Raising Beef Cattle
All photographs courtesy of the author.

Raising Beef Cattle

Tom Blanton
Tom Blanton
15 min read

Spencer Case, writing in Quillette on November 7th, 2018, expressed concern for the “tens of billions of land animals” killed every year “in so-called ‘factory farms,’ having lived lives of unrelieved mental and physical anguish, because humans enjoy eating their flesh.”

When I read that, I was dumbfounded. It was so contrary to my experience raising beef cattle. The picture that accompanied his essay showing the faces of cattle staring through bars from a dark place sent me digging through my files for images from my time running a cattle ranch. I pulled up the above picture of our Charolais heifers being turned out into a pasture of smooth brome. As I looked at it, Case’s description of “unrelieved mental and physical anguish” played over in my head. It’s hard to imagine a more inaccurate description of the peace and contentment so apparent in this pastoral scene.

I don’t know where Case came up with the tens of billions figure, but if he included the cattle killed every year in the US and Canada for beef production, he is seriously mistaken. One of the most important things you learn in making a cattle ranch a successful business is that happy cattle are productive cattle. I can’t imagine how a beef cattle business could be successful subjecting its animals to “unrelieved mental and physical anguish.” The cattle simply wouldn’t produce. It’s important to understand that the contentment shown in the lead photo is not incidental. It is a deliberate business objective and an integral part of a successful ranching operation.

In another sweeping generalization, Matthew Scully wrote in National Review: “The factory farms—producing almost every animal product we see sold or advertised, in our country and most others—are places of immense and avoidable suffering.” I can assure you, based on my experience, beef products do not come from “places of immense and avoidable suffering.” And in his recent review of The Decadent Society for Quillette, Ben Sixsmith takes a passing shot at ranchers, mentioning “the livestock being tortured to sustain our appetite for cheap animal products.”

I don’t believe that Case, Scully, and Sixsmith are deliberately misrepresenting the origins of animal products. I’m sure they are sincere and well-meaning in their representations. Nor do I think their concerns are completely without merit (more about which in a moment). Rather, I think it’s a case of simply not being familiar with the complete picture. My concern is that the image of “factory farms” as horror houses from which practically all our meat products originate, if repeated unchallenged often enough, becomes accepted as common knowledge and forms an unquestioned premise for discussions about the way we produce our food.

Keir Watson’s Quillette essay “The Case for Sustainable Meat” offers a more balanced analysis. While he draws from cases around the world, he gives particularly insightful perspective on the UK’s pastoral landscapes. I would like to add my own firsthand perspective of raising beef cattle on the short-grass prairie of North America. It is a view of cattle ranching as businesses that contribute greatly not only to human nutrition and health but also to the wellbeing of our environment and in doing so provide their animals a better life than they would have in the wild. My hope is that by understanding cattle ranching the reader will come to appreciate not only the value of these ranches but also that no business advantage is gained by subjecting these animals to “unrelieved mental and physical anguish” or “immense and avoidable suffering.”

A brief note about my experience

I’m a geologist and have spent most of my career in research and consulting, but for 10 years I managed a cow-calf ranch. It was a relatively small operation, just big enough to be a serious commercial concern. Officially, I was the sole full-time employee, but was only able to get all the work done with significant help from my wife, children, neighbors, and the local veterinarian. As preparation for running the ranch, I earned a certificate in ranch management at Texas Christian University which required 21 hours of ranch management courses covering everything from animal health, breeding, and nutrition to range management, soils, and grasses to markets and business management. Beyond that, my experience of ranching has been summer jobs in my youth and through many friends and family involved in ranching.

Cattle ranches

Beef cattle in North America spend most of their lives at pasture on ranches, not confined in cages or pens on “factory farms.” Even the ASPCA admits that “Virtually all beef cattle are ‘grass-fed’ because they begin their lives on grass. ‘Grass-finished’ distinguishes those cattle who spend their lives eating grasses and are never sent to a feedlot.”

The system that delivers beef to our retail markets is composed of ranches, feedlots, and rendering plants. Cattle in this system are born and raised on ranches where they spend their time doing what they do best: grazing, growing, and reproducing. It is the time spent in pens, feedlots, and rendering plants that is the basis for the “factory farm” image, but in fact on average it only accounts for a small part of cattle’s lives and in many cases practically none at all. It is by cherry-picking images of the times of confinement from around the world that the gruesome image of “factory farms” is created. Often the images are taken from countries that don’t have the humanitarian regulations that most Western nations have.

