Organic vs. inorganic or nonorganic, terrorism vs. freedom and democracy, dirty oil vs clean, free range vs. feedlot, farmed salmon vs. wild.
These arguments seem so clear, so black and white, right and wrong, but there is one more that could be added to the list: pirate vs. privateer. If you were Spanish Francis Drake was a pirate (read evil) and if you were English he was a privateer, a man fighting to keep your country safe from the evil Spaniards.
Your perception of the issue will be different depending on what you think you already know about it. The language used to describe that issue will definitely play a part in how you perceive it, whether you know it or not. In this four-part series, I will take a look at some of these dichotomies of language that protesters, governments and industries use to sway public opinion.
To read Part 1 go here.
Part 3 of 4 – Free Range vs. Feedlot
There is a lot of debate over how beef is raised, slaughtered and sold. If you Google the terms “feedlot vs. free range” you will not find much in favour of this method of cattle farming.
Popular films such as “Fast Food Nation” and documentaries such as “Food Inc.” paint a very unpleasant picture of cattle farming and particularly how beef is processed and sold.
What is a feedlot?
According to the Google dictionary it is “an area or building where livestock are fed or fattened up.”
The US EPA refers to them as AFOs
“Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) are agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations…. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland.”
Not as picturesque as free range cattle, also called grass fed cattle.
“Since the late 1990s, a growing number of ranchers have stopped sending their animals to the feedlots to be fattened on grain, soy and other supplements. Instead, they are keeping their animals home on the range where they forage on pasture, their native diet. These new-age ranchers do not treat their livestock with hormones or feed them growth-promoting additives. As a result, the animals grow at a natural pace. For these reasons and more, grass-fed animals live low-stress lives and are so healthy there is no reason to treat them with antibiotics or other drugs.”
Since the industrial revolution, the bulk of the human population has become concentrated in cities. One downside of this is that we move further from our food production, creating a great disconnect between what we think we know about farming and what really occurs when food is raised for the billions of people who now live on this planet.
As children we learned about farms with red barns and happy farmers in overalls surrounded by a few animals. But this isn’t real. And this leads to a serious misunderstanding about what is good for food production, and what is good for animals.
The more we are separated from our food sources, the more humans like to anthropomorphize animals. We see an image of cattle close together and we know that we would not like to live that way so we decide that animals should not live that way. As adults living in urban centers we read an article or two about “feedlots”, we see a few pictures that don’t fit with our ideal image of a farm and we start to form opinions about how cattle should be raised.
[When commenting on free range cattle] “Those cows will stay on pasture eating grass for their entire lives, “doing what God intended a cow to do,” said Seth Nitschke, who owns Open Space with his wife, Mica.”
This disconnect from where our food comes from leads to groups like PETA that don’t like any form of meat production:
“Many organic and free-range farms cram thousands of animals together in sheds or mud-filled lots to increase profits, just as factory farms do…”
PETA’s opinion aside, the life of free range cattle seems idyllic, but is it really? No needles, hormones or close quarters but also no shelter, no diet control, no salt lick, no medical care (i.e. antibiotics)… free range doesn’t necessarily mean healthy and happy.
There are environmental issues to consider, too. Would free range cattle be able to feed the growing population of this world? Free range cattle need a lot of grass to graze on. That is land that could be used for growing crops. Soy is being grown not just for food but also as an alternative diesel fuel. What is the best use of agricultural land?
It is so easy to say “no” to a practice because you are removed from it and it makes you uncomfortable, but have you looked at all sides of the issue? Have you investigated the ultimate outcome of your protest?
There are many websites with negative perspectives of feedlots, using language and carefully chosen images to paint a dark and dreary image of sad animals, crammed together, being force fed, drugged and never seeing green grass.
But the truth about feedlots (especially those in Canada) is not what you may believe. For an example from Ontario check out the virtual farm tours (also see other links at the bottom of this article). The site points out that the animals do not spend their entire lives in pens.
“Cattle being raised for market are moved to feedlots (penned yards) from the open range and pastures for the final months before marketing. They’re fed a high-energy diet of grains, corn or hay silage or hay. The consistent, high quality feed brings them to market weight faster then on grass alone.”
Here is more information from the virtual tour:
“About the Life Cycle of Beef Cattle
Cows are generally bred in the summer because farmers try to time the birthing of calves for the spring. This is so that the calves can be born outside and both cow and calf benefit from fresh pasture and decent weather.”
The tour of the feedlot will take you to the feed control room. Here you will find a description of what kind of food these cattle are fed.
“Once they are moved to feedlots at about fifteen months of age, the cattle are fed a nutritionally balanced mixture of forages such as grasses, alfalfa, or clover with vitamins and minerals added to balance the animal´s nutritional needs. By the end of their stay in a feedlot, cattle will be eating a diet that consists of about 90% grain like corn or barley.”
In BC barley is used exclusively.
The fact is that farmers, whether they are growing grass-fed, free-range or feedlot beef, want their animals to be comfortable and healthy. A sick animal or an animal under a great deal of stress will not grow or gain weight. Any farmer interested in a profit from her herd will ensure the health and well being of her animals.
If you are concerned about where your meat is coming from or how it is raised, ask questions. Talk to your grocer or butcher about where they purchase the meat. Even better, take the time to talk to a farmer about what they do and how they treat their animals. Talk to livestock and poultry feed suppliers and ask questions. It is amazing what you can learn from people who work with animals everyday.
Here are some internet resources to get you started:
Alberta Feedlot Management Guide 2nd Edition
Farmissues.com – your gateway to information about Canadian food and farming
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association
Government of Saskatchewan – Agriculture
For a skeptical but balanced look at an American feedlot read this article: Cattle Feedlot: Behind The Scenes