Unhealthy. Nutritious. Cruel. Delicious. Unsustainable. All-American. In the beef debate there are so many sides.
At Wrangler Feedyard, on the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, night was coming to an end, and 20,000 tons of meat were beginning to stir. The humans who run this city of beef had been up for hours. Steam billowed from the stacks of the feed mill; trucks rumbled down alleys, pouring rivers of steam-flaked corn into nine miles of concrete troughs. In one crowded pen after another, large heads poked through the fence and plunged into the troughs. For most of the 43,000 cattle here, it would be just another day of putting on a couple pounds of well-marbled beef. But near the yard’s north end a few hundred animals were embarking on their final journey: By afternoon they’d be split in half and hanging from hooks.
Meat is murder. Meat—especially beef—is cigarettes and a Hummer rolled into one. For the sake of the animals, our own health, and the health of the planet, we must eat less of it.
Meat is delicious. Meat is nutritious. Global demand is soaring for good reason, and we must find a way to produce more of it.
In short, meat—especially beef—has become the stuff of fierce debate.
People can’t settle that debate for others—Americans, say, can’t decide how much beef or other meat Chinese should eat as their living standards improve. But each of us takes a personal stand with every trip to the supermarket. Critics of industrial-scale beef production say it’s warming our climate, wasting land we could use to feed more people, and polluting and wasting precious water—all while subjecting millions of cattle to early death and a wretched life in confinement. Most of us, though, have little idea how our beef is actually produced. Last January, as part of a longer journey into the world of meat, I spent a week at Wrangler, in Tulia, Texas. I was looking for an answer to one fundamental question: Is it all right for an American to eat beef?
And so at 6:45 on a Tuesday morning I was standing with Paul Defoor, chief operating officer of Cactus Feeders, the company that operates Wrangler and eight other feed yards in the panhandle and in Kansas. Cactus ships a million head of cattle a year; Defoor and I were watching a few dozen get on a truck. The temperature was in the teens. The cattle were steaming as cowboys on horseback and on foot herded 17 of them—enough to fill one deck of the 18-wheel double-decker truck—down an alley of fences. The animals couldn’t know where they were headed; still, at the top of the ramp the lead steer stopped and wouldn’t enter the truck.
“One or two days a week there are a couple of hours that are a little tough,” said Defoor. “You have to want to do this.”
A few deft maneuvers from a cowboy, and within seconds the cattle jam dissolved. More than ten tons of live freight surged onto the truck’s top deck, then another ten filled the lower deck. The truck shook. Dust poured from the slits in its sides. The driver shut the rolling door, climbed in the cab, and took off across the yard.
Defoor and I followed in his pickup. In the pen that had been these animals’ last home, road graders were already scraping five months’ worth of manure off the hardpan. By the time we got to the front gate, the truck was disappearing toward Interstate 27 and the Tyson packing plant outside Amarillo. We raced after it. Behind us the sky was just starting to turn pink.
“If you call a meal a third of a pound of lean beef,” Defoor said, “then one of those animals you saw getting on the truck will make 1,800 meals. That’s amazing. You’re looking at 60,000 meals on this truck ahead of us.”
Cactus Feeders, which is headquartered in Amarillo and owned now by its employees, was co-founded by a cattleman from Nebraska named Paul Engler. In 1960, the story goes, Engler came to the area to buy cattle for a Nebraska feedlot and realized the panhandle was the perfect place for feedlots. Besides abundant cattle, it had a warm, dry climate that allowed them to grow fast—they waste energy in cold and mud—and plenty of grain.
Over the next few decades the panhandle became the feedlot capital of the world. Engler started Cactus Feeders in 1975 and built it into the world’s largest cattle-feeding company. (It’s now the second largest.) The way Engler saw it, his company’s mission was to make beef cheap enough for all. “My father didn’t know anyone who didn’t like the taste of beef,” says Mike Engler, the current CEO. “But he knew people who couldn’t afford it.”
