Stop Fetishizing Small Producers (And Start Fetishizing Good Ones)

The following post contains extremely graphic images of animal slaughter. Even people already familiar with animal butchery may find the images and descriptions contained herein to be very disturbing. I know I do. This is probably the most difficult post I’ve ever written. Most people will probably not find it easy to read. Please consider your own sensitivities when deciding whether to read on. There is no shame in turning around now and coming back tomorrow, when less somber topics will be discussed.

I eat meat, I enjoy meat, and I believe that if you aren’t willing to look your dinner in the eye before you eat it then you should really stick to tofu. For this reason, I have made the effort to look a number of my dinners in the eye and participate in their slaughter and butchery. While every slaughter is a somber time, the humane killing of animals for food does not, in and of itself, bother me.

We all know about the horrors of feedlot beef, the environmental, health and animal welfare concerns of CAFOs and the big-business mentality that allows industrial meat production to defend ammonia-doused pink slime as “just meat” with a straight face.

In this culture of industrial food Big is Bad, and from there it is an easy leap to Small Is The Solution.

I agree that supporting small producers is better. But here’s where the Cult of Small concerns me: small does not always equals better. Small does not always equal professional. Sometimes small just means lower volume, not higher care.

The most disturbing animal slaughter I’ve ever witnessed happened on a very small ranch.

The slaughter itself was textbook: fast and by-the-book with no unnecessary suffering to the animal. The problem was the Small Rancher. In the seven years since I witnessed this slaughter, I have come to believe he had no business raising or sending beef to slaughter.

He had a small herd of fully pastured beef, slaughtered on site and sold to the community directly and through a local co-op. On paper this operation hit every sustainable meat foodie’s g-spot.

The rancher said he was slaughtering these two beeves that day in mid-March because his customers were asking for more meat. He called in a local mobile abattoir which performed USDA-witnessed and inspected slaughter on-site.

I rode along because I was interested in seeing how the mobile slaughter vehicle itself operated.

The field was green, thought the grass was short. Cows stood side by side with their fuzzy calves. It was very peaceful.

One at a time, two corralled animals were shot cleanly in the head. After each animal dropped, stunned, it was field bled by the butcher. When the animal was fully bled-out, its hooves were chained to the bucket of a John Deere front-loader and it was hoisted into the air and transferred to the the mobile slaughter vehicle’s abattoir.

The butcher sawed off the horns of the beef, then removed its hooves and head. The flank and sides of the animal were skinned while it lay on a v-rack, spine-down. The beef was hoisted by the hind legs into the air to complete the skinning, and to allow for disembowelment, USDA grading and splitting of the beef into halves.

Any part of the animal that touched the floor of the abattoir after skinning was cut away. Any part of the animal that showed signs of bruising or blood marking was cut away. It was here that I started to be concerned. The butcher trimming the carcass cut away bruise after bruise. The muscle of the beef did not look at its prime to me.

The innards of the beef were removed in one tumbling swoop. It is always a bit surprising to me how little attaches the entrails of an animal to its body cavity. The mobile abattoir had a side opening door that allowed the entrails to be pushed into a collection bin on the outside of the vehicle.

The entrails and everything unwanted from the beef animal was pushed out this door. Small Rancher had parked the bucket of his front loader in front of the door, so that the innards of the slaughtered beeves could be easily driven to his compost pile.

Those discards included this, from the first slaughtered cow.

And this, from the second.

I don’t have any commentary to add to what the pictures so clearly show: two very late term calf fetuses, scooped into a front loader to be composted, tossed out like the unmarketable cud-filled stomach. The umbilical cord is still intact in the second set of photos. That pains me every time I see these photos.

There is evidence that it takes up to 90 seconds after a pregnant cow dies for the fetus to die. Unlike the cow, the fetus does not receive a stunning blow before death. I’ll leave you to draw your own ethical conclusions.

To me, as a meat eater, this waste is grotesque. It is excessive to the point of negligence. I believe it is possible to be a responsible omnivore. (This is a perspective not held by the vegan community, and while I respect the conviction of those who refrain from animal products, on this I know we will have to agree to respectfully disagree.) Perhaps the most critical thing one can do as a responsible meat eater is to fully minimize the waste in that eating whenever possible.

Seeing the collateral slaughter of the fetal cows was terrible. When you see things like this on YouTube or something, it’s easy to feel burning rage. In person, a surreality hung over that aspect of the slaughter like a sound-deadening blanket. I wanted to do something – I wondered if I could take the fetuses for veal stock at least – as terrible as that idea was, the atrocious waste of life displayed in this slaughter had me mentally grasping for some way to salvage…something.

But of course, I didn’t. That would have been too awkward, too terrible, too horrible a thing to to say aloud. I stayed silent. Everyone stayed silent.

Ironically, asking about the calves as meat would have given them value, would have forced them to be seen as real to the small group of us that observed the slaughter. It would have forced everyone to acknowledge that a slaughter and an abortion had taken place simultaneously.

Four animals dead so that two inferior carcasses could be harvested. Those cows were in the final stages of their pregnancies. All their body’s energy was devoted to the growing and supporting of their developing offspring. It was no wonder both beeves showed extensive bruising. I bruised easily too when I was pregnant.

These images have hung with me for seven years. They are the kind of thing you never really forget.

When Small Doesn’t Mean Superior

The decision to slaughter these particular cows was solely in the hands of the Small Rancher. It was his herd and his call. It is possible that he did not know these two animals were pregnant, but of course this begs the question as to why he didn’t know.

It can be difficult to assess if a cow is pregnant but isn’t the advantage of the small farm that more individual attention can be paid to each piece of the farming puzzle? Shouldn’t the involved small-herd manager notice changes in his cows if they are in the third trimester of pregnancy?

Would a check of the cows pregnancy status at that time of the year – when cows are busy giving birth – have been difficult or slowed down the slaughter? This wasn’t an assembly-line industrial slaughter – as far as I know nothing was going to cost more if the job took a few minute longer.

I talked, quietly and privately, to both the butcher and the USDA inspector on this job and everyone involved was horrified. The butcher said that one of the slaughtered fetuses was a big bully calf and would have made an excellent steer if it had been given just a just a week or so longer to gestate.

Slaughter of pregnant cows takes place in industrial meat production, too, of course. By some accounts over 25% of culled dairy cows are pregnant at time of slaughter. In fact, what little research I could find on this topic indicated that the culling of pregnant cows is a far greater issue in the dairy industry, which of course relies on cycling pregnancy and lactation of cows to produce milk. Of cows who are slaughtered while in some stage of pregnancy, one source claimed 90% were dairy cows.

Because this issue is, of course, tremendously upsetting, the articles and discussions I’ve read about it tend to come from activist sources. Insofar as groups are talking about collateral calf slaughter, they tend to be vegan/vegetarian or animal rights groups.

Beef industry publications I was able to find suggest that, except in cases of disease, the slaughter of a pregnant cow in a cow-calf beef operation is a pretty stupid business decision.

According to The Beef Site, an industry-oriented commercial beef production website:

One of the greatest determinants of profitability in a cow-calf operation is reproductive rate. Open (non-pregnant) cows are a drain on resources. They consume feed, forage, and other resources without producing a marketable calf to contribute to expense payments. Cows that are open at the end of the breeding season should be at the top of the cull list….

Appropriate times to cull cows from the herd depend on the reasons behind the culling. In cases where cows have developed severe health problems, removal from the herd may need to be immediate. In situations where cows are being culled for low performance or other less urgent factors, it often makes sense to wait until after nursing calves are weaned. If market conditions are such that even cows weaning low-performing calves are generating a profit, it may be cost-effective to hold onto these cows in the near term and then market them before they become unprofitable.

This advice to ranchers, plus the dramatically lower rate of cull for pregnant animals in beef production as compared to dairy, and the preference for steers and heifers for quality beef production suggests to me that well-run beef operations avoid slaughtering healthy pregnant cows.

So why, if it’s bad business and bad ethics to slaughter a pregnant cow, why would Small Rancher take that action, not once but twice? I don’t know. I didn’t ask Small Rancher then why he picked those two beeves for slaughter, though I wish now that I had. Perhaps he had his reasons, but what I suspect is that he’s just bad at his job.

