November 02, 2014
Two questions often asked: “Do you have cows? And, do you raise your beef from babies?” My answer: “No, I don’t have cows. And, no I don’t raise our steers from babies.” Inevitably the next question is, “Why?”
Good question. “Why,” teases out a little more information that often gets to the core of what the original question hoped for. The “why” answer is, Belinda and I buy, raise, and sell our calves because of our sense of justice.
Our neighbors work cow-calf ranches/farms. A cow-calf ranch is one that has a number of cows which are kept year-round. These cows are breed to a bull(s) who, often, is also kept year-round. Calves are born in the spring (some ranches also have calves in the fall). They are raised on mamma’s milk throughout the spring and summer. Come late summer calves begin eating range or pasture grass alongside mamma. Early fall sees the calves weaned from their mothers. Then in late fall the calves are taken to the auction house and sold. That is where we come in.
Each fall we visit our neighbors looking for calves to bring to the farm. Our favorite way of having calves come to the farm is to say to our neighbor, “We’ll take the two black claves and the baldy. Whatever price you get at the sale yard, we’ll give you the same.” That way we minimize the calves stress by transporting the calves directly from the ranch to JustLiving Farm. However, that doesn’t work for everyone—normally our relationship isn’t at that stage yet—and we go to the auction yard, bid on the calves, buy, and then bring them to the farm—the calves stress is higher in this model, but in a few days they settle in. We believe this way of having calves on the farm is a particular way of engaging in animal justice.
The treatment of calves from birth until they leave the auction yard is generally good. On the front end, they are born on pasture, raised on mamma’s milk, and eat open range or pasture grasses. On the back end, though it is more stressful than staying on pasture, the transportation of calves is done well, for at least one of two reasons. First, most folk are in the cattle business because they love this way of life and these animals. Second, for those whom this is only a business, every bit of stress hinders weight gain, which translates to lower profits. Therefore, most everyone strives for stress-free transportation. However, it is the next stage of the process that we believe makes our way of obtaining animals justice centered. For after the auction, at the end of the transport run, most every calf ends up in a feedlot.
Feedlots are range and pasture’s opposite. Anywhere from ten acres to hundreds of acres in size, feedlots dot the American landscape. Across tens of thousands of feedlot square acres, there isn’t as much as a blade of grass, a clump of clover, or a weed to be found. Plenty of manure though.
From the time the calves arrive until the end of life, calves will eat a feed ration/mix (often corn based) from concrete bunks (feed troughs). They will eat and then spend the rest of their day on an open grassless area, where of course, they poop. Without a grass blade, a root, a rabbit, a bush, there is little to raise curiosity or wonderment, so for the remainder of their life, calves stand or lie down—movement is at a minimum.
Justice is in the comparison. Where farm calves spend their day on open pastures walking and grazing on grasses, clover, and various weeds, feedlot calves spend their lives eating, sleeping, and drinking on a pile of shit. Where farm calves curiosity is enhanced by the growing gopher mounds, a blue heron landing in the pasture, changing grasses and weed with season, feedlot calves have a bare manure lot of no wonder, no joy, no meaningful life. Where farm calves spend a life walking, running, bucking, playing, feedlot calves are listless, stagnant, and muscle-less. If there is a definition of injustice, it is the life of a feedlot calf.
At the farm, we do not have the pleasure of living our preference of having a few cows and baby calves in the spring. We know that the numbers of calves who live out their life on the farm is inconsequential in contrast to the millions of calves in American feedlots. Yet our hope in crafting a place where calves live natural lives eating grass and clover and weeds is to do more than reduce the number of calves living in dishonor and defilement. Our hope is to develop deep and lasting relationships with neighbors who birth calves and neighbors who buy beef. Our hope is others will participate in the justice of knowing where their meat comes from and how it is raise. Our hope is folk learn that they too can engage in the work of the small farmer or rancher and become cultivators of justice in the landscape.
[Feedlot photo is from The Art of Unity 12/29/2013]