Though no one wanted to admit it, the Christmas Eve service at St. Elizabeth's Lutheran Church here in Ekalaka, Mont., lacked its customary air of joyous anticipation.
As the assembled ranchers sang of sleeping in heavenly peace, their faces, shadowed in the flickering candlelight, betrayed the fact that they hadn't been sleeping much, let alone peacefully, since the news of mad cow disease broke the day before. For folks in this remote southeastern-most county in Montana, it is suddenly hard to think about much else.
Carter County is one of the less-affluent counties in one of the poorest states in the Union: Montana ranks 45th in per-capita personal income and would probably rank lower still had it not become trendy for celebrities to purchase property in the western part of the state. Eastern Montana is cattle country. Indeed, 42 beef cows graze the Carter County prairie for every human being living here, most of the latter just barely scraping by. The per-capita income is $13,280; one in five Carter County residents live below the poverty line.
With the recent boom in cattle prices, ranchers here were doing better than they had in years. For those less financially secure — the majority — doing better meant being able to make a loan payment on time. Even the good times had come tinged with irony, because most operators had reduced the size of their herds after successive drought years and so had fewer cows to sell when prices took off. Now, of course, the question of selling them at all is frightening, with bans imposed by all major importers of U.S. beef and a domestic market poised for free fall.
My husband and I raise bison rather than cattle, so we can only empathize with our neighbors. But we are still recovering — emotionally as well as financially — from the crash of the buffalo market four years ago. And much of the anger and frustration we felt then over the disastrous consequences of what could be called the "cattle-ization" of the bison business — the pressure to turn wild grazers into feedlot animals, and the inferior "product" that resulted — surface again now. Cattle can be raised naturally and safely, and cost-effectively, on the open range. Granted, meat raised this way costs somewhat more than a Big Mac. But, figuring the health-conscious consumer would appreciate the difference, we, along with other smaller operators, were committed to raising natural, grass-fed, additive-free bison.
The current system of industrialized agriculture, however, makes it extremely difficult for independent producers to market such healthy meat. Eighty-five percent of the U.S. cattle sold at auction make it to the slaughterhouse by way of feedlots. And with two-thirds of federal subsidies going to the top 10% of producers, most ranchers have little choice but to cooperate with a system that is endangering not only their cows but also the small family farm.
When the bison market crashed, many had to liquidate their herds. We managed to weather the storm by offering buffalo hunts on our land, which provided natural meat seasoned with a generous dash of the adventure of the Old West.
Of course, the prospect of shooting beef cows doesn't evoke the same sense of romance. But then, neither does a feedlot. While our fellow ranchers' cattle thrive on the same hard-grass range our bison do, in the normal course of things, they are sent to processing facilities to be "finished" on feed supplements.
This system, established by the four agribusiness giants that control 80% of all beef slaughtered, prizes efficiency, volume and profit. Groups as varied as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, the Organic Consumers Association and Farm Sanctuary for years have warned that the feedlot system breeds the very conditions that make mad cow disease likely — and at the expense of both cattle and consumer.
It long has been known that the disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), is directly traceable to feed tainted with infected bovine nerve tissue. Industry experts also have known what the American public is now learning: that there are an undetermined number of violators of the Food and Drug Administration's ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feed; that loopholes in FDA regulations allow the exposure of veal calves and feeder cattle to potentially BSE-infected material; that far too few "downers" or other high-risk animals are tested at slaughterhouses; and that the life histories of most cows are impossible to trace.
But addressing these issues would cut into corporate profits. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been reluctant to establish, let alone enforce, food-safety guidelines comparable to those in place in Britain or Japan. Even the recently announced USDA regulations fail to address the fact that the feedlot system itself produces sick animals and potentially dangerous meat.
The bison market has begun to turn around, with natural and organic producers leading the way in positioning bison as a healthy alternative to chemical-laden beef. At the same time, organic grass-fed beef has been claiming a growing, if still small, share of the beef market.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., co-chair of the House Food Safety Caucus, recently told The New York Times that because "most cattle in the United States don't eat grass in open pastures" but are "crammed into feedlots most of their lives ... it's time we took our safety precautions into the modern era." She was almost right. It's actually time we took our beef cattle back to the pasture.
American cattle ranching should be steered away from high-production feedlots. Like their wilder bison cousins, cattle evolved to eat grass. The lesson of BSE is that they are unsafe on any other feed.
Mary Zeiss Stange, a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, teaches at Skidmore College and operates the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch with her husband, Doug.
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