So, what is life on North American ranches like for cattle? Typically, their lives are spent on open pasture grazing grasses best suited to their digestive systems. They have free access to water and minerals. During the winter months when the grasses and shrubs go dormant and plant protein content drops, the condition of grazing and browsing animals can decline appreciably. To avoid this loss of condition, most ranchers put out a protein supplement like cottonseed meal. In the winter where I was ranching, the grass would often be covered in snow. When that happened, I would roll out round bales of alfalfa on the hillsides for the cattle. These procedures keep the cows healthy and robust during their months of pregnancy, so that they’re ready to calve in the spring.

There are natural stresses, of course, like weather, predators, and giving birth, but these are stresses that the animals are equipped to handle on their own for the most part. Occasionally, when a cow or heifer has a birthing problem like a breach presentation, she is gathered into the barn where she can be restrained and assisted, but most heifers and cows have their calves in the pasture without incident.

The heifer pictured below has just born her first calf, licked it clean, gotten it up, and is ready to provide it with its first meal all in a period of less than an hour, and most importantly all on her own without any assistance. This is one of the most important principles of successful ranching. You want your cattle to grow, eat, and reproduce as much as possible on their own with as little interference as possible. The savings in labor costs, supplies, equipment, and vet bills are the difference between success and failure. This principle is antithetical to everything you see in the images of “factory farms,” which create the impression of total control at every stage of life.

The pictured heifer looks a little rough, having just given birth, but as soon as junior has finished his first meal, she’ll head for the creek for a long drink of fresh spring water, which will do wonders for her looks. Before long, I’ll be by with a feeding of cottonseed cubes to supplement the protein she and her sisters will need to support their calves. This spring birth, and the others that will follow in the next 60 days, are timed so that their mothers’ maximum nutritional needs will match the maximum forage production of the short-grass range, which comes in mid-to-late summer. In raising her calf, this heifer will become part of the cow herd and lead as close to an ideal life as a bovine can reasonably expect.

The main product of our cow-calf ranch was a set of calves weaned between late October and early November and weighing 500 to 600 pounds. This set would be composed of all the steer calves and the half of the heifer calves not held for breeding. Customers who bought our calves run a second type of ranch called a stocker operation. These ranches put calves they buy from us on pasture with the goal of adding about 200 to 300 pounds weight and readying them for finishing in the feedlot. The primary concern of stocker ranches is keeping their calves healthy. Beyond market fluctuations, disease and death are the biggest threats to the bottom line. Just like the cow-calf ranch, the stocker’s business success depends on keeping his animals healthy and happy.

In the spring of most years, I would visit a third type of ranch, the primary product of which is breeding stock. These ranches hold periodic bull sales for people like me who are seeking breeding bulls to replace those that have retired. These ranches keep detailed records on the genetic characteristics of their animals so that their customers can select the characteristics they need to improve their cow herd. Beyond genetics, one thing every customer is looking for is a healthy, vigorous animal that is ready to breed. Come midsummer, when I put my bulls out with the cows, they need to be ready to go to work. In the next 60 days, I expect each of them to settle between 20 and 25 cows. Their success will determine the size of my calf crop and my business success. Once again, animal health is paramount.

Painful procedures

All is not rosy, however. Those few days every year on the ranch when the cattle are gathered into pens produce scenes of confinement and restraint that are not so idyllic. Most of the procedures are benign (vaccinations, parasite treatments, fertility and pregnancy testing), but some cause pain. In particular, three procedures raise questions about animal welfare—branding, dehorning, and castration. The way I look at these procedures is that they are analogous to infants and children receiving vaccinations. Yes, they are painful, but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term distress, and it’s a long way from Case’s unrelieved anguish.

Each procedure serves a definite purpose. In the state where I raised cattle, brand inspection was required by law for the sale or movement of cattle more than 75 miles or across state lines. These laws were enacted to reduce theft, which is a serious problem in the industry. The brand needs to be an indelible mark of ownership and it is registered with the state. There were two viable options for branding—hot iron and freeze branding, both of which inflict pain. Freeze branding stops pigment production in the hide and the animal’s hair grows back white. Since our cattle were white, we had to use hot iron branding.

Dehorning is done for the safety of both the animals and the people handling them. Animals without horns are much less likely to cause injury. The dehorning we did was not true dehorning but really de-budding since we were removing the bud on the calf’s head that would eventually grow into a horn. The procedure was done with a hot iron to cauterize the wound created by removing the bud. This part of the animal is not particularly sensitive. They use it as a battering ram. It’s their main means of defense and of maintaining herd pecking order. Castration, like dehorning, is done primarily for the safety of both animals and people. It also helps control breeding and thus herd genetics as well as improving the quality of the meat.