That’s the difference between crops and cows. You can fuck up pretty bad with carrots and no one gets hurt; you’re only out seeds. When you’re bumbling through the decision making process about what animals to kill in real-time, dead baby cows (and the profit they might represent) get composted. Lose-lose.

Growth in business is an interesting thing. Sometimes a business is small because being small makes that business agile, responsive and able to serve its customer base well. Sometimes a business is small because it’s more expensive to get big than getting big justifies. Sometimes a business is small because the owner prefers a scale that allows complete one-person control.

But sometimes a business stays small because it’s just not good enough to get bigger. And some extremely good small farmers and small ranchers become medium-sized farmers and ranchers precisely because they are very good at what they do.

Is the Rancher raising up 1500 head of cattle well less deserving of our support and our dollar than the Rancher raising 15 head of cattle poorly, simply because his operation is a bit larger?

Is the rancher who does that job full-time, at a scale that supports that specialization, less qualified than a smaller but part-time hobby rancher who visits his herd on the weekends and works another job durring the week? Or is the full-time larger scale rancher better precisely because that is her sole focus?

There are some amazing non-industrial pastured beef operations out there like Tallgrass and Long Valley Ranch that are huge compared to Small Rancher’s. These places have corporate offices and product verification protocols and operation procedures and other things that sound Big and Bad.

But these Not Exactly Small beef companies are managing herds on horseback to avoid stress to the animals, using ultrasound to check for intramuscular fat and other eating-quality characteristics, pioneering breeding programs to develop beef than fatten well on exclusively grass and raising greater awareness about pastured beef. These are all wonderful things, and they are not less wonderful for being done by the medium-sized business.

This Small Rancher was no one to fetishize. No one should put his face on an “I Love My Rancher” t-shirt. Everything about his operation would have made for excellent ad-copy on a brochure, but in reality I think he was just a guy with a hell of a lot to learn about raising beef.

Good small farmers and good small ranchers – they deserve our support. But I think we need to keep the emphasis on good and not on small, lest we support the wrong thing inadvertently with our purchases.

Due to the difficult topics discussed in this post, comments will be monitored. Any comment disrespectful to me, this blog or other readers will be edited or deleted at my discretion. Discussion is a wonderful thing – please participate – but remember to keep it civil.


  1. says

    I’m glad you have raised the subject and kudos to you for the frank and full pictures. I discussed this with my husband who has some livestock management experience and has also worked a short time in an abattoir as a live animal handler. He said that it does happen with calves and lambs and usually the pregnancy is not known. I’d certainly like to think if I had a small operation that I would know if my herd were in calf. I looked at the picture of the freshly slaughtered cow and to be honest I couldn’t tell it was pregnant by looking at it. It is an awful economic waste and very unfortunate. I certainly don’t condone cruelty but I think there are some aspects sometimes that are not ideal. I do believe that most Australian farmers are responsible and economically sensible.
    Again, thank you for raising the issue unflinchingly. I will be interested to read comments from more experienced readers in this matter.

    • says

      Thank you for your comment. There was an interesting case of a sheep sent to slaughter in the UK who lambed at the abattoir. Because a reporter happened to be there at the time, she was able to get enough pressure applied to allow both animals to be released from the slaughter line. It was an interesting case. Initially, concerns about health and sanitation security forbade the release of an animal after it had been transfer to the slaughterhouse. One of my Australian readers (was that you?) pointed out that almost all cattle are 100% grass fed, so I presume there isn’t the same issue with confined feedlots and intensive slaughter facilities?

    • Jessica says

      I’ve seen pictures of preg testing on the Pioneer Woman website. They had the vet in to do it (he had a very long glove. . . :-/) and they did all the cows at once, and they were separated according to pregnant and not pregnant after that. I think it’s entirely possible to know whether a cow is pregnant before killing it.

  2. says

    Could this be chalked up to inexperience? After buying 10 acres last year and moving out of the cities I must say the learning curve seems never ending out here. No matter how many books a person reads you don’t learn many things until it is already “another mistake not to make again” Did that small rancher cry into his pillow a little that night after everyone went home? Unfortunately because everyone was silent during the event we will never know.

    • says

      Richard – absolutely it could be. In an earlier draft of this post, I actually had several paragraphs of discussion to that effect, talking about the realities of being a new producer and the incredibly steep learning curve. Unfortunately, the post was already at over 2,000 words and needed to stay on point. Small Rancher may have cried into his pillow, I don’t know. He didn’t show any outward surprise, but perhaps the silence blanket was hanging over him too. You are 100% right that the silence surrounding the topic means information and understanding is being lost, and with the increasing boom in new-venture small-scale food producers, beginning farmers and the people who buy from them need all the access to information they can get…even uncomfortable information. That’s a big part of why I wrote this. Thank you for your comment.

  3. says

    I’ve heard that pregnant cow meat is the tastiest. Not to put light on it or anything. When I had heard that I honestly thought “who would eat a pregnant cow?” Because it doesn’t make any sense to eat a productive animal that can produce more food. And you’re right, Small Rancher clearly didn’t know what he was doing or he didn’t care. Either of those aspects alone make him a bad rancher.

    • says

      I feel that it really doesn’t make sense to eat a productive animal who can produce more food, particularly when you are coming into the lowest feed-cost time of the year and (presumably) the cost to maintain both animals would be relatively low. There may be parts of the equation I’m missing, of course.

    • Jessica says

      I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I’m reading The Jungle, and it says “Any man who knows anything about butchering knows that a the flesh of a cow that is about to calve, or has just calved, is not fit for food.”

  4. says

    As someone prone to the “BIG IS BAD” tendency, this is thought provoking (and disturbing) on several levels. Is small better? Or does small really just mean an increased chance that they don’t know what the hell they are doing?

    We buy our beef from a local farm I respect. I’ve been there and I feel like they are incredibly knowledgable. They are also a little cottage, and trendy. I could get my beef for $2/lb less from friends of in-laws raising just a few beef. Still grass fed, an even smaller operation, but I’ve got questions no one can answer. I thought I was being silly about it. Maybe I’m not.

    Thanks you for sharing this.

    • says

      Your questions, whatever they are, aren’t silly. I regret not speaking up back seven years ago and finding out the rancher’s reasoning behind this act. Nick and I once toured a fairly well-known pastures beef operation that was trying to be Polyface Farms West. The rancher got really evasive over some basic questions, like where he brought additional beef stock from, since it wasn’t a closed herd. We opted not to commit to their beef. A few months later, they went out of business very suddenly, leaving their customers, including their commercial accounts, in quite the lurch. When we heard, we were glad we had pushed just a bit on a few questions. More awareness never hurts.

  5. Deborah Aldridge says

    I’m going to offend a few people, but this is where I stand.

    Actually, slitting an animal’s carotid is a very humane way to kill them. Just ask any kosher farmer. As someone who was raised by two farm children, I know a bit about slaughtering. They simple bleed to death slowly, sort of go to sleep and never wake up. There isn’t much pain. It’s done in a way so they don’t choke on their own blood.

    I always say that people who rant about animal slaughtering are usually wearing leather shoes and carrying leather handbags. If you aren’t, then I apologize, but on a real farm, every part of the animal is used. My father’s favorite foods included brains, liver and tripe. The rest of the innards went into sausage, the skin was sold for leather, and the bones, hooves and horns ground into fertilizer for the garden. Where do you think the bone and blood meal you use in your garden comes from? If you want to be a purist about animal slaughter, don’t use those things.

    Beef is the most unhealthy meat you can eat anyway, because your body literally cannot digest it. If you’re going to eat meat, you have to accept the fact that animals have to be killed to get it. If you are a vegan, then you can spend your time teaching people that lifestyle instead of trying to use shock value to convert people. This, IMHO, is no better than religious proselytizing.

    I’m honestly a little sick of these tactics by animal activists. I’m into “each to their own,” so although I don’t like what factory farms do with their animals, a humane slaughter like this one doesn’t bother me. People eat meat. It’s a fact. I’m all for just getting over it and getting on with our own lives, making our own choices, and leaving them to theirs.

