Excerpts from a New York Times feature article, where the author bought a calf and followed him through the system. The entire article can be read at NYTimes (registration required).
Although beef cattle don't generally experience the same extent of suffering as factory-farmed pigs and birds, this article does give a good insight into modern agriculture.
First stop was a hopper filled with Rumensin, a powerful antibiotic that No. 534 will consume with his feed every day for the rest of his life. Calves have no need of regular medication while on grass, but as soon as they're placed in the backgrounding pen, they're apt to get sick. Why? The stress of weaning is a factor, but the main culprit is the feed. The shift to a ''hot ration'' of grain can so disturb the cow's digestive process -- its rumen, in particular -- that it can kill the animal if not managed carefully and accompanied by antibiotics.
...Indeed, a cattle feedlot is a kind of city, populated by as many as 100,000 animals. It is very much a premodern city, however -- crowded, filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads and choking air... This combination has always been a recipe for disease; the only reason contemporary animal cities aren't as plague-ridden as their medieval counterparts is a single historical anomaly: the modern antibiotic.
...Growing the vast quantities of corn used to feed livestock in this country takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil -- 1.2 gallons for every bushel. So the modern feedlot is really a city floating on a sea of oil.
... Around the other side of the mill, tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks, into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplement. In a shed attached to the mill sit vats of liquid vitamins and synthetic estrogen; next to these are pallets stacked with 50-pound sacks of Rumensin and tylosin, another antibiotic.
The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm, there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories. Of course the identical industrial logic -- protein is protein -- led to the feeding of rendered cow parts back to cows, a practice the F.D.A. banned in 1997 after scientists realized it was spreading mad-cow disease.
Make that mostly banned. The F.D.A.'s rules against feeding ruminant protein to ruminants make exceptions for ''blood products'' (even though they contain protein) and fat. Indeed, my steer has probably dined on beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse he's heading to in June. ''Fat is fat,'' the feedlot manager shrugged when I raised an eyebrow....
Until mad-cow disease, remarkably few people in the cattle business, let alone the general public, comprehended the strange semicircular food chain that industrial agriculture had devised for cattle (and, in turn, for us). When I mentioned to Rich Blair that I'd been surprised to learn that cows were eating cows, he said, ''To tell the truth, it was kind of a shock to me too.'' Yet even today, ranchers don't ask many questions about feedlot menus. Not that the answers are so easy to come by. When I asked Poky's feedlot manager what exactly was in the protein supplement, he couldn't say. ''When we buy supplement, the supplier says it's 40 percent protein, but they don't specify beyond that.'' When I called the supplier, it wouldn't divulge all its ''proprietary ingredients'' but promised that animal parts weren't among them. Protein is pretty much still protein.
Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal's lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal's esophagus), the cow suffocates. ...
Cows rarely live on feedlot diets for more than six months, which might be about as much as their digestive systems can tolerate. ...another vet said that a sustained feedlot diet would eventually ''blow out their livers'' and kill them. As the acids eat away at the rumen wall, bacteria enter the bloodstream and collect in the liver. More than 13 percent of feedlot cattle are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers.
What keeps a feedlot animal healthy -- or healthy enough -- are antibiotics. ... Most of the antibiotics sold in America end up in animal feed -- a practice that, it is now generally acknowledged, leads directly to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant ''superbugs.'' In the debate over the use of antibiotics in agriculture, a distinction is usually made between clinical and nonclinical uses. Public-health advocates don't object to treating sick animals with antibiotics; they just don't want to see the drugs lose their efficacy because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to promote growth. But the use of antibiotics in feedlot cattle confounds this distinction. Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn't be sick if not for what we feed them.
I stopped by the shed where recent arrivals receive their hormone implants. The calves are funneled into a chute, herded along by a ranch hand wielding an electric prod, then clutched in a restrainer just long enough for another hand to inject a slow-release pellet of Revlar, a synthetic estrogen, in the back of the ear. ... I was still struggling with the decision of whether to forgo what is virtually a universal practice in the cattle industry in the United States. (It has been banned in the European Union.)