Ranchers are not indifferent to the pain and stress caused by these procedures. Like most people, we don’t like to see unnecessary suffering. Beyond humane concerns, the time, money, loss of animal weight due to stress, and health and safety risks to animals and people provide a strong business motivation to find less stressful methods of achieving the practical goals.

As the industry progresses, methods will be developed that will reduce or eliminate the pain and stress associated with these procedures. I believe we are not far from the day when branding will be replaced by the insertion of a chip in the animal’s ear which can be scanned for identification purposes. As for dehorning, I was using polled (hornless) bulls for breeding in our herd, so horns were gradually being eliminated genetically. And research is being conducted to eliminate castration by the use of a shot that will neuter bull calves.

These procedures are once-in-a-lifetime events, and I don’t see that they produce any lasting signs of abuse. The picture below shows a pasture of heifers who were branded, dehorned, and vaccinated a few months earlier. As anyone who knows the body language of animals can see, these animals, with their heads up, ears cocked forward and alert, are healthy and confident. They are not animals that have been subjected to abuse.

The benefits of beef

Something else in the quote from Case’s essay needs to be addressed. He claims that all the anguish is endured by animals simply “because humans enjoy eating their flesh.” That’s a little too simple. There are significant nutritional, environmental, and land-use efficiency reasons for including beef as part of our food supply.

Central to all these benefits is the unique digestive system of cattle. Cattle are ruminant herbivores, like sheep, goats, deer, antelope, buffalo, and other animals adapted to the grasslands and savannahs of the world. Without getting into the details of their complex digestive system, it is important to understand their ability to synthesize protein from plants that are indigestible to humans. Their system manufactures the protein they need to grow by breaking down cellulous, combining it with available nitrogen. They also synthesize vitamin B, which together with zinc, iron, magnesium, selenium, and phosphorus, make beef one of the most nutritionally dense foods available.

The nutritional value is even more pronounced when protein quality is considered. All proteins are not equal. The complex of amino acids and the efficiency of digestion are both important in determining the quality of a protein. The best measure of both is the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) which ranges from 1.00 to 0.00. Eggs and cows’ milk are at 1.00, beef comes in at 0.92–0.98, fruit and vegetables are 0.60–0.75, while grains lag at 0.25–0.60.1,2,3 So, in converting grain to beef, you’re not only adding value by converting carbs to protein but also by converting it to one of the highest quality proteins. Synthesizing B complex by ruminants also deserves special mention. Animal-derived foods are the only practical, natural source for B12. The main vegetarian source is grains that have been “fortified” with B12 manufactured by industrial fermentation processes.

In the course I took on animal nutrition, we were taught that one of the most important but often overlooked ingredients in any nutritional program is palatability. That’s just as true for humans as it is for animals, and it’s particularly important for children and adolescents. Planning a nutritional diet for young people is difficult enough but getting them to eat it is a real challenge. “Finish your spinach,” is a common parental dictum, but whoever had to say, “Finish your hamburger?” Putting food before them that combines high nutritional value with palatability is the best way to ensure that they develop to their full genetic potential.

In considering the environmental effects of ranching, we get down to the foundation of every sound ranching operation—its grasses and soils. There is a symbiotic relationship between cattle and the grasses and soils that form the sod on which they tread and feed. A properly managed grazing program will improve the grasses and soils and build healthy sod, which guards against erosion and creates a healthy habitat for a variety of wild creatures. Our ranch supported white-tail and mule deer, pronghorns, wild turkey, mallards, and even a pair of golden eagles who nested in the top of one of the cottonwoods.

To appreciate this symbiotic relationship, it’s important to understand the life cycle of perennial grasses. It begins with a vegetative state, when leaf area is grown, and is followed by the reproductive phase when seeds are grown and dispersed. Finally, the plant goes dormant. Grazing at the right time during the vegetative state affects the hormones of the plant in a way that extends the vegetative state for more leaf growth and also causes the plant to spread by stimulating shoots (rhizomes, stolons, and tillers). The key during this extended vegetative state is to leave enough leaf, which is where photosynthesis produces food for growth, so the plant can maintain and extend the root system, forming a stable sod to protect the soils from erosion. So, the symbiosis is that cattle grazing, if properly managed, can extend and improve the system that produces their food.

