The Omnivore's Dilemma
In the April 2008 Feingold Association's newsletter, Pure Facts, the lead article was a review of the interesting book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, about corn and the factory-raised cattle that are fed corn, hormones, and drugs in today's giant agricultural farm businesses.
One of our readers has complained that this book is not presenting both sides of the situation. Below is her email, sharing her experience as a dairy farmer.
I am a fifth generation farmer, third generation dairy farmer. My husband is a third generation dairy farmer. I have a BS in dairy science from Western Kentucky University.
Bovine (beef and dairy cattle) are ruminant animals they have what is considered four stomachs. It is actually one stomach with four compartments, the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum. It is a very efficient digesting machine. Bovine are herbivores that will eat anything resembling plant material. They eat grass, leaves and bark from trees, grains, garden vegetables, flowers, fruit, anything in their path. The reason you see cows grazing contently on grass in pastures, is that's all that is growing out there. Corn is a very good source of protein. Bovine digest it very well and thrive on it. If it was not a natural food for them they would not be able to use it efficiently.
One problem with grazing dairy cows is that it is difficult to manage the plants that grow in the pasture. In the spring clover is a favorite food for cows. They milk well eating it. Another favorite food is the green onion. Cows that eat green onions give milk that smells and tastes like onions. Michael Pollan may enjoy sitting down to a big, cold glass of onion milk, but the rest of the world finds it nauseating. I have watched my Father dump an entire bulk tank of milk down the drain (several thousand gallons, which equals several thousand dollars) because it was rejected by the milk plant for onions. Onion milk would still be served at our table because that is all we had. Pasteurization will not remove or even diminish the taste of onions, and no amount of chocolate syrup will mask the flavor. My mother tried everything to make it palatable without success.
Another problem with free roaming eating is that some plants are toxic. Our neighbors had wild cherry trees. These are pretty trees. When the cows ate the fresh leaves of the trees hanging over the fence there was no problem but when the cherry tree leaves wilt they become very toxic. If a branch was broken in a storm we had to make sure no wilted leaves were within reach of the cows. Wilted wild cherry leaves will kill a cow. We lost more than one cow to this.
Pollan's picture of the old fashioned farm is a pretty picture but he leaves out some important details. It takes approx 5.6 acres of pasture to maintain one cow. That is a lot of land for not much meat or milk. This can be reduced to as low as 1.9 acres per cow by planting dense grasses and using aggressive rotational grazing methods but this is still not very efficient. Cows that graze need a source of water. This is usually a creek or pond. Cows don't usually stand on the edge of the creek to drink. They like to stand in it. While there, if they get the urge to urinate or defecate they do their business as they continue to drink the water. This washes down stream to the rivers and lakes. It is now against the law to allow cows access to any stream. This can be verified by going to Farm Service Agency (FSA) then Laws and Regulations.
I am really lost when Pollan talks about the "mega-cities" and "unnatural diet". The increased US population and the super-sized appetite of Americans have forced large beef and dairy operations into existence. What used to be farm land is now cities and sub-divisions. There is no longer room for the old fashioned farm, and there are laws prohibiting the family milk cow or any livestock in the city limits. The large beef and dairy operations are a business. All farmers have families to support and bankers to answer to, so breaking even or working at a loss is not an option. There have been just as many years spent studying animal nutrition as human nutrition. As we learn more about how the body (animal or human) works we can better feed and care for it. Money can not be made from sick or frail animals. Beef and dairy cows are fed a ration that consists of hay (cut grass), corn, soybeans and other forages, depending on the area of the country, and minerals. I assume Pollan is referring to minerals as drugs. Our dairy farm feeds as balanced a ration as possible. All of our forages are analyzed for nutrient content and our nutritionist helps us decide how much of each item to feed and what minerals and vitamins to add to make it as perfect for the animals health, growth and production as possible. These recommendations have changed over the years as we learn more about how the cows body works. The food pyramid has also changed as new thoughts on human nutrition have emerged.
Drugs are very expensive. They are not given on a regular basis or without the guidance of a Veterinarian. Antibiotics can be mail ordered but they require a prescription. Animals are susceptible to illness just as people are. When an animal gets sick there are two options. You can leave her alone and hope she gets better on her own or you can try medical intervention. Sick cows are removed from the rest of the herd. This allows closer observation of the cow as well as easier access by the Veterinarian. It also keeps her from spreading what she has to the rest of the herd. I assume the cows photographed by the Humane Society were in a sick pen. Animals given antibiotics are required by the FDA to have the drug out of their systems before slaughter. All drugs have a "withholding time" listed on them. This is also required for milk. Any animal we give medicine to may not have her milk consumed for the "withholding time". At the end of that time the milk is tested. If it still shows signs of medication her milk is still withheld from consumption. Her milk is only allowed back in the tank when her milk is clear of medicine. Each time the milk plant picks up our milk, a sample is taken of the tank. It is tested for antibiotics, bacteria and somatic cell count. If it does not meet standard set by the FDA we will loose that tank of milk. If a tank of "tainted milk" gets on the truck we will be held financially responsible for the entire truck load of milk. This can spell financial ruin for most farmers. It is not something anyone wants to risk. Animals going to slaughter are visually inspected as they come off of the truck. The carcass is again inspected and tested after the kill. If the animal is found to be unfit for consumption the carcass is condemned. Farmers do not get paid for condemned animals. In most cases a disposal fee is charged. Contaminated meat has made the news several times. Contamination happens at the slaughter house when intestines and fecal material are allowed contact with the meat. This has happened when meat fell to the floor and when someone hoses the fecal material from the floor and allowed it to splash onto the meat. It had nothing to do with the original health of the animal. Concern for the health of the consumer has prompted new laws. The recent "downer cow" law states that if an animal can not get up and walk she is unfit to eat. This is designed to prevent an animal with neurological illnesses such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopath (Mad Cow) from entering the food supply. In their haste to cover all of their bases, the law makers failed to take into account that animals with injuries such as a broken leg, can not walk but are otherwise healthy. There is no reason not to use an animal such as this for food. The "downer cow" law requires an animal such as this to be destroyed and disposed of.
Pollan refers to the cheap corn. Since the decision to use corn as fuel (ethanol) no food item is cheap. Corn has jumped in price from $1.80 per bushel (56 lbs) to $6.00 per bushel. Other commodities have taken a jump also. As more land is used for corn production, less is available for other crops such as hay. We are all feeling this as we try to feed our animals. Consumers feel this as well as we need more for our product to stay in business.
Pollan refers to animal manure as pollution. Manure is a very good fertilizer. It is spread on crop land and is much better than chemical fertilizers. FSA closely regulates how much manure is spread on the land. Each farm is required to have a Nutrient Management Plan. This means you are not allowed more animals on your farm than you have land for safe manure disposal. This is regulated by taking soil samples and testing ground water. There are regulations as to how close to any body of water, including swamps, manure can be spread. Any infraction of these rules carries a minimum $10,000.00 fine. As this country looks at alternative fuels, cow manure is a promising energy source. Manure "Digesters" use the methane to produce energy. This does not reduce it's quality as a fertilizer after it is used as energy.
I do agree with Pollan when he states that farmers receive very little of the money that the consumer pays for processed food.
Thank you for taking the time to hear what I feel to be a more accurate picture of the food cycle.
- Vivian A Thompson