American regulators permit hormone implants on the grounds that no risk to human health has been proved, even though measurable hormone residues do turn up in the meat we eat. These contribute to the buildup of estrogenic compounds in the environment, which some scientists believe may explain falling sperm counts and premature maturation in girls. Recent studies have also found elevated levels of synthetic growth hormones in feedlot wastes; these persistent chemicals eventually wind up in the waterways downstream of feedlots, where scientists have found fish exhibiting abnormal sex characteristics.
I don't know enough about the emotional life of cows to say with any confidence if No. 534 was miserable, bored or melancholy, but I would not say he looked happy. I noticed that his eyes looked a little bloodshot. Some animals are irritated by the fecal dust that floats in the feedlot air; maybe that explained the sullen gaze with which he fixed me. ...
...One way of looking at No. 534 -- the industrial way -- was as an efficient machine for turning feed corn into beef. Every day between now and his slaughter date in June, No. 534 will convert 32 pounds of feed (25 of them corn) into another three and a half pounds of flesh. Poky is indeed a factory, transforming cheap raw materials into a less-cheap finished product, as fast as bovinely possible.
...Escherichia coli 0157 is a relatively new strain of a common intestinal bacteria (it was first isolated in the 1980's) that is common in feedlot cattle, more than half of whom carry it in their guts. Ingesting as few as 10 of these microbes can cause a fatal infection. Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids -- and go on to kill us. By acidifying a cow's gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain's barriers to infection.
...Grandin, an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State, is one of the most influential people in the United States cattle industry. She has devoted herself to making cattle slaughter less stressful and therefore more humane by designing an ingenious series of cattle restraints, chutes, ramps and stunning systems. ... Grandin designed the double-rail conveyor system in use at the National Beef plant; she has also audited the plant's killing process for McDonald's. Stories about cattle ''waking up'' after stunning only to be skinned alive prompted McDonald's to audit its suppliers in a program that is credited with substantial improvements since its inception in 1999. Grandin says that in cattle slaughter ''there is the pre-McDonald's era and the post-McDonald's era -- it's night and day.''
...Much of what happens next -- the de-hiding of the animal, the tying off of its rectum before evisceration -- is designed to keep the animal's feces from coming into contact with its meat. This is by no means easy to do, not when the animals enter the kill floor smeared with manure and 390 of them are eviscerated every hour. (Partly for this reason, European plants operate at much slower line speeds.) But since that manure is apt to contain lethal pathogens like E. coli 0157, and since the process of grinding together hamburger from hundreds of different carcasses can easily spread those pathogens across millions of burgers, packing plants now spend millions on ''food safety'' -- which is to say, on the problem of manure in meat.
Most of these efforts are reactive: it's accepted that the animals will enter the kill floor caked with feedlot manure that has been rendered lethal by the feedlot diet. Rather than try to alter that diet or keep the animals from living in their waste or slow the line speed -- all changes regarded as impractical -- the industry focuses on disinfecting the manure that will inevitably find its way into the meat. This is the purpose of irradiation (which the industry prefers to call ''cold pasteurization''). It is also the reason that carcasses pass through a hot steam cabinet and get sprayed with an antimicrobial solution before being hung in the cooler at the National Beef plant.
... While waiting for my box of meat to arrive from Kansas, I've explored some alternatives to the industrial product. ... I discovered that grass-fed meat is more expensive than supermarket beef. Whatever else you can say about industrial beef, it is remarkably cheap, and any argument for changing the system runs smack into the industry's populist arguments. Put the animals back on grass, it is said, and prices will soar; it takes too long to raise beef on grass, and there's not enough grass to raise them on, since the Western range lands aren't big enough to sustain America's 100 million head of cattle.