    • al says

      You obviously came in here with an agenda as did I, but I’m stunned at your attempt to use premeditated vitriol in your comment suggesting you didn’t read the post at all. Its not easy for everyone to see something that bothers and them and pretend nothings wrong, especially when this experience, seen by the author is something she would want to share with like minded people. That ‘s how informatin is shared. I’m think you have a vested interest here if you think this is a scare tactic. Its nothing of the sort. You make people who are raised on a farm sound insensitive and dull and I’ve found neither to be true.

    • says

      Sorry Deb, I have read your comment several times and I can only conclude that you didn’t actually read my post. This is not a propaganda piece, there’s no ranting about animal slaughtering and I’m not trying to use shock value to convert anyone to anything. I invite you to take a closer look at the post, you may find it very different than what you expected and what you responded to.

    • Samantha says

      I can’t think of a way to ask this that doesn’t sound sarcastic, but actually I am just confused. Did you actually read the post?

    • says

      Deb, I’m a vegetarian and I respect this post, not because of its shock value (it has it, but not for the reasons you explain above), but for its responsible reporting. Erica never rants about the carotid being slit, AT ALL. Her objection is to the the unnecessary, irresponsible, wasteful slaughter of two pregnant cows and their unborn calves. It is blatantly clear that you did not read this post, but instead looked at the pictures and assumed the post’s content and motivation behind it. Erica clearly states that she is a meat eater, likes meat and that the humane killing of animals does not bother her in the first and third sentences. I think you skimmed the word tofu, looked at the pictures and decided to, as Al suggests, spew your vitriol; that’s disgusting. Brava, Erica! I too am a “to each his own” believer, but I also believe we should all be responsible to animals, fellow human beings and our environment, no matter our eating choices.

  6. says

    First of all, let me say thank you for posting this and not being afraid to back up your experience with pictures – I’m sure it doesn’t hold a candle to actually being there but it helped me get at least a little better taste of what you went through that day.

    I’ve never been quite as much concerned with “small” as I am “local” – I want my food to still be around if supply chains are disrupted. Local also allows me to know where my food comes from and how it was raised. I don’t really care if my beef producer is raising 100 or 1000 cows – I just want to know if they lived a good life, were slaughtered humanely, and little was wasted.

    • says

      I know quite a few people who prioritize this way as well: local above all, and the closer the better, then organic or micro-producer or whatever else secondary. I think that’s pretty smart, because all the official labels of assurance can’t hold a candle to driving over to the farm or ranch or whatever and seeing for yourself what’s going on.

  7. says

    So sad. I wish you could go back in time and ask the rancher why he made the decision to slaughter. Based on my experiences, no rancher in his/her right mind would intentionally slaughter a pregnant cow. Unless they’re total idiots, breeding takes planning, effort, time, and, if they don’t keep their own bulls, expense (you’d be shocked at the price of some bull semen!).

    Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you’d think to tell if a cow is pregnant, even in late stages. They can be quite stealth about it! A friend of mine couldn’t tell if one of his cows was pregnant or not, so they brought in the local livestock vet, who palped her and said with certainty that she was open. This was her second or third attempt to be bred, so they decided to cull her. Turns out she was indeed pregnant and they ended up finding a beautiful heifer inside her. They were absolutely horrified, and called the vet to make sure he knew he screwed up (using stronger words than that, I’m sure). His response: “oops, I have short arms.” Needless to say, they won’t be calling him again.

    I’m not excusing this rancher, but I would like to say that this kind of thing does happen by mistake even to people who wouldn’t dream of doing it intentionally. I can’t think of one good reason to slaughter a pregnant cow. The only way to be 100% sure if a cow is open or pregnant is to do a blood test, a minor inconvenience and expense that’s well worth it, especially if it’s going to be the deciding factor in whether or not to cull.

    • says

      Thanks Carla, if I could go back in time I would certainly have raised a lot more questions. If this same thing happened today, I think I would be asking a lot more questions, too. My own confidence and knowledge about food system stuff is a lot greater now than it was then. It is my hope that this post might put other people in a more knowledgable position when they are asking questions of their producers and deciding where to spend their dollars. My sympathies to your rancher friend. What a CF with the vet.

  8. Sarah says

    So I guess this opens another discussion about where and how can you learn all the stuff you need to raise animals humanely and not go broke.
    It is great if you grew up on a farm and imbibed all that knowledge with your mothers milk. You can go to college but almost all agriculture schools teach chemical farming. Apprenticeships would work if you can find something in your local area. Mentoring would be great but most farmers are busy people and don’t have time to pass their valuble know-how on. You can read books, visit farms, talk to a ton of people and for every fact accepted as the gospel truth there is someone, somewhere, who says that fact is WRONG.
    So there are a lot of people who don’t have a lot of money to spend on equipment, vet care etc who are making mistakes as they learn to be farmers. Some of those mistakes are pretty horrific.
    Do we just not buy meat from those people or is there some way of supporting learning by beginning farmers/small farmers?
    Also is what small rancher doing any worse than what happens in industrial feedlots everyday?

    • says


      Fortunately there are a lot of opportunities for new ranchers to learn best practices in raising livestock, and a lot of them are free. You simply cannot learn this in school or books, and there’s little sense trying to. Some of the things that have taught me best are:

      WWOOF program – you can volunteer to work on a ranch in exchange for room, board, and the best education money can’t buy. I’ve done this several places across the country, and I’ve learned from a mix of both seeing ranchers doing things right as well as learning from their mistakes. If you’re serious about going into ranching, avoid hobby farmers (like people with a milk cow and two goats in their backyard), and find someone who is serious about raising animals as a primary source of income.

      Extension / Conservation District programs – check our your local extension as well as the bigger ones all across the country. For example, the University of Maryland Extension has an excellent sheep and goat program, and lots of resources/classes are offered free online. In Washington, there are many Conservation Districts that offer great agricultural advice.

      Networking and taking initiative – I’ve learned tons from livestock veterinarians I have met and shadowed on rounds (if you have to pay a vet to come out to your ranch, PAY ATTENTION, ask questions, and learn something). I’ve also met people at farmers markets who’ve let me come spend a few nights at their ranch to see how their operation works. Farmers and ranchers are some of the most open, generous people I’ve met, and you can get a long way by just asking questions.

      Remember no one is always right – Farming seems to invite old wives’ tales like nobody’s business. Even experienced and successful farmers aren’t infallible, and I’ve heard plenty of misinformation from all kinds. Take advice with a grain of salt and do your own homework. Especially where animal health and well being is concerned, base your practices on science and proven facts, not what the guy down the road does.

      Your own mistakes – ALL ranchers are still learning, no matter how long they’ve been at it. You will make mistakes, and some of them will be horrible. But your worst mistake will not be anything close to the horrors that take place every day on industrial farms and slaughterhouses. Do your best, don’t let the idea of messing up stop you from learning something new, and once you’ve made a mistake, you probably won’t make it again.

    • says

      All very good questions. I’ll just address this one: “Also is what small rancher doing any worse than what happens in industrial feedlots everyday?” A: No, not at all. These cows lived a very humane life, as far as I could see, and their slaughter was (if you believe this is possible, which I do) an extremely humane slaughter. The butcher did a very clean job and took great care. In an industrial setting, a meat animal would likely have been in a ruinous situation from the moment it hit the feedlot until the moment it was slaughtered. Also, as another commenter pointed out, if fetal cows are discovered in industrial slaughter, their fate is pretty gruesome. It’s arguably worse than being treated like trash. So this rancher’s operation is a world better than industrial meat production, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still ask questions and demand best practices from operations of any size. And it doesn’t mean we can totally escape the uncomfortable realities of meat production by choosing a producer who’s outside the industrial system. That’s my take, at least.

  9. says

    I agree, small does not mean better. One possible explanation is the expense of c-section. Perhaps the rancher DID know these two were pregnant, the cows had required c-sections on previous calves, and a vet determined that c-sections would be needed again. Given the expense (i forget the going rate, but i read it one time and considered it to be sky high), Rancher might have concluded it made economical sense to go ahead and cull the cows. Perhaps these cows produced inferior offspring before. Farms are businesses after all, and the low-grade meat will sell fine as hamburger. Joel Salatin wrote about this not too long ago. He had an older cow that was having difficulty calving. She was in pain, a vet offered to do an very expensive c-section, but Salatin trailered her immediately to the abattoir to have her processed. To me, this is one of the realities of farming.