Riding around the ranch checking cattle and grass conditions, I would occasionally come on the traces of an old homestead—remnants of a family’s attempt to establish a farm on the shortgrass prairie. The Homestead Acts passed in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century began a migration that fueled the growth of our nation. But like so many well-intentioned, one-size-fits-all federal programs, it didn’t work out so well in every locale. That the shortgrass prairie was not suitable for cultivation was a lesson learned the hard way. Ploughing up the prairie and depletion and loss of topsoil eventually lead to dust bowl conditions. Because of soil depth, moisture, and composition, 59 percent of US pasture and rangeland is unsuitable for cultivation, but this land has value as grazing for livestock.4 Today ranchers are protecting and restoring our grasslands and, in the process, producing a highly nutritious food.

The moral question

Is it right to kill animals for food? It’s a simple question, but the answer is not so simple. It may be better to ask first whether the human population can be maintained without killing animals.

Some believe that a vegetarian diet is free of involvement in the killing of animals, but they forget the uncounted millions of rabbits, groundhogs, mice, moles, and other field animals slaughtered every year by the machines used to harvest grains and vegetables. As Cam Edwards points out in an article in National Review, “Chances are, even if you’re the most committed vegan you know, animals died in the making of your last, and next, meal.” And these are not nice deaths.

So, can the human population be maintained without killing animals? To remove the slaughter of animals from our food supply would require not only taking all meat and meat by-products off the table but also all grains and vegetables harvested by modern farming machines. Does anyone seriously believe we could feed the world’s population without these sources of food?

Hidde Boersma and Maarten Boudry, writing in Quillette, say that “there is an inconvenient truth that proponents of local and self-sufficient farming tend to ignore: We can’t feed 10 billion people this way without destroying the planet.” Modern agriculture, and the unavoidable slaughter of animals it entails, is vital to humanity. The human population cannot be maintained in any practical way without killing animals.

Working with animals every day, it’s impossible not to develop an affection for them and ultimately not to feel some anguish at leading them to slaughter. And this is why care and concern are taken for the humane harvesting of these animals. The Federal Humane Slaughter Act requires that cattle be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” This law was most recently revised in 2002 to strengthen enforcement. One criticism of the act is that it does not include rabbits and other animals slaughtered in the harvesting of grains and vegetables. And how do animals die in the wild? Those lucky enough to avoid being torn to pieces by predators or harvesting machines die of disease, starvation, or they freeze to death. Personally, I’d prefer a knock on the head.

Beyond the necessity of animal slaughter to feed humanity, failure to make meats available to the population at large would result in unacceptable levels of malnutrition, especially among children and adolescents. It’s one thing to show theoretically that a nutritious vegetarian diet can be obtained in modern society, but another to achieve such a diet for a population at large in different settings throughout the world. From Boersma and Boudry again: “Organic farming, in particular, represents a form of luxury consumption for well-off Westerners who can afford it.” In fact, much of what is written about nutrition is tailored to “well-off Westerners.”

Denying the dietary choice of meat, particularly the highly nutritious meat from ruminants, to a population at large would likely result in increased cases of malnutrition. This would be particularly acute among children and adolescents whose developing bodies and brains require the highest quality proteins, minerals, and vitamins to develop to their full genetic potential.

The future of cattle ranching

Articles like those by Case and Scully are political rumblings that portend doing away with cattle ranches. Bill Gates is reported to be calling for wealthy countries to move to 100 percent synthetic beef. I think it would be a costly tragedy for our nation in particular and for humankind in general if that were to happen.

Ranchers are few in number. They don’t form a voting block about which a politician has to be concerned. If ranching is to survive these political pushes, it will be because public opinion leaders take the time to get the complete picture of what this business is about and convey its true value to the public.

If those genuinely concerned for the suffering of animals could find it within themselves to recognize that it is not immoral to slaughter animals humanely for food, they would find many allies for the cause of reducing animal suffering amongst the people who raise and work with these animals on a daily basis.


1 Hoffman JR and Falvo MJ. Protein – which is best? J of Sports Science and Medicine 2004; 3:118-130.
2 Schaafsma G. The protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score. J Nutr. 2000 Jul;130(7):1865S-7S.
3 Suárez López MM, Kizlansky A, López LB. Assessment of protein quality in foods by calculating the amino acids score corrected by digestibility. Nutr Hosp. 2006 Jan-Feb;21(1):47-51.
4 NRCS. 2013. Summary report 2010 national resources inventory. United States Natural Resources Conservation Service. p. 163

All photographs courtesy of the author.

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