I promised some vegetarian material.
And it’s coming. Believe, me, it is.
It’s just that I have a bull’s horn in my pocket, bull blood on my gloves, bull poo on my pants, and a bull’s testicle in my pocket right now. So I’m having a hard time thinking about tofu.
I recently visited my friend Katie Sue’s family ranch in southeastern Colorado, and I’m here to learn something more about where beef comes from by taking part in a big day around these parts: the day that the calves get branded.
Spend a half-hour on a ranch and you learn quickly that water is important to a degree that’s hard for a city-dweller to imagine. It’s been a very dry year; rainfall had been only around an inch total for 2011, well off the pace of the still-arid 10-inch annual average. And even with the ranch’s water allotment from the government, this was not enough water to support the farm at its current size.
Calf operations are made and broken based on rainfall, and people who are good enough – or lucky enough – to forecast the weather well make out well. “Farmers are the biggest gamblers there are,” Mike Nicklos told me. And it’s true; at the time of our visit, Mike was contemplating whether to sell some of his cattle (effectively, a bet that the dry spell would continue) or keep them (a bet that they’d get enough rain to nourish enough grass to feed the cattle they’ve got). Away from the JEJ Ranch, it’s not uncommon for farmers to take out huge mortgages to buy equipment, supplies, or more land, betting on a big rainfall the following year; if it doesn’t come, that they won’t be able to repay their loans and foreclosure is a real possibility – literally betting it all.
While Colorado conjures up mountains and Coors, this part of Colorado is the western edge of the Great Plains, which was renamed from “The Great American Desert” in the mid-1800s as part of a government-led marketing effort to encourage western settlement in one of the last Indian strongholds in the USA. It’s hard to imagine, but the entire Great Plains area was once full of buffalo, an animal that was rescued from near-extinction in recent years but was once so plentiful that seven million pounds of buffalo tongue alone were sold during a three-year period in Texas in the early 20th century. That’s a lot of tongue.
Marketing materials promoting the available land in the Great Plains told that the very act of plowing the ground would lead to more rain, a ridiculous premise that nonetheless had people digging up grasses all over the middle of the country and planting crops like wheat, foregoing what this land “wanted” to be – grazing acres for cattle – and forcing in crops that didn’t belong. What digging up the land did manage to accomplish was to eliminate the grassy roots that were holding the dusty, dry land in place – this was one of several factors that led to the Dust Bowl (which is one of recent history’s more unrecognized weather-related tragedies, chronicled in Timothy Egan’s excellent book). One of the many things that is so cool about JEJ and farms like it is its link to the past; here, a century after we nearly hunted buffalo off the face of the earth and repurposed hundreds of millions of neighboring acres to crop farming, the Nicklos’ land is still being used for its natural purpose.
Making beef is a land-intensive business. The ranch is 240 acres and can support 60 cow-calf pairs (the mom-child pair is the standard unit of measurement in the cow-rearing trade). This is over four acres per pair, more land per animal than Derek Jeter will enjoy in his newly-constructed and totally ridiculous 30,000 square foot Tampa-area mansion, which sits on a measly 1.6 acres. And four acres per pair is a low number, achievable only through active rotating of grazing areas – many operations run at 60 acres per cow-calf pair.
It’s also a labor of love. The same 240 acres that provided a living for 16 people at JEJ as recently as 1930 barely covers its own expenses today. Profits have been squeezed down by oligopsonist feedlot operators that comprise the bulk of the customer base for businesses like JEJ Farms. Mike Nicklos has been a practicing lawyer for 31 years to support his ranching.
The cattle bred at JEJ could go anywhere – most will get sold to commercial feedlots – but the first year or so of their lives is spent in circumstances that seem pretty ideal. Up until today, these newborn calves spent most of their time – up to a year on JEJ – roaming land, chilling with mom. Not a bad way to spend your days – in fact, there are credible evolutionary theorists who believe that cows’ tastiness is a survival trait. Yes: cows evolved to make tasty burgers because it guaranteed that humans would go out of their way to ensure there are more cows in the world.
Today, however, was probably the most unsettling day of these cattle’s short lives. On the agenda:
-Brand each calf.
-Vaccinate each calf.
-Put a squirt of insecticide on each calf.
-If the calf has horns, cut the tips of his horns.
-If the calf is a boy, castrate him – which this ranch does by putting a rubber band around its… um… well, let’s not beat around the bush. By putting a rubber band around its scrotum, just above the balls. This is meant to be less stressful for the animal, though the eventual effect still gives me shudders: a few weeks after the banding, the blood-deprived man-bits just drop off.
Which brings us to some cow terminology. There are bulls, steers, heifers, and cows, enough to make a city slicker’s head spin. How to keep ’em all straight? Just remember the handy equation:
bull – testicles = steer
And the less catchy:
heifer + motherhood = cow.