    I agree with you though – the pic of the grass is not impressive. That, along with the beef quality, implies lack of decent farm management. I’m hoping this was a brand new rancher who is now aware of his/her mistakes.

    • says

      That’s a very difficult situation for Salatin, but I think I’d put a cow that couldn’t give birth or was likely to die without major surgery (and I’d put a c-section in that category) in the same category as an injured animal. Culling might be a terrible choice, but it might also be the only possible choice when the herd has to pencil economically.

  10. says

    Wow, this was a brave post. You do a brilliant job exposing the dangers of ideology-based fad thinking. I must admit to being somewhat guilty of it in the case of agriculture. We find this kind of thinking a lot in the discussions around so-called natural medicine vs so-called regular medicine. Good thinking, and thanks for reminding me of the dangers of adhering to a party line, ANY party line, without remaining critical.

  11. says

    Bravo! I do agree with Kelly that possibly the farmer had his reasons, but given the other circumstances, it’s probably more likely that he wasn’t even aware (or cared). If it was just one cow, perhaps. But two? That’s sloppy management, both of his cows and his consumers.

    Farmers, be it small-medium-or-large, all have a responsibility to educate consumers about meat, and their animals, in this day and age where some people think a hen and a chicken are two different things (true story, and the guy was in the natural food industry).

    Thank you for taking a step forward, recognizing that you’ll probably get some nasty grams, and laying it out there. Be the change you wish to see in the world, indeed.

    • says

      Thanks Erin. You bring up a great point. If the Rancher had told early-spring meat-wanting customers: you can have your meat, but it’ll be poor quality and two late-term calves will die so you can eat it – do you think those customers would have changed their order? Do you think they would have waited until fall? What if *I* had been the customer who wanted meat? What if I wasn’t just there to see the mobile slaughter vehicle, but to see *my* beef that I was planning to eat slaughtered? What a PR nightmare that would have been – can you imagine? “Sorry, I’m not buying beef from the baby-cow-killing rancher.” No one wins in that case, and that encourages a lack of producer-consumer transparency. Personally, I think if people want slaughtered-to-order beef at that time of year, maybe they should be told it just ain’t beef season: “Buy some frozen steaks, tide yourself over for a few months, and we’ll put you at the top of the list for fall. Pre-pay and you get a 5% discount.”

  12. Vestpocket Farmer says


    If a female mammal is not in the immediate vicinity of a male, she won’t be pregnant. If said female HAS been in the vicinity of a viable male, there are simple, cheap tests that can be used or the steward can hold that mammal for the standard gestation period plus a little and see if she gives birth. This is not a difficult concept. The waste (among other things…) described in this post is appalling.

    A week? A lousy week…. *cry* … But Small Rancher apparently needed the $6 or $8 a pound that that carcass would afford him? Seriously?!?! Speaking as a person deeply committed to breed conservation without enough room to even raise ONE beef—I’d have to stop frothing at the mouth to be able to speak clearly. One way or another, I can’t see this as being anything but gross mismanagement or cavalier disrespect for the animals he deals with.

    In the interest of full disclosure; I have butchered a rabbit that was probably between two and three weeks pregnant. It was early on in my rabbit keeping venture, and she was missexed and should not have been in the grow-out pen with her brothers. Knowing that it was an accident that even seasoned rabbit keepers are subject to did not help. It was about all I could do to not throw up and/or burst into tears; I’ll save you the graphic description I could provide about discovering that she was pregnant nearly ten minutes after she was dispatched. Let’s just say that rabbits are survivors. :-( Since that incident, however, sexing grow-out meat rabbits has become something of an obsession with me. I tend to re-check their genitals weekly once they are about six weeks old….and any rabbit people who visit are prevailed upon to double-check me. I am deeply invested (yes, that is *exactly* the right word) in never having that happen again, not just because I lost probably 45 pounds of potential meat.

    Generally speaking, here we eat the boys and select or sell the girls to continue to develop the lines no matter what species is under discussion. Slaughtering females out of hand just seems like literally killing the Golden Goose—especially when I’m perverting people to small livestock husbandry as fast as I can. :-) “Here, have this female at a deeply discounted price; find a good male and let me pick of the progeny back,” is a pretty good way to cultivate a potential farmer. You can’t do that if you’re eating the girls for no other reason than you want some meat. Culling is good and proper, but I must admit I cull the boys harder than the girls. You have to be a pretty exemplary male to make it around here, but you probably only have to be good, healthy and to the standard if you’re female. It’s all about the gene pool……

    • says

      I suppose it is possible that he felt the same way after this slaughter after you felt with the rabbit. I don’t know. I feel like the level of detail you describe in selecting and improving genetic lines assumes a level of “getting the details right” that wasn’t on display at this ranch.

      I think $6-$8 dollars a pound seven years ago is a very generous estimate. And I don’t suspect the hanging weight on these was particularly good. As I said, I didn’t like the look of the carcass, and that was just from culinary training. Best hope? This guy just had dumb bad luck and it never happened again. Here’s hoping…..

      • Vestpocket Farmer says

        Seven years ago…. Is Small Rancher still in the same business today? Have his practices improved? Give me a sop of hope for responsible stewardship and tell me yes on both counts. :-/

        I know livestock keepers in my area (one in particular leaps to mind) who engage in practices that are no service to the breeds OR to budding self reliant folks (i.e., “customers”) who rely upon them to provide good stock and products. I’ve watched their ventures decline over time because there are only so many newbs to skin, and eventually word does get out. It turns out that integrity DOES win out overall; you just have to be able to hang in there while the information dissemination and balancing takes place.

  13. lisa says

    Sometimes this sort of thing happens for economic reasons: the herd is being thinned because X cattle are the number that can be pastured in Y acreage, because the farmer has the funds for Z amount of food, vet care. The calf is not worth much at all, the investment into full-grown animal is where the money is recouped and that takes a couple years. If someone wants beef, and the tax bill is due, crappy decisions have to be made. Part of being a farmer is not being sentimental. Every farmer I’ve ever known has been a gentle soul… with a shocking (to me) ability to kill stuff.

  14. Stacy says

    Having raised sheep for meat for years, I’m not going to presume that the rancher didn’t know the cow was pregnant. Btw, please remember, this was a female COW, not a male STEER. Cows are not considered market animals, but are kept solely as breeding stock. Cows yield far less meat than a steer, but consume almost equitable feed. Since the feed to meat conversion ratio is low on a cow, it’s not profitable to keep a large herd of less than productive cows. The rancher has to keep track of each cow to log overall health, how fast she’s growing for her breed, easy breeder, easy calver, how many calves in each birth (twins are bonus!), how well she raised her calves, etc. I have to presume there were reasons why this animal was butchered that had nothing to do with meat. Perhaps this cow was bred too young by mistake. [bulls do go through fences from time to time] Perhaps this wasn’t a first pregnancy for this cow and the last may have yielded health complications, mastitis, poor quality calves, what have you. Perhaps the cost of feed had risen so high that the rancher had to cull the herd to keep his feed to meat conversion rate profitable. Perhaps there was a drought and feed was too expensive. Perhaps the vet had already been out there and determined it was a stillborn calve. Perhaps there was some physical complication that was going to make it cost prohibitive to allow this cow to birth such as the cow was bred too young and this calf was going to be too large for her to birth without surgical intervention. For those unacquainted with cattle ranching, it’s not at all unusual to need a come-along [a mechanical pulling device] to aid in extricating a difficult calve. Perhaps the cow was irreparably lame. There are numerous reasons why a rancher would opt to butcher breeding stock, but I can’t think of any that would be easy decisions. Raising livestock for food is hard because you must divorce your emotions to make decisions based on the economics of running a profitable business.

    I don’t know how many of you may recall this, back in the 90s there was a drought from the West through the Midwest that lasted years. Here in California, with minimal rain for 6 years in a row, crops failed and wells went dry. Including mine. There was no water for livestock, irrigating the garden, nor for flushing toilets. Nothing like an unexpected $15,000 bill in the face of a drought affecting your family business too. My locally grown alfalfa had skyrocketed from $6 a bale to almost $15 in 2 years. Meat prices soared at the stores because feed costs were so high. Ranchers were cutting their costs by butchering beef long before they were market size to be sold as baby beef in all the large chain supermarkets. They weren’t as small as veal, perhaps twice that size, but clearly a smaller animal when compared to a full grown cut of meat. The cost of feed was killing the profitability of my lamb crop, but we decided to tough it out because lamb was the bulk of our family diet for the year. Unfortunately, it meant that my horses had to go. We couldn’t afford to feed animals who produced nothing in return other than enjoyment. When dealing with the practicalities of profit and loss, decisions are not always easy and rarely is everyone happy afterward, so I wouldn’t dream of second guessing decisions or passing judgment on small ranchers who operate so much closer to the red than big agribiz operations.

