Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Guest blog: Smallholder Sez Parts is Parts

In a post a few days ago, the Big Hominid asked why we are feeding ground up cows to cows?

In short, ‘cause parts is parts.

In modern beef agriculture, the emphasis is on getting the steers to market size as quickly as possible. In the old days of the cattle drive, the steers arriving in Chicago would be three to four years old. Cattle today finish out at the same size in sixteen to eighteen months. We are able to accelerate their growth by feeding them an artificial diet of grain. This grain promotes fast growth and puts fat onto the carcasses, but does not contain all the protein that the animal needs.

Normally, the majority of the needed protein would be absorbed through grazed forages. But in the packed conditions of the feedlot (http://www.schauscompanies.com/feedlots.html
), no grazing is possible. It is also uneconomical to bring large amounts of bulky forages to the animals. So animals need protein supplements.

The dairy industry has evolved along similar lines; very few herdsmen now include pasture as part of their management plan. Most dairies, like the one in Washington that had the mad cow positive, are confinement operations, so they need protein supplements too (perhaps more; there seems to be some studies out there that show that excess protein can be pushed into increased milk production).

So industrial scale farmers need protein supplements. These protein supplements can be very expensive. Since farming is a low margin business, it is essential to find the cheapest protein supplements possible.

Slaughterhouses have protein-rich wastes that would be otherwise be discarded. Waste = cheap. So many feed companies bought the bones and offal, ground it up, and fed it back to the cows.

Cannibalism (at least for cows) pays. The attitude is that protein is protein; the source doesn’t matter.

Another source used in protein supplements is chicken slaughter wastes. Feathers evidently contain a relatively high amount of protein, so they are ground up and fed to cattle as well.

But my personal favorite is chicken bedding. I live in the Shenandoah Valley, which is a poultry production center. Huge two story buildings house upwards of 100,000 chickens at a time. They produce a lot of crap, which is absorbed by the sawdust bedding. When the chickens are shipped to slaughter, the immense amounts of waste are a real problem. This isn’t like your grandpa’s farming where the manure is all composted and added to the garden. We are talking hundreds of tons of stuff. You can’t spread it on the poultry farm’s land because the land cannot absorb the dense concentration of feces. You might remember the pfisteria scare in Maryland a few years back. It was caused by chicken crap.

Some of the poultry bedding is trucked out to other farms and spread as a soil amendment. A bit stinky, but it can be used to fertilize pasture (though I don’t do it because I’m don’t want the chemicals that have passed through commercial birds on my land and because I’m afraid that any bedding would bring in all sorts of nasty diseases to afflict my household flock). But even with some going back to the land, there is still a lot of poultry crap.

As a result, we periodically see adds in the Harrisonburg newspaper for “poultry litter for fertilizer or CATTLE FEED.” I shit you not. Pun intended.

Chickens are inefficient in their digestion. Much of the feed value of the grain they eat passes through their bodies and is crapped out (if the Big Hominid will contemplate his waste after a meal of corn on the cob, he’ll see what I mean). So the crap has some grain feed value. More importantly, the crap also contains protein. Cheap protein supplement.

And parts is parts, right?

So the answer, Big Hominid, is that we feed cattle other cattle and chicken shit because of the almighty dollar. It makes economic sense.

To paraphrase Churchill, “Capitalism is the worst economic system except for all the others.”

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