I openly cringed when I checked my email yesterday morning to find a letter from a consumer who is also a regular reader of my blog. Most of the time, I write to beef producers and fellow agriculture enthusiasts, but I also know activists, environmentalists and everyday consumers tune in, and I’m happy to educate, inform and answer genuine questions they may have. I just had to share this most recent letter, along with my response. I will continue an email dialogue with this woman, and I hope you will help me formulate additional responses to send her way. Continue reading to find out what some consumers are saying about beef producers.
"Amanda, all animals processed conventionally are super-stressed out, terrified, and their cortisol and panic levels are out of sorts, and then we eat that crap. Your portrait of the lives of animals simply isn't accurate except in fairy tales or, in rare exceptions, at family farms. I wish you were right, though! Just like with humans, emotions are very much recorded on a cellular level. This has been scientifically documented. So, it may sound ridiculous, but we very much are eating not just the hormones pumped into them to keep them pregnant all the time, but we are eating their panic, fear, stress, pain and anxiety, which affects us, unfortunately. Hell, that describes most Americans. You are what you eat; it can't be said enough! Cows are usually super-diseased, ill, miserable and abused, unless you are getting local grass-fed, pastured cows that are killed most-humanely.
"When was the last time you read up on this or watched a documentary on current conventional farming methods? I highly recommend the documentary 'Earthlings;' it's available for free on Google video or YouTube. Just watch the Kosher cow footage, which is supposedly the most humane, but truly the most violent, savage and painful things I've ever seen. I would also encourage you to read the book, 'Slaughterhouse' by Gail Eisnitz, featuring interviews with slaughterhouse employees, not animal rights activists. It's as detailed as it gets. The book 'Skinny Bitch' pretty much devotes a chapter to stories from that book, as well.
"I see you are from the Dakotas. It's very likely you have access to some old school, non-hormone ridden, grass-fed, much-happier cows that aren't killed so callously and in such gruesome ways (i.e., hung upside down still alive after they were stuck poorly with no anesthetic, then skinned alive, bleeding and kicking so hard that they are a threat to the skinner, who either then paralyzes them, still conscious and sentient, by sticking them in the spine, and/or cuts their legs off while still alive, and continuing to dismember and skin fully conscious and terrified animals. This is the mainstream way -- the norm)."
I appreciate your email so that we can discuss some of your concerns. You paint a grim picture of our food supply, and I hope to share some personal experiences and facts to help alleviate some of the guilt and worry you may feel about the meat you eat.
Here's what I know:
1. Ninety-seven percent of farms and ranchers are still family-owned and operated (USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture). I'm a proud, fifth-generation cattle producer, and I'm the third to live on my family's ranch in South Dakota. We have an obligation to take care of the land and the animals, and our values in faith, family and hard work are very strong. Chores on the ranch are at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. without exceptions. Take into consideration that many of my family members have off-farm jobs to support the ranch, and that means we are putting in very long working days, often for very little premium. I don't tell you this so you feel sorry for me; it's a commitment to excellence we enjoy, and it's a way of life that is a long-standing tradition for us.
2. Happy, healthy cattle are productive cattle. From a business standpoint, it makes zero sense for us to allow our animals to be sick, stressed and mistreated. We follow the best animal-handling practices of the National Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) Program . Quality beef starts with quality cattle given quality care, and that's the motto my family follows on our ranch.
3. The beef industry has come a long way with millions of dollars invested in research to help make us more efficient, less wasteful and better caregivers to the animals. Yet, even with modern advancements, I feel good knowing that my family's business is still harbored in long-standing traditions. Conventionally raised beef is still grass-fed and grain-finished, and the cattle business still looks a lot like it did 100 years ago, with cattle grazing in lush, green pastures before being finished in state-of-the-art feedlots. Even though the U.S. cowherd is the smallest its been since the 1950s, we are able to yield more lean red meat for consumers to enjoy, using less natural resources. This is particularly significant as yesterday, the "Scientific American" reported,  "A mere 12 years after surmounting 6 billion, the world's population will reach 7 billion, according to the U.N." Simply stated, there's more mouths to feed, and less ranchers to produce the food. I want every person to be able to enjoy healthy, delicious beef.
4. Finally, you recommended a few documentaries. Allow me to suggest one, as well. "Temple Grandin" is an HBO movie starring Clare Danes  that chronicles the life of Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who exceeded the odds to become one of the most well-respected individuals in the beef industry. She has worked extensively to improve cattle-working facilities, feedlots, packing plants and even the way ranchers act around livestock. She has vastly improved animal welfare practices  in our industry, and this applies to all methods of beef production, not just organic or grass-fed.
5. I hope you will take the time to visit with real ranchers and allow us the opportunity to open up our pasture gates and show you how we really do business. The scare tactics of animal rights activists and mainstream media can really impact popular perceptions. But, I can confidently tell you that as a conventional beef producer, I feel I’m providing the best care of the animals, sustainably improving the land for future generations, staying true to my roots and values in family and faith, and enjoying delicious grain-fed beef, guilt-free. God Bless, and please, email me with further questions or concerns you may have.
Readers, how would you have responded to this email? What would you change about my response? Remember being defensive or getting angry gets us nowhere. The only way to make progress is with open, respectful dialogue.