  15. says

    Only the rancher would be able to answer the question: “Why _these_ cows?” He did have reasons for choosing these two cows, the first being known: Because he needed beef to sell immediately. Of course everyone is left to guess at the rest of the reasons. One factor could have been as simple as, “These two are the closest.” What total percentage of the herd is female?

    What is the greater horror here? That an unborn calf was not allowed a chance at life outside the cow? Or is it that the unborn calf was composted (“wasted”) and not used in some way? In “the industry” blood from fetal calves is harvested and used to culture tissues as Fetal Calf Serum or Fetal Bovine Serum. Would it have been repugnant to see this rancher harvesting meat and other materials from the calves? Would it have been repugnant to see the entrails and fetal calves put into a black soldier fly system to grow protein for chickens and fish?

    Would the rancher do it the same way again if he were presented with the same set of circumstances today? Nwedible, perhaps this would be an opportunity for a follow-up visit or phone interview. I’d be very interested in hearing the answer.

    I am a small beginning farmer growing pastured broilers. I dip my dinner’s beak in water when it comes out of the hatchery box and care for my dinner for 8-12 weeks before killing, scalding, and eviscerating my dinner. My customers pay me to do this for them because they don’t have the time, the space, or the nerve (and any combination thereof), to do this themselves. I enjoy the raising, but not the killing. It’s gruesome, but necessary if I am going to eat chicken and grow my farm towards true sustainability.

    • says

      Thanks Jen, you vocalize the many, many complexities in this system very well. Of course people like me talk about “no waste!” philosophies when it comes to meat eating but are simultaneously rather horrified by the industrial, profit-drivers that have turned every part of the animal into an independent profit potential. The fetal calf blood used for serum you speak of is a great, if gruesome example. The “pink slime” I referenced as one of the examples of a problem with industrial meat is, really, a rather exceptional example of letting nothing go to waste. I’m not sure I can fully reconcile these two slightly at-odds philosophical perspectives. I appreciate you bringing this up. Maybe, when we are talking about failures in the food production system, I have to fall back on the canonical quip about defining porn and just say, “I know it when I see it.”

  16. says

    I just found you yesterday and have been reading my way through your archive. Here I was excited to find someone local whose garden timing I could compare with my own…

    This issue has always compelled me to be honest with myself about my meat eating, and the last few weeks I’ve been eating a primarily vegan diet. While my meat at home (and yes, I do still plan to eat it) comes from a local butcher and local animals, it’s the veg to animal to me conversion that gets me. Why not cut out the middle man (the animal) sometimes?

    I grew up in one farm family and married into another, though neither of them raise livestock. That leads me to believe that there’s a good chance that even if I would not agree with Small Rancher’s reasoning, he believed he had good reason for doing what he did assuming he had all the information. I refuse to judge him for that.

    But this post came at a very interesting time for me, when I’m trying to decide if my Mostly Vegan experiment is over. Made for compelling reading. Thank you for that. And for several good ideas buried in your archives that I woke up my husband to tell him last night. Not sure how thankful he is yet…

    • says

      Hi Pensive, I’m glad this is not the only post you’ve read. This would be an…um…atypical post with which to introduce someone to the blog. Welcome, and thank you very much for reading. Good luck with your decisions regarding diet. I have run the gamut from unthinking onmivore to vegan to fish-only to locavore sustainable meat-eater and I still find no easy answers.

  17. Bruce says

    An amazing post. I’m sure this one will generate much discussion, if not actual written comments.

    Being an omnivore has responsibilities. Being concerned about the quality of the food we eat must extend to the quality of life of the animals we consume. We spend days comparing soil supplements and planting rotations to insure the quality of our microorganisms in our soil. We should spend no less time and spare no effort in knowing where our meat and animal products come from.

    Having grown up in a rural environment, I can appreciate the need to cull herds and remove “unwanted” or “unnecessary” livestock. So I can’t second-guess Small Rancher for his decision. I simply don’t have enough information and anything else would be, well, stupid on my part.

    But I can comment on the lifestyle. We must exercise the same care and concern for our animal products that we do for our vegetable products. There can be no double standard for us in this. Although the industries of Big Meat, Big Farm, Small Farm and Small Meat will have their own types and quantities of spin and “reality suspension,” their negligence cannot be overlooked. We cannot and will not be justified by turning our collective heads and ignoring problems regardless of the source. We cannot rant against CAFO’s and have our”Support Your Local Farmer” bumper stickers and then stop by the local supermarket and pick up a roast for dinner. We simply must have more integrity than that.

    I thank you for posting this entry. I can imagine how difficult it was for you to do. But I also think it’s vitally important that we have these types of discussions regularly, if for no other reason than to require us to look in the mirror and ask the hard questions. Questions like “Do I really care about what I’m eating?” “Am I really making a difference in this world by my decisions?” “Am I honestly matching my rhetoric to my behavior and vice versa?”

    All the best…

    • says

      Thank you Bruce, and thanks for this great perspective. I agree with you completely in spirit, but I also know that in practice, I fail a lot…every time I eat out, or get a snack pack of jerky or any of a number of things I am allowing the double standard to win. I try to be pretty up-front about this on the blog. I’ve joked to a friend that whenever someone gets too high-and-mighty about their superior principles I think to myself, “give me 10 minutes alone in your kitchen and your garage and we’ll see how pure you really are.”

      Like it or not, nearly all of us are immeshed in the realities of our modern food, energy, economic and social system. Pulling out of it completely is probably the only way to truly live our values 100% of the time, and that comes at a very dear cost indeed: a social and economic cost most would probably not pay, even if it were possible for them to do so.

      That said, we just gotta keep trying to do the best we can for our particular situation, day in and day out.

      • Bruce says

        Spot on! Can you think of a more boring person than one who was 100% anything? I can’t. My personal ethic is “All I can do is all I can do but all I can do is enough.” I don’t expect to be perfect, but I keep trying to do my best, pick up the pieces, let go of the failures and enjoy the ride.

        Besides that, sometimes it’s nice to let loose and enjoy the conveniences. That’s why they’re call conveniences.

  18. Arrianne says

    Thanks for posting this. I continue to be amazed that in the space of just a couple generations we’ve become so removed from our food and a lot of hard lessons will have to be relearned as we try to get that relationship back.

  19. KC says

    With all the medical progress that is made every day, why can’t we have something similar to a blood-glucose monitor to check for pregnancy in beef cows? Seriously. If it’s made to be quick enough, and even 90% accurate, I’m willing to bet that beef farmers would be willing to purchase a few to use on their herd before culling. Wouldn’t an investment like that be worth avoiding the waste of culled fetal cows? Can’t someone make this into a challenge for engineers with a prize for the cheapest and most efficient device? (I dream big.)

    The closest I’ve witnessed to something like this is a large pig (300+ lbs) being used in medical research, where it had serious stomach surgery without anyone realizing it was pregnant. It gave birth a week or two later, and the piglets were healthy and adopted out to live out their lives on a farm (I’ve seen pictures). There’s horrors in medical research, but there’s also very good people doing the best they can. There’s horrors in small farm beef raising, but there’s also very good people doing the best they can. I appreciate learning more. I wish I could do more.

    It’s hard to think of asking the vendors at the local farmers market how often they see pregnant cows slaughtered on their ranch, but the discomfort in asking is the price you pay for the comfort of knowing, or at least pushing people to think more about how they handle their cattle. Thank you for this post!