From the beginning, though, the business faced headwinds: In 1976 per capita beef consumption peaked in the United States at 91.5 pounds a year. It has since fallen more than 40 percent. Last year Americans ate on average 54 pounds of beef each, about the same amount as a century ago. Instead we eat twice as much chicken as we did in 1976 and nearly six times as much as a century ago. It’s cheaper and supposedly better for our hearts. We slaughter more than eight billion chickens a year now in the U.S., compared with some 33 million cattle.
A friendly, unassuming man of 63, Mike Engler is an unlikely cattle baron. When his father was starting Cactus, Mike was at Johns Hopkins University getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He went on to do research at Harvard and the University of Texas. After 24 years away, he came back to Amarillo in 1993—a traumatic year for the beef industry. Four children died and hundreds of people were sickened by hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants that had been contaminated by a virulent strain of E. coli.
After that came the mad-cow scare; no one yet has gotten the human variant of the brain-wasting disease from American beef, but Americans learned that livestock protein, which can spread the disease if contaminated, had often been fed to cattle until the Food and Drug Administration banned the practice in 1997. In the media a consensus began to form about feed yards: They were cruel, disgusting, and unnatural hellholes, like 14th-century London, Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “teeming and filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads, and choking air rendered visible by dust.” Only massive use of antibiotics kept the plagues at bay.
In the truck one day I asked Defoor about zilpaterol, a controversial feed additive that makes cattle gain extra weight. He began his answer by asking me to “assume that Mike Engler and Paul Defoor are not evil people.” It sounded odd—but it was a reflection of the great disconnect that exists in America between the people who consume meat and the people who produce most of it.
Defoor is a tall, slender man of 40, with a weathered face and a taste for explaining recondite things like ruminant nutrition—he has a Ph.D. in the subject from Texas Tech. Riding around the panhandle in his pickup, I got to know him a bit. We visited the 320 acres he owns outside Canyon, where he goes after work to plow his wheat field or feed his own small herd of cows and calves. We talked about macroeconomics and the role of government. We even talked about God once or twice. It concerned Defoor that I was on distant terms with Him. It concerned me that Defoor, a deeply scientific man, wasn’t much bothered about climate change. We agreed to keep our minds open.
Defoor was raised on a small farm north of Houston, where his family grew all their own food and sold some as well. “We had cows, we had chickens, we had goats,” he says. It seems to him now that he was always picking peas; they had a few acres of them. He doesn’t miss that life.
It’s not how you feed the world, he says. It’s not how you increase people’s standard of living, starting with the 500 people who work for Cactus. You do those things by using technology to increase productivity and decrease waste.
Forty-nine people work full-time at Wrangler Feedyard, says Walt Garrison, the manager. It takes just seven to operate the automated mill that cooks three meals a day for 43,000 cattle—750 tons of feed. Next to the computer screens that track the flow of corn from hard kernels at one end of the mill to steam-flaked feed at the other, a sign displays the “Cactus Creed: Efficient Conversion of Feed Energy Into the Maximum Production of Beef at the Lowest Possible Cost.” Living that creed requires the technology-assisted coddling of 43,000 rumens.
The rumen is the largest of a cow’s four stomachs—“a wonder of nature,” says Defoor. It’s a giant beige balloon swollen with up to 40 gallons of liquid. The first time I saw a rumen, in a small slaughterhouse in Wisconsin, it filled a wheelbarrow; in life it fills most of the left side of a cow. It’s a giant vat in which the food ingested by a cow is fermented by a complex ecosystem of microbes, releasing volatile fatty acids from which the cow gets its energy. At Wrangler, I came to understand, a rumen is also like a high-performance race-car engine, cared for at frequent intervals by a highly trained pit crew.
The goal is to pump as much energy as possible through the rumen so that the animal gains weight as fast as possible without making it sick. Ruminants can digest grass, which is mostly roughage. But corn kernels, which are mostly starch, contain much more energy. At Wrangler only about 8 percent of the finishing ration is roughage—ground sorghum and corn plants. The rest is corn, flaked to make the starch more digestible, and ethanol by-products.
The feed also is treated with two antibiotics. Monensin kills off fiber-fermenting bacteria in the rumen that are less efficient at digesting corn, allowing others to proliferate. Tylosin helps prevent liver abscesses, an affliction that cattle on high-energy diets are more prone to.
