The yield of an acre of American farmland went from 20 bushels ... So because of the improvements in technology in American agriculture -- but specifically because of chemical agriculture, because of chemical fertilizer -- we were able to get so much corn off the land that they didn't know how to get rid of it. Nevertheless, [corn] has so much food energy that it does put fat on them quickly. A cow is born in the late winter on a ranch; could be the product of artificial insemination or traditional sexual reproduction.So the USDA made it its policy to encourage people to feed corn, not just to cows, but to chicken and even fish and now in pigs. It spends the first six months of its life with its mother on pasture and grass.They spend a few months in the backgrounding pen and then they are up to, say, 600-700 pounds.
But it's only post-World War II that we began putting them on feedlots in this concentrated way and giving them a diet that's quite as hot, as ranchers call it, a hot ration. And so we're passing half of the corn crop in America through the guts of animals, some of which are well adapted to using it.
At weaning, which is normally in the fall of the first year after about six months, seven months, eight months, cows are taken off the grass, moved into the backgrounding pen. Actually [it's one of] the more traumatic [events] in a cow's life, because the mothers just bellow and look around for their calves for several days. You get the cows as far away as you can, so they can't hear one another. You start out, though, pretty modest, with some silage, which is whole cornstalks and everything, and some corn or other grain, and still some hay.
And you start with the drugs because to get them to tolerate that diet, they must have a drug called [Rumensin], which is a kind of antibiotic, a very powerful drug.
And they bring down saliva in this process, and it keeps their stomach very base rather than acid. It's pressing against the lungs and the heart, and if nothing is done, the animal suffocates. Eventually, if you give them too much corn too quickly, it ulcerates the rumen; bacteria escape from the rumen into the blood stream, and end up in the liver, creating liver abscesses. We spoke with a guy, Bill Haw, who runs a lot of these big feedlots. And he said, "We've learned that the livers are not very economically viable, and there's a willingness to sacrifice the liver for the overall growth, which far transcends the value of the liver that may be damaged in the process." What's he saying? It may well make sense economically to feed cows what we feed them, but ecologically, it's a disaster.
So you put in the corn, and this layer of slime forms over the rumen. So what is done is, if you catch it in time, you stick a hose down the esophagus and you release the gas and maybe give the animal some hay or grass, and it's a lot healthier. He's saying that the economic calculus justifies ruining their liver. The fact is, we don't eat a lot of beef liver any more. It's a disaster for them because they're getting sick.
The American food chain, when it comes to beef, starts out like the wide end of the funnel. There are hundreds of thousands of ranchers with millions of acres.