    • says

      Two words: Kickstarter Campaign! Do it. Make it happen. I’ll put in 40 bucks and promote it. I do think the ratio of people doing the best they can in small farming and ranching and sustainable food is very high, but like you say, we still need to ask the questions. That’s our job as consumers. Thank you for your comment and for reading. I’m glad the piglets made it. :)

    • Susan says

      Good point! That is exactly what I was thinking while reading the article and the comments. How on Earth, in this day of advanced technology, is there not an inexpensive pregnancy test available for these farmers??? The financial loss they experience each time this happens, and it would seem it happens a lot, is shockingly large compared to the cost that developing/purchasing some kind of testing kit would be. WTF??? And I write this with all “horror” emotions aside, just looking at the financial waste of the system makes me apoplectic.

  20. says

    This was a very difficult post, I’m sure, and very thought provoking. Most of those who have commented have raised valid points, as well. The first question to come to mind was, if the rancher did indeed know the cows were pregnant and chose them for slaughter anyway, why couldn’t he have presented that information to all those present before the slaughter commenced? Am I wrong, or wouldn’t that have at least reduced the element of surprise in what would still have been a very unpleasant scenario?

    The other question that came up is what would I have done in a similar situation. We do not raise cattle, but my husband does hunt deer. I asked him would it make him feel differently about the meat or the hunt if, upon opening up a doe, he found a fawn. He said no. It would be unfortunate, but it would not make him feel differently about the meat or the hunt. So I asked him if he would shoot a doe if it seemed obvious she was pregnant. He said it would depend on several things, primarily how badly we needed to fill our freezer and how clean (and humane) a shot he thought he could take. I asked him what he would do with a fawn found in such a way, although I already knew the answer. It would generally be left in woods at the time of field dressing to feed other wildlife.

    Third, how is slaughtering a mammal and finding a fetus inside different than cleaning a fish and finding roe inside? This is serious and valid question. The fish scenario seems somehow less offensive to me, but I can’t logically say why.

    • says

      Some people eat roe. And, my dad and husband both could tell if a fish was pregnant (at least late term pregnant) and would always release them. Also, I think we identify with and humanize mammals more so than other creatures.

      Depending on where you live, the likelihood of harvesting a doe or cow elk/moose that is very pregnant is very low because of when hunting seasons are open. I say “very pregnant” because most deer and elk seasons are during the rut – breeding season. (I’m sure you know this, just stating for general benefit). So it’s possible to shoot a pregnant doe, but not likely at all that she would be near term; she’d be newly pregnant and there would not be a visible fetus to any hunter or butcher. I know that it is still a loss of life, but the loss at near term is so much more incredibly wasteful.

      • Deb says

        Fish don’t get pregnant do they? I thought they laid eggs and the male fertilized them?

        • says

          I know that some aquarium fish have live offspring, but I am not certain if any fish in the wild do. That really wasn’t my point, anyway. My point was that roe cut out of a fish and discarded is a waste. Not only might those fish have hatched and become a future food source for humans or animals, but some types of roe are eaten by some people. Yet I don’t think many folks would think twice about discarding the roe.

          • says

            I know a lot of people who would discard the fish before they’d discard the roe. :) I have a friend going sturgeon fishing for the first time and he was asking me about the fish, which I am only casually familiar with. All I could say was – if you have a female, you freaking save that roe. That’s caviar, yo. Salmon roe is also very good, and paddlefish eggs are common in sushi. That said, I do think there is an ethical distinction to me made between wasting a life and wasting a potential life. If you foolishly discard the roe of a fish, that’s more like dropping an unfertilized egg on the ground on the way in from the coop to me. It sucks, but a creature didn’t die for that waste.

      • says

        I agree that a doe or cow elk/moose taken in season is unlikely to be pregnant, which is fortunate. The scenario is unlikely to happen; the question was more of a what-if for my husband.

        I suppose I really shouldn’t compare the two. The purpose/goal behind ranching is to raise meat and make a profit (whether the ranch is large or small), so any waste is seen not just as loss of potential food but of potential income. The purpose/goal of Dept. of Natural Resources controlled hunting seasons is, as much as any, to control overpopulation of deer/elk/moose, etc. If a fetal deer were to be found during field dressing, while unfortunate, it would still serve the purpose of thinning the herd.

    • says

      Ah, but here is the question for your husband that is relevant and parallel from my perspective. Suppose your husband was on a game preserve and was guaranteed to bring home a deer that night. No questions asked, your freezer would be full. Would he choose the pregnant deer over other deers? That to me is the issue.

      Your point about conveying the info of the pregnancy to the butchers is an excellent one, and actually speaks to the theory that he just didn’t know. I mentioned in my reply to Erin the likely effect that witnessing this kind of slaughter would have on potential customers…I think that goes along with your point of whether he should provide disclosure, assuming he knew of the pregnancies, as well.

      • says

        Very good question. I can’t ask him directly at this time, but with guaranteed meat, I can’t imagine any reason he’d intentionally take down a pregnant doe over another animal.

  21. says

    Erica, your pictures of the slaughter and processing are… kind of amazing. Aside from the last ones, they are, I feel like I might be stoned for saying it, beautiful.

    As to the slaughtering of cows in late pregnancy… I can’t rationalize at all. Some of the points listed by readers in your comments would make sense in early pregnancy, but in late pregnancy seems wasteful on all accounts. A week or two more and he could have sold that bully male calf if he didn’t have the ability to keep it. The heifers are thin and bruised from putting all their energy into the calf. The calves are wasted completely. As you said, the meat didn’t appear to be prime and you talked to the butcher and the inspector “and everyone involved was horrified.”

    From what you’ve presented, I can only conclude that Small Rancher had no idea and did not care much. Otherwise he would have warned the observers ahead of time, as that is something that is obviously not standard (if the butcher & inspector were bothered) and would be sure to disturb the average, let alone the experienced, observer. Or he would have said something or paused before slaughtering the second cow. If he cared or knew, why didn’t he pick animals with more meat since that was the reasoning for the slaughter to begin with (he was trying to meet customer demands).


    • says

      Thank you for the comments on the photos. The subject matter is difficult, but I do feel the event was captured well graphically. I was somewhat limited in my image selection as it was very important to me to not put any distinguishing characteristics as to place or person in the photos. I guess what I’m saying is, I really worked on this one, so thank you.

      The more I read through these comments and take the time to respond, the more I’m bothered by something that never occurred to me when I was originally writing the post: what the selection of these cows means from a customer standpoint. Grass fed beef is hard to raise well. Thats why it can have such a reputation for chewiness and a livery quality when cooked beyond medium-rare. And it’s true that the gras fed beef I’ve bought over the years has been of variable eating quality. And yet the customer pays a premium for pastured meat, and usually does so happily. I think it is detrimental to the larger industry to send out for cut-and-wrap beef that you know is not that good. And if I knew it wasn’t that good, surely Rancher did? Unless he mistook pregnancy weight for potential hanging weight? God, what a shame that would be, if that’s the case.

  22. says

    I really wasn’t sure where your posted was heading until I had to think for a second and wonder if it really was what I thought it was in the photos. I really can’t believe it. I’ve been vegetarian for a year now after eating meat my entire life so it isn’t like I’m not understanding about meat—it tastes good and I like it—but the ethics behind our food system is where I am coming from…and seeing this post, it stresses that even more.

    I think most of what I thought on the cow slaughter subject has been said, but I was glad to see someone mention fish there for a second. If you want to really know waste and unsustainable food, look to the fisheries. Even so-called farmed fish is not good and many things on the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s safe fisheries guide I dispute. Dragging a trawl for miles at a time, scraping up the benthic ecosystem, drowning sea turtles that don’t escape the turtle excluder devices, and letting by-catch die on the deck of the boat doesn’t sound very sustainable to me. Or long lining for that matter—-miles and miles of line left to drift in the ocean catching whatever bites onto it, not even the target species in most cases. So, to enjoy that nice bite of swordfish or tuna you might have offed a turtle, dolphin or other unwanted species that happened to snack on the hook.

    Waste is waste no matter how you decorate it. And I can’t believe how many don’t bat an eye when eating their fresh caught shrimp.

    • says

      Excellent point. Although I love seafood I can’t argue with any of your facts. The image of the calf could easily be called “beef bycatch.” And this doesn’t even touch on the environmental cesspool that is most fish farming…I sure loved black tiger prawns until I found out how they were grown-out. It’s a difficult thing, to be a conscientious eater. Thank you for your perspective and for reading.