The high-grain diet also increases the risk of acidosis: Acids accumulate in the rumen and spread to the bloodstream, making the animal sick and in severe cases even lame. Every animal differs in its susceptibility. “That’s something we struggle with in this industry,” says Kendall Karr, the nutritionist who oversees the diet at all Cactus Feeders yards. “There’s so much variation. We’re not producing widgets.”
GPS-guided feed trucks deliver precise amounts to each pen, and every morning feed manager Armando Vargas adjusts those rations by as little as a few ounces a head, trying to make sure the animals eat their fill without waste or illness. Cowboys ride through each pen, looking for an indented left flank that suggests a rumen isn’t full or a drooping head that signals a sick animal. About 6.5 percent of the feedlot cattle get sick at some point, says Cactus veterinarian Carter King, mostly with respiratory infections. About one percent die before they reach butchering weight, generally between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds.
Pharmaceuticals are crucial to the feedlot industry. Every animal that arrives at Wrangler receives implants of two steroid hormones that add muscle: estradiol, a form of estrogen, and trenbolone acetate, a synthetic hormone. Defoor says these drugs save about a hundred dollars’ worth of feed per animal—a significant sum, given the industry’s traditionally low profit margins. Finally, during the last three weeks of their lives, the Wrangler cattle are given a beta-agonist. Zilpaterol, the one with the biggest effect, causes them to pack on an extra 30 pounds of lean meat. To the industry, it’s an FDA-approved wonder drug—Cactus has given zilpaterol to six million cattle without incident, Defoor says. But last year, after 17 cattle turned up lame at a Tyson Foods slaughterhouse in Washington State, Tyson and other beef packers began refusing cattle that had received zilpaterol. Cactus is now using a beta-agonist that’s less potent.
In 2013 the U.S. produced almost the same amount of beef as it did in 1976, about 13 million tons. It achieved this while slaughtering 10 million fewer cattle, from a herd that was almost 40 million head smaller. The average slaughter animal packs 23 percent more meat these days than in 1976. To the people at Cactus Feeders, that’s a technological success story—one that meat producers will need to expand on as global demand for meat keeps rising.
“One thing I know is, we’re humans, and they’re animals,” Defoor says. “We have domesticated them for our purpose. We’ll treat them with dignity and with respect, but to bring them into a feed yard for 120 or 150 days, that’s not a bad environment for them.”
When I tell friends I spent a week on a cattle feedlot, they say, “That must have been awful.” It wasn’t. The people at Wrangler appeared competent and devoted to their work. They tried to handle cattle gently. The pens were crowded but not jammed—the cattle had around 150 to 200 square feet each, and since they tend to bunch up anyway, there was open space. I spent hours riding around the lot with the windows open and standing in pens, and the smell wasn’t bad. After reading Pollan, I had expected to be standing “hock deep” in muddy excrement. I was relieved to be standing on dry dirt—manure, to be sure, but dry. Most cattle feedlots are in dry places like the Texas Panhandle.
Are feedlots sustainable? The question has too many facets for there to be an easy answer. With antibiotic resistance in humans a growing concern, the FDA has adopted voluntary guidelines to limit antimicrobial drug use in animal-feeding operations—but those guidelines won’t affect Wrangler much, because the antibiotics there are either not used in humans (monensin) or can be prescribed by a veterinarian to prevent disease (tylosin). The hormones and beta-agonists used at Wrangler are not considered, by the FDA at least, to be a human health concern. But as the animals excrete them, the effect they might have on the environment is less clear.
The issue that concerns Defoor most is water. The panhandle farmers who supply corn and other crops to the feedlots are draining the Ogallala aquifer; at the current pace it could be exhausted in this century. But Texas feedlots long ago outgrew the local grain supply. Much of the corn now comes by train from the corn belt.
The biggest, most mind-numbing issue of all is the global one: How do we meet demand for meat while protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change? A common argument these days is that people in developed countries need to eat less meat in general, eat chicken instead of beef, and, if they must eat beef, make it grass fed. I’ve come to doubt that the solution is that simple.
