people have over cattle grazing. I’ve also heard quite a bit about concerns regarding the fact that grains are commonly fed to cattle, particularly to those that are being finished during the last few months of their lives. There’s also quite the lamenting about how much cows eat, how much they defecate, the methane they emit, generally the amount of stuff that is put into them to meet consumer demand for beef and milk.
What’s ironic is that while many people are busy pointing out how cows are bad with this issue and this issue, very few have pointed out how the modern cow has gotten so big compared to what cows were like over 100 years ago. And fewer still—have connected the dots in reasoning out why the majority of North American 21st century cows have an average body weight of 1600 pounds (720 kg), why they’re eating and pooping so much, and why they’re even being fed grain in the first place.
If we look back to the cattle that populated the West back over 100 years ago, they were quite a bit smaller. They average cow size then was only around 800 to 1000 pounds. Those were truly some “rangy” cattle; they didn’t need grain and thrived on forage only.
But why the significant change in cow size? And why do we have “modernized” cows now that basically can’t be as productive without that little extra supplemental grain every so often?
I may not have all the pieces of the puzzle in hand to explain this, but I will do my best.
A Brief History of the Shift of North American Beef Production
A lot of things happened that shifted agriculture from the organic, animal-powered, manual labour, subsistence agricultural model to one that we have today. The only thing that comes to mind was the discovery of fossil fuels, and I’m not just talking about coal. Some marketing genius saw the future use of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal extraction) booming to the point that we’ve become so incredibly and heavily reliant on it today it ain’t even funny.
I mean, look at all the things that were invented just so that farmers could buy into using (and purchasing) more fossil fuels: the “iron horse” or now known as the tractor, and the various implements associated with it, including the now-rare moldboard plow; the discovery of four “essential” nutrients plants need to grow (NPKS—nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur), and the Law of the Minimum to go along with it; the conversion of ammonium nitrate from being used in bombs during the Second World War to being used as nitrogen fertilizer for farmers (now illegal in most countries because of the ease of use in terrorist activities); and the markets and marketing that has grown up around all that comes with growing annual crops. I probably missed a few items there, but that’s the gist of it.
Many farmers got sucked right into the popularity of having a tractor with a whole lot of implements to go with it and the ease of applying fertilizers so much that the amount of grain that was being produced was becoming far beyond what most people could even eat. With quite the glut of grain, someone else had to come up with a solution. The best solution was to start feeding all that excess grain to animals, primarily pigs, chickens, and cattle.
While it was pretty easy to change up diets to get monogastrics like pigs and chickens to be eating grain in a confinement operation, with the cows of the 1950s, it wasn’t so easy. It’s really hard to convert a ruminant that thrives on grass to one that can gain well on grain and not get so butterball fat so quickly.
That’s what was happening to those smaller-type feeder cattle back then. They would be pushed on, I would guess an 80% grain-based diet prior to slaughter. The resulting amount of fat that the packers needed to trim off would’ve been incredible, so much that the meat packers really didn’t like it. Even today, if there’s a beef carcass that runs through the commercial meat packer facility and has a lot of excessive extra-muscular fat (and even intramuscular fat)—or, more fat than meat—it gets docked in price quite heavily. That’s not good for the feedlot’s bottom line.
The conundrum though, is that what the meat packers and feedlots want is not what the beef cow-calf producer wants. Let me explain: where the packers want a good sized, fairly lean carcass that doesn’t have much fat to trim off, and came from a feedlot where those cattle kept that lean muscling throughout the finishing period, the cow-calf producers would sooner have an animal that gains easily on just forage with little to no grain supplement, isn’t generally so big, and has no trouble being bred back on time to have another calf the following year.
So, on one end of the spectrum there’s the meat-producing machine the meat packers want. On the other end is the easy-fleshing, maternal, smaller, fertile bovine that doesn’t need the grain nor to be so big and muscly. Somehow, these stubborn cow-calf guys needed to be convinced that they need to change their cows to satisfy the meat packers… not only that, but for the growing companies that were making their big bucks on fossil fuels.
In my point of view—and may not get this totally right, so forgive me if I get some things out of whack—there was a few key strategies at play to get the beef cow-calf producers to succumb to the modernized beef market demand and give up their grass-based, small-sized, easy-fleshing cows.
One primary strategy was to target consumers and convince them—mainly the housewives—that lean beef was far superior to the fatty, heavily-marbled stuff; the assistance with that was the “science” that was behind demonizing saturated fat, or just animal fats in general as being “unhealthy” and the cause of all sorts of nasty metabolic diseases. (Sadly, many people still believe in this today...)
The second was to force reduced market prices on small-sized weaned calves. Any cow-calf producer would suffer and start to re-examine what kind of cattle he’s running if and when he was to sell a bunch of calves and find that almost all of them went for a lot less than those bigger, much more muscly cattle. He wouldn’t be too happy, let me tell you. That in itself would force him to start changing his herd to where he would be focusing quite heavily on pounds of calf weaned, just so he can “ring the bell at the sale barn” and come home with a decent cheque.
The third, mainly as a result of the second, was to heavily promote the hell out of the “continental” European breeds that were being imported into Canada and the United States in the 1970s. Breeds like Charolais, Simmental, and Limousin were those big, muscly, lean type of cattle that the packers were looking for. They were marketed such that they would give producers calves that would bring them the most money. Conveniently so, though, the promotions never really mentioned that these big animals needed to have some supplemental grain to keep them in shape…
Since then, the packers and feedlots haven’t let up on their demand for large cattle that gained well with not a whole lot of extra-muscular fat to trim off—the United States Department of Agriculture actually formed a grading standard to tell producers and packers what kind of "muscle-to-fat ratio" was desirable. As a result, cow size has increased dramatically since then. Producers have done well to convince themselves that focusing on weight, and to get as big of calves as possible sold through the auction to the feedlot is the best way to go. This is certainly still something that's alive and well today.
So far I’ve only focused on beef production. What about dairy production?
The Big, Modern, Dairy Cow
The dairy cows haven’t stayed small either. The average size of a dairy cow (predominantly Holsteins) today is much the same as what the average size of a modern beef cow is. The story that goes with seeing an increase in cow size for dairy cows is pretty parallel with beef cattle, except that it wasn’t this need to convince any cow-calf guys to get bigger, not-so-grass-based cows. The explanation is a bit simpler than that.
With a higher demand by consumers for more dairy products, dairy farmers needed cows to produce more milk. I think I’m safe to say that the larger the cow that was also genetically selected for the highest milk production possible, generally the heavier milker she would expected to be. Holstein-Freisian cattle are the heaviest (and most popular) milk-producing breed in the world to date. And they’re not small cattle either. They may not have much for muscle, but they are certainly are tall...
With dairy cattle, though, the selection must be for milk production, not size as in muscling ability. Some of the poorest milk-producing cows out there, like Charolais, are the best, well-muscled animals. In other words, if you’re going to be selecting for milk production, you might as well kiss the genetics for muscling good-bye.
Undeniably, the modern dairy cow has also been selected over time to be needing grain in order to not just produce milk, but also meet her body’s metabolic needs. She’s been basically turned into a fossil-fuel guzzling (indirectly, mind you), milk-producing genetic freak of a machine.
As for the modern-day big beefy girls, sadly, they’re not much different.
So, Why are Cows & Cattle Fed Grain??
I’ve spent some time showing how commercially-raised cows today have become so big and even grain-needy today. Now, it’s time to show you the why.
It’s actually pretty simple. Much of the cattle today have been selected for higher productivity—more meat, more milk—and as a result, their nutritional requirements have increased. These animals actually need more nutrition than their ancestors did just under 100 years ago. Their metabolisms have changed such that they can’t meet their body needs and be as fertile, milk-producing and/or muscling on just grass or forage, without some kind of extra supplement to meet their needs in terms of energy (carbohydrates), proteins (mainly non-protein nitrogen and amino acids), as well as minerals and vitamins, otherwise they will literally “fall apart.”
By “fall apart” I mean they lose weight, and aren’t as milky, reproductive, nor meat-producing as a farmer would hope for. If they are not properly fed, they can die of malnutrition. It’s that bad.
You know, sadly it’s become an established norm to feed cows grain or some alfalfa cubes or range pellets, even just a few pounds per head every second or third day, “just to keep ‘em friendly.” Not many people have stopped to think why it’s so normal to give cattle that extra supplement while they’re out on pasture, or even that they have to add grain to the diet during the winter months.
I know that if I told them that they weren’t allowed to feed their cattle any kind of grain or pelleted supplement, they’d look at me like I was crazy, and then they’d give me a good talking-to as to why those cows *need* to be fed some grain... let me guess, so that those animals don’t go downhill on you, right?
It’s no secret that the majority of cows and cattle today are fed grain of some amount. It’s no secret either that the bigger the cow, the more she’ll eat. But I don’t think that’s near as much of a concern as just the fact that the petroleum industry has forced producers’ hands time and time again to have big cows that can’t be productive without eating some grain every now and then.
It’s no wonder people think cows are so bad. We’ve turned them into fossil-fuel consuming, milk/meat-outputting machines, not the genuinely beneficial, grass-based, pasture-raised ruminant herbivores that they really should be. And that’s a right shame.
Range Nerd, Forage & Grazing Fanatic and a Bovine Enthusiast. A love for farming, and for the soil.
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