  23. Tiff says

    Sigh……….First I want to thank you for this post and pictures. It’s so easy to block out what it must be like with the visual connection. I say this, while feeling shaken up by the pictures of the 2 fetuses, and am speechless on so many levels. Why?, How?, on and on. I read ‘ the conscious Carnivore’ that addressed the issue of waste. I am a meat eater, who try’s to do it ethically, and I often feel lost as to how to ‘ know’ and this does an incredible job, pointing out the fact that ” bad is bad no matter what size” if it’s not done ethically. So yet again I am struck with the thought that one of the pure evils in this society of ours is the waste we produce. The book does a pretty good job showing how many animals get slaughtered to just end up in the trash. Like you the author is an ethical meat eater who also raises sheep for slaughter. As always, I try to go with word of mouth when it comes to ‘local’ stuff. It’s mainly been because I am somewhat new to buying meat from small sources, but now the most important one is, because I have learned more about what bad shit is down, in the name of ‘small’ Thank you, for your bravery while seeing this horror show for real and for bringing this to the surface.

    • says

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I will check it out. The amount of food wasted in general in the US is shameful. From farm to plate it’s something like 50%. This touches on a whole host of issues, including poverty, food access, distribution systems and global hunger, but I’ll attempt to stay on point. ;) Basically, this is just reflective of a larger consumer culture issue: replacement goods are cheaper than the time-cost to save and economize. I think if you look around you will see this same pattern repeated over and over and over. The entire system is set up to make the throw away option the most cost effective, reasonable decision. From cows to cameras to camisoles, we live in a culture of expected and built-in obsolescence. It’s hard to know what to do with that, but I think it’s reality.

  24. brenda from ar says

    Our local rancher still feeds some grain in winter and grass finishes in the summer. You can get a beef after he’s durn good and ready (sometime after peak grass). If you ask for a beef in March, the answer is flat-out NO! He doesn’t shy away from visitors or questions. I’ve never asked about pregnancies, but I could.

    brenda from ar

    • says

      I think this is essential – learning to think of meat as a seasonal thing, just as much as peaches or snap peas. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy beef year round, but it can’t be fresh beef. It must be preserved by freezing or salting or drying or canning.

      If you do ask your farmer, please let me know what he says.

  25. says

    So, as the daughter of a beef farmer, my main question is…why cows? I don’t think a single cow ever went off of our farm to slaughter, especially if she’d been in the breeding herd. Just doesn’t make any sense. I am going to join the “don’t think he knew what he was doing” crowd. Either way, very thought-provoking post. Well done.

  26. Danielle says

    But how do you really know if a local small farmer is a good ethical knowledgable farmer or not? They all say they are. You can go to open house days and even help with the planting but you don’t really know. Any ideas?

  27. Arrowleaf says

    To begin, thank you Erica for posting a hearty disclaimer about these photos and the subsequent article. I appreciate being given a lengthy preamble and choice for viewing such things. It’s not as though I’m squeamish (sp?), but I did decide against eating my breakfast while reading this. Congrats on presenting a challenging topic (the foodie g-spot reference was a nice giggle amidst the horrors) in a neutral and informative manner.

    After reading the other comments, I am left wondering: where this rancher is today (still in business? heard any other feedback through the rumor mill?), why nobody asked questions of the process to the rancher (which I realize is difficult to do, but even a simple “uh, is that a fetal cow I see in the innards pile?”), and lastly, when I can get my ass in gear to visit the small ranch where we purchase lamb each year?

    You bring up an exceptional point of re-defining food vernacular (smal, local, etc.) and remind me that it is most certainly a responsibility to eat my meat wisely. Luckily, I don’t like the taste of cow and avoid seafood due to bioaccumulation and farming practices, so those are easier food sources. But the aforemention lamb, chicken, and pork products in my life are easy candidates to explore further. I am lucky to live in a place where these products are raised locally and by small producers. Setting aside a few hours to meet the producers, tour the farm, and lend a hand is such a logical part of the process which I have over-looked now that I’m not raising my own chickens and harvesting deer anymore. Oh the irony! I’ve been on permanent vacation from meat harvesting and have admittedly been putting much faith in these outside sources. I am ashamed to admit this, but not so prideful to share that this is the motivation I need…

    • says

      Thank you Arrowleaf. It is my understanding (and I learned this after the post was up) that this particular rancher has left the business. I do not know under what circumstances he left.

      At the risk of sounding flippant, which I really don’t intend, you can be pretty sure your lamb isn’t pregnant at slaughter time. :/ It sounds like you are very thoughtful in your meat eating, I’m sure the producers you have selected are doing a great job. But isn’t it nice to be able to go check?

  28. says

    Oy…First off, thanks for writing this post. It raises so many great questions. The photos are amazing and incredibly intense. ..Good stuff. I am new to the entire process of buying local beef (we purchased our first 1/4 cow last winter) and really really knowing what goes into it…from beginning to end…is very important to me. I feel as though asking the hard questions is important, for a variety of reasons, and is more than worth the time or possible uncomfortable silences or answers. Intention is key. We may never know Small Farmer’s intentions or knowledge base that day. We have no control over what anyone else ever does or what runs through their minds. However, we have absolute control over our own intentions, what practices we deem personally acceptable and where we choose to spend our money.

  29. says

    Wow, thanks for the excellent post. It’s a powerful reminder to “know your farmer”. I agree with you that participating in the harvest of animal foods is very important for anyone who is desirous of eating them. It’s amazing to me how many people are perfectly willing to pretend that meat comes in saran wrapped packages.

  30. Caite says

    I will only speak to the part about dairy cows being pregnant at slaughter. A cow’s gestation is 9 months, and an awful lot can happen in that time. With the drought we are currently experiencing and the high price for cull cows, the dairy I work for is culling cows pretty hard right now. Chances are quite high that many of those cows are pregnant, although not so pregnant as the ones pictured in this article.

    A dairy cow is VERY expensive to maintain, and one that’s not carrying her own weight can’t be kept. I love the animals I keep on my farm, and I love the animals at the farm where I work, but we are a business, and we have to make money. I agree that small is not always better, but the full reality is that animals that cost more than they make are not going to stay in any “real” farm. Being very small may allow you to spend less on management because you can do more yourself, which means that non-productive animals can be kept longer, but in the long run we are in it to make a living, not to run a petting zoo.

    I cried yesterday when I realized that I’ll have to cull a bunch of goats, but animals can’t eat a crop insurance check.

  31. says

    I so wish you had pictures of the cows at rest beforehand so I could see if there were any signs the cows were pregnant. Those calves were big and in good weight – I find it difficult to imagine there was no sign, although not impossible. Also, if the bull is running with the herd all the time, you can usually know your cows are settled by his behavior… if I notice he pays them no mind for a few months, it’s pretty likely they are pregnant even if they don’t look it.

    A new rancher should be hyper vigilant learning to read his/her cattle. Anything amiss should be reason for caution and research. I found other farmers to be extremely willing to help when I was just starting out. I wasn’t too proud to ask or admit I didn’t know, and I never will be. There’s always something you don’t know.

    I also wish I could hear from the rancher why – most of all, if he knew, why would he ever have allowed onlookers to witness? You’d have to be pretty out of touch to not realize you were going to horrify people with that one… even if it is justified (not saying it is), it just is the sort of thing that haunts anyone, even a life-long farmer.

    I wish people would just stop trying to oversimplify and categorize everything with one broad brush – as you say, small does not equal good and I could fill a book with my opinions about why. But I’ll spare you : )

    Getting to know your farmer is the only way… although not many people would ever learn about this even with a farm visit… thanks so much for your gutsiness and caring enough to put yourself through it and share. Not easy, and I’m sure you’ll never forget it.

  32. says

    Hi Erica! Great post – sorry I’m so late getting to it!

    The one obvious difference between this terrible (for you, and I suspect, for the farmer also, for reasons already listed) small farm experience and a similar one on a larger farm, is that you were there. We don’t celebrate small farms because they’re innately better – we celebrate and support them because they allow the customer to make these connections, see how their food is raised, and make knowledgeable, informed decisions about whether they choose to support any given farm. Not all small farms, of course, are open, and so not all farms receive our support and love, but on the whole, a small farmer (because he/she is more likely to be selling directly to the public) has more to gain by opening his/her farm to visitors.