For starters, that advice neglects animal welfare. After my week at Wrangler, I visited a modern broiler farm in Maryland, on the Delmarva Peninsula, a region that raised 565 million chickens last year. The farm was clean, and the owners seemed well-intentioned. But the floor of the dimly lit, 500-foot-long shed—one of six at the farm—was solidly carpeted with 39,000 white birds that had been bred to grow fat-breasted and mature in under seven weeks. If your goal as a meat-eater is to minimize total animal suffering, you’re better off eating beef.
But would Americans help feed the world if they ate less beef? The argument that it’s wasteful to feed grain to animals, especially cattle—which pound for pound require four times as much of it as chickens—has been around at least since Diet for a Small Planet was published in 1971. The portion of the U.S. grain harvest consumed by all animals, 81 percent then, has plummeted to 42 percent today, as yields have soared and more grain has been converted to ethanol. Ethanol now consumes 36 percent of the available grain, beef cattle only about 10 percent. Still, you might think that if Americans ate less beef, more grain would become available for hungry people in poor countries.
There’s little evidence that would happen in the world we actually live in. Using an economic model of the world food system, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C., have projected what would happen if the entire developed world were to cut its consumption of all meat by half—a radical change. “The impact on food security in developing countries is minimal,” says Mark Rosegrant of IFPRI. Prices for corn and sorghum drop, which helps a bit in Africa, but globally the key food grains are wheat and rice. If Americans eat less beef, corn farmers in Iowa won’t export wheat and rice to Africa and Asia.
The notion that curbing U.S. beef eating might have a big impact on global warming is similarly suspect. A study last year by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded that beef production accounts for 6 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But if the world abstained entirely from beef, emissions would drop by less than 6 percent, because more than a third of them come from the fertilizer and fossil fuels used in raising and shipping feed grain. Those farmers would continue to farm—after all, there’s a hungry world to feed.
If Americans eliminated beef cattle entirely from the landscape, we could be confident of cutting emissions by about 2 percent—the amount that beef cattle emit directly by belching methane and dropping manure that gives off methane and nitrous oxide. We made that kind of emissions cut once before, in a regrettable way. According to an estimate by A. N. Hristov of Penn State, the 50 million bison that roamed North America before settlers arrived emitted more methane than beef cattle do today.
The problem of global warming is overwhelmingly one of replacing fossil fuels with clean energy sources—but it’s certainly true that you can reduce your own carbon footprint by eating less beef. If that’s your goal, though, you should probably avoid grass-fed beef (or bison). Cattle belch at least twice as much methane on grass-based diets as they do on grain, says animal nutritionist Andy Cole, who has put them in respiration chambers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service lab in Bushland, Texas. The animals gain weight slower on grass, because it’s higher in fiber and less digestible, and for the same reason they emit more methane—wasting carbon instead of converting it to meat. If we were to close all the feedlots and finish all cattle on pasture, we’d need more land and a much larger cattle herd, emitting a lot more methane per animal, to meet the demand for beef.
Here’s the inconvenient truth: Feedlots, with their troubling use of pharmaceuticals, save land and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Latin American beef, according to the FAO, produces more than twice as many emissions per pound as its North American counterpart—because more of the cattle are on pasture, and because ranchers have been cutting down so much rain forest to make pastures and cropland for feed. Faced with the staggering problem of meeting rising global demand for meat, “feedlots are better than grass fed, no question,” says Jason Clay, a food expert at WWF. “We have got to intensify. We’ve got to produce more with less.”
Even proponents acknowledge that grass-fed beef can’t meet the U.S. demand, let alone a growing global demand. “Can’t be done,” says Mack Graves, former CEO of Panorama Meats, which supplies Whole Foods Market in the West. “Demand is going to keep going up. It’s going to have to be beef raised as efficiently as possible, and grass fed isn’t efficient compared with feedlot.”
Economic efficiency isn’t the only criterion, though, Graves says. Cattle graze a lot of land in the world that isn’t suitable for growing crops. If the grazing is managed well, it can enrich the soil and make the land more productive—doing what bison once did for the prairie. In New Mexico and Colorado, I visited several grass-fed-beef producers who practice what’s sometimes called management-intensive grazing. Instead of letting cattle fan out over a huge pasture for the whole year, these ranchers keep them in a tight herd with the help of portable electric fences, moving the fences every few days to make sure the grasses are cropped just enough and have time to recover.