To start the process, the calves are grouped together (and away from their moms for the first time, which in itself is probably pretty traumatic). They’re then run one at a time through a narrow chute. They do not want to go down this narrow chute. And while “calf” connotes “baby,” these animals weigh up to 350 pounds by the time they get branded and are extremely powerful – there’s a lot of opportunity to get kicked in the knee, head, balls… you get the picture. The way to get a cow through properly is to get right up behind it, pelvis-to-bum, and us your hips to push the calf forward. It’s somewhat less sexual than it sounds. You want to try to stay right up on it the whole way through – if a cow gets any room to maneuver, it will unleash hooves of fury.
At the end of this chute is a large green steel device that holds the calf in place on its side; a team of people immediately descend, auto-racing-pit-stop style, to do what needs to be done. One person administers the vaccinations; another sprays the insecticide; a third, the branding. The males have it far worse: the castration (’nuff said) and the horn-cutting, which can often get bloody.
There’s no way around the fact that if you’re a calf, this process sucks. During the procedure, the cattle are pretty clearly terrified and in pain (loud and potentially disturbing, so caveat emptor: here’s a video of the calves getting branded and one getting all the rest).
And it’s traumatic – just take a look at these videos of the cattle together, before the branding and just after. The silence and cautious glares of the cattle post-branding speak volumes:
But. Let’s remember that this is the worst day of these cattle’s lives so far, and perhaps the second-worst day they’re ever going to have. Seen in that light, the branding didn’t seem so bad. Compare their reactions to that of this middle-class American boy had when his mom closed out his World of Warcraft account, and I’m not so sure the cows have it so terrible.
And as for the physical duress, it’s quick. Female calves are in and out in about 90 seconds, the bulls maybe double that. And once released from the contraption that holds them down, they prance away and over to their moms, apparently none the worse for wear:
As difficult as the going is financially for a small family farm like JEJ, I was surprised that such an entity could exist at all alongside the big meatpackers that make up its customer base. Why weren’t the big companies just sweeping in and driving all small farms out of business with massive scale economies and poorer animal welfare? Some have (Tyson, a leading chicken producer that has also gotten into beef, is one example), but most keep clear of calf-raising entirely and buy their young steer and heifers at auction.
I go back to Mike’s comment about farmers being the biggest gamblers there are, and I think therein lies the answer. Big corporations tend to eschew risk. Why would they get involved in a business that is so dependent on something as unpredictable as the weather? If drought in one part of the country renders one farm unable to produce, there are always hundreds of others in different parts of the country waiting to fill those voids. So feedlot conglomerates, in all likelihood, have consciously decided to push the biggest risk in their business onto family farms.
And the farms will take it on. Partially because of tradition: everyone who’s a farmer here comes from parents who were farmers. Partly for love; it’s clear, looking around the farm here, that raising cattle is what the Nicklos family loves to do. And branding day is a huge event. Family members come from across the country to participate; it is a great, task- and team-oriented activity that involves being outside all day and being connected to nature, with a frisson of unpredictability and danger.
Over the day, I ran three calves down the chute, branded one, and held down the tail and the leg for countless others. Of all these jobs, holding the leg was the hardest. This happens when a bull is in play, and the top rear leg (remember the bull is on its side) has to be held in place and out of the way so someone else can get right up into the bull’s man-bits to put on the +5 Rubber Band of Castration (with Magic Missile). Basically, the job of the leg-holder is to keep the castrator from getting a face full of pissed-off cow hoof. and that’s a high-pressure job.
Ball removal makes the steer grow more; JEJ uses rubber bands because the technique adds yet another 10-15 pounds of sale weight. I’ve also read that castrated steer provide much more tender filet mignon, as the tenderloin that it comes from is essentially a cow’s “humping muscle,” which toughens up during use (and a steer, much like a eunuch, doesn’t much get jiggy wit it).
Speaking of cow sex: Rocky Mountain Oysters, if you haven’t heard, are cow balls. I’d never had one, and it looked like I still wouldn’t when I learned about the rubber band technique. But I lucked out; one calf appeared to only have one ball, so it had to be castrated the old fashioned way so they could make sure they weren’t leaving one in the chamber. Mike took the testicle and slapped it in my hand with a smile and much gusto, and Uncle Carl was good enough to prep it and throw it on the grill for me.
They’re absolutely delicious. If it weren’t for the obvious marketing challenges involved selling balls to a populace that is squeamish about eating balls, testicles would be featured in high-end restaurants everywhere.
By 2pm, we were done, 38 calves branded. There was a sort of high we all felt after the work day was done. Given the bull-poo covered state of my pants, the vibe of the moment, and the date (branding took place on May 21, 2011, a date that will live in infamy for this crazy old coot), there was no doubt that I was experiencing…