    So in my opinion, the question about fetishing small producers vs. good ones should be farms open to the public (at any size) vs. those that are not.

    • says

      Fantastic point. Reminds me of the Paul McCartney quote, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” We have industrial meat producers working hard to make any kind of photography of the conditions of the animal a criminal offense, so maybe openness and transparency should be a key element in how we judge our meat producers. That would sure rule out the worst of it in a hurry.

  33. Daniel Key says

    Whew! Now that is a stimulating discussion! Wish I had time to have read all the comments!

  34. Erika Peterson says

    As a relatively new farmer, I’m kind of boggled by this. While it is extremely difficult to tell if a cow is pregnant even up to the last week, this is a simple matter of herd management. He must have known the cow had been with the bull and thus was overwhelmingly likely to be pregnant. Knowing when the cow calved last or its age if it was a heifer would have given him a rough idea of the length of gestation. So, either inexperience or poverty drove this. Either way, it’s too bad no one could speak of it, though certainly understandable.

  35. Laurie says

    Thank you for this good example of smaller isn’t always better. My dad milks 40 cows, and even though he is a good manager, the facilities our cattle are housed in is over 100 years old, and certainly not as comfortable as new large free stall barns made for 100+ cows. But we make due with putting our cows on pasture in the summer, good quality feed, etc. If my dad had the funds and labor, he would make his operation bigger so he can cash flow enough for new facilities with sand bedded stalls, large fans, sprinklers, etc.

    Also, in regards to your post, most dairy farmers I’ve worked with cull their cows for reproductive reasons- meaning they can’t get them pregnant. Yes it is sad to cull a pregnant cow, and it’s not very economical.

    The next time you get a chance, you can “bump” the calf to see if the cow is pregnant. You need to stand the side of the cow, make a fist, and gently push against the back of the ribs. If the cow is late term, you can feel the head of the calf nudge back at you. Palpation can be done, but it’s hard for an untrained person to know what to feel for. In dairy, since we focus on getting cows pregnant to produce milk, it boggles my mind that the farmer wouldn’t know that the cow is pregnant, but I suppose for a “hobby” beef farmer, that could happen. A simple check from a vet could verify.

  36. Steve says

    I just found your blog . The pure and simple thrith is greed. I raise beef cows and sell them for freezer beef. We preg test all of our animals and make sure they are of good eating quality. Too many small growers have found a niche market and to them a cow is just money . Make sure you research the grower you buy from and he should be happy to have you come out and see their farm.

  37. La says

    I don’t eat meat, have no desire to. Everyone close to me does, so I do not make a big deal of it. One of the disturbing pictures for me was that the live cows were able to see the horrible way other members of their group were slaughtered. Why can’t they be spared that gruesome scene of their own future? Couldn’t there be a way to manage that more humanely?

  38. says

    In India a cow has become a holy beast, a revered animal, a creature of beauty and service worthy of respect. In America a cow is just another commodity worthy of an untimely death by murder(mostly with a bit of torture thrown in.) Somewhat similar to oil , a commodity, worth murdering for. Still we love steak, it offers the brain an opiate like effect, we get a little high and helps us be more aggressive and competitive in business. Not like those vegetarian wimps who fold like a lettuce leaf at the slightest provocation. Many of the wisest men and women of our time turned to a vegetarian diet and often counseled the rest of the world regarding its virtues and benefits.
    I d like to ask those readers, what does this post really say to you, these pictures? Most cows only live 4 or 5 years of a 25 year natural age. Shouldnt we rethink our stance on cows and other 4 legged creatures. It seems to me like they have had enough cruel mistreatment from us civilised humans and maybe the next time you pat your dog, hug the cat you might want to ask “what would they make of our treatment of their fellow four legged friends”.

  39. LisaSepulveda says

    This was a great post. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I am an omnivore, but am finding it more and more difficult to eat meat. I recently married a vegetarian and live with him and his children, one of whom is vegan. They do not preach to me or try to convert me. I have been educating myself on meat production and am having a hard time justifying my taste for meat with the suffering of factory farmed animals. I have been looking for locally sourced meat (I’m not much of a beef eater though), this article has made me re-think it. I’ve already gone to cage free local eggs and dairy.
    I respect the way you wrote it and your point of view.

  40. says

    I came across this post and was not going to respond because it draws further attention to a real problem you have identified. With my family I am trying to survive in the healthiest GRASS FATTENING of young quality beef, not marketing cows or culling animals to the well meaning consumer. The beef you depict is only fit for ground beef of dubious quality and causes huge customer dissatisfaction to the detriment of all. Experienced, professional farmers hate this as do veterinarians, because they know that the greatest suffering and problems are in the hands of the inexperienced, well meaning ‘farmer’ with off farm income who’s grandparents, one or two generations removed, were small farmers.
    I could say a lot more but least said the better, except that professional farmers who value repeat customers are in a completely different class. Your blog is an important ‘buyer beware’ message.

  41. Idahogundy says

    I realize this is almost a year late, but I came across your blog and really thought you did a great job, and wanted to share some insights if I may. I am a large animal veterinarian that works primarily with beef cows, though in a former life I also worked on some pretty large commercial dairies. I am a firm believer that anybody who eats meat should at some point in their lives see an animal being slaughtered, and I give you full props for taking the time to actually do that. I also admire your ability to tackle the different implications of your experience with a non-biased approach. I have clients that have just a few cows, and I have worked on dairies with 10,000+ cows, and in my experience, the size of the operation and the welfare of the animals are independent variables.
    The slaughter of a pregnant cow is a waste, and can easily be avoided with proper management. Blood tests are very good management tools, though I would like to think that at this point in my career my clients can trust my diagnoses based on manual palpation to be as good or better than any blood test. Nevertheless, it seems that out of the 10,000 momma cows I see every fall there are always a few that don’t do what I say they’ll do for whatever reason.
    I would also offer for your consideration that there may be times when the slaughter of a pregnant cow may be justified. For instance, cows that want to kill me.
    In fact, there have been occasions when I diagnose a cow as not-pregnant, or ‘open’ from across the fence, usually after she has put me over it. While good stockmanship can go a long ways to prevent such occurrences, there’s always the odd cow that gets a little snorty for the odd reason, and there’s no reason to keep those ones around.
    Also, many times there will be certain conditions that may preclude a cow from being able to raise a healthy calf such as broken mouth (poor dentition), sun-burned tits (I hope that one’s self explanatory), and other ailments. These cows don’t always go to slaughter, but they often go to the livestock auction where they are either picked up by a meat packer, or by an aspiring stockman who just closed on 50 acres and is looking to try their hand at grass-roots agriculture. Maybe this is where your small rancher acquaintance got his cows? You never know.
    What I can say for sure is, that ranching/farming is a difficult and very unforgiving job, and while I understand the reasons why the modern consumer is demanding more transparency in where their food comes from, I also think a large part of that is due the our society being so far removed from agriculture in general. The baby boomers didn’t care as much because a lot of them actually had to work on farms as kids, so mostly they were just glad to let somebody else milk the cows. Our generation on the other hand, seems to have developed a nostalgia for it, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think our multi-generational detachment has created an unrealistic image of what ‘good’ agriculture is.
    All that being said, I applaud the efforts of any individual who attempts to reconnect with their agricultural roots, whether it be by raising a garden, visiting a farm, or by raising organic rabbits in their back yard (LOVED your article on the ‘Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater’ by the way). I just hope they approach it with a little bit of humility, and possibly respect, for the hardworking individuals who grow the bulk of our food commercially, and yes, for profit. After all, if you’re going to be good at something, why is it necessarily a great big fat corporate sin to make money doing it?

  42. Christina says

    Absolutely fascinating! I would have never thought to question this. Thanks for the warning up front and I have definitely learned something new. Wow!

  43. Laura says

    I know this post is old, but I just stumbled upon it. I was raised on a third generation cattle ranch where my family has a purebred seedstock operation. Basically we breed purebred cattle, sell the good bull calves when they are a year to two years old and keep some of the heifers while selling some when they are old enough to breed. Cattle that do not have good enough phenotype and genotype are culled and fed for harvest. Culling is an important process. Say you have a bull with crooked legs. That bull will pass the crooked legs on