The guru of the movement is a Zimbabwean scientist named Allan Savory, who says that managed grazing can draw huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—a controversial claim. But the ranchers I met all swore that managed grazing had transformed their pastures. The beef they’re producing is less economically efficient than feedlot beef, but in some ways it’s better ecologically. They aren’t using pharmaceuticals in feed. They aren’t extracting nutrients in the form of corn from heavily fertilized soil in Iowa, shipping them up to a thousand miles on 110-car trains, and piling them up as manure in Texas. Instead their cattle are building and maintaining a landscape.
At the Blue Range Ranch in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, which sells cattle to Panorama, it was calving season when I visited. Like other ranchers in the region, George Whitten and his wife, Julie Sullivan, have struggled to make ends meet during a decade-long drought. But lately there’s been a hopeful development: They’ve partnered with nearby farmers who let them graze their cattle on stubble and irrigated cover crops—sorghum, kale, clover. That fattens the cattle and fertilizes the fields at the same time.
At 5:30 one morning Whitten and I went out into his home pasture to check the cattle. Venus shone like the beam of a helicopter in the eastern sky, above a faint stripe of gray that outlined the snowcapped Sangre de Cristos. After dawn we watched a newborn calf struggle to its feet for the first time. Staggering around its mother on wobbly legs, the little calf finally found the udder.
“They have a great life,” Graves says. “And one bad day.”
Rising Demand for Meat
PRESENT-DAY BOUNDARIES SHOWN ON MAP. Only countries with populations greater than 40 million shown on graphic. VIRGINIA W. MASON, JASON TREAT, AND ALEXANDER STEGMAIER, NGM STAFF. SOURCE: FAO
At Wrangler I asked the veterinarian, Carter King, how it felt to ship cattle he had watched over. “I tell you what,” he said, “every time I drive down the interstate and pass a truck that has a load of fats in it, I silently say thank you—thank you to the cattle for feeding our country.”
That Tuesday morning, headed north on I-27, Paul Defoor and I caught up with the truck we’d been chasing, which was doing 70 miles an hour. Tyson had not granted my request to visit the packing plant, but Defoor had offered to follow the cattle to the plant gate. He pulled alongside so we could see the cattle, then fell in behind the truck. A fine mist formed on our windshield: A heifer in the truck ahead was relieving herself through the slatted sides.
At the Caviness Beef Packers plant in Hereford, Texas, which slaughters as many as 1,800 cattle a day, the president, Trevor Caviness, gave me a tour. In the “knock box” we watched some cattle die. They were first knocked unconscious by a blow to the forehead from a bolt gun, then strung up by their back hooves and killed by a man with a knife who slit the carotid and jugular. The belief that it’s morally wrong to eat animals is appealing, and maybe as a species we’ll get there one day, but it’s hard to square with our evolutionary history as hunters. The deaths I saw at Caviness and at another slaughterhouse I visited seemed quicker and less filled with terror and pain than many deaths administered by hunters must be.
When I got back from my travels, it was time for my annual physical. My cholesterol was a little higher, and my doctor asked why that might be. I’d been hanging around cattlemen and their steaks, I said. My doctor, who hasn’t eaten a steak in 20 years, was unsympathetic. “Just say no,” he said. There’s no doubt that eating less beef wouldn’t hurt me or most Americans. But the science is unclear on just how much it would help us—or the planet.
What my reporting had really left me wanting to say no to was antibeef zealotry. That, and the immoderate penchant we Americans have for reducing complex social problems—diet, public health, climate change, food security—to morality tales populated by heroes and villains. On the Fourth of July weekend I went to the meat counter at my local grocery. There were Angus rib eyes for $10.99 a pound. Next to them, for $21.99, were some grass-fed rib eyes from a ranch in Minnesota. Either would have been OK. But I bought hamburger instead.
Photographer Brian Finke is a Texas native; this is his first article for National Geographic. Robert Kunzig is the magazine’s senior environment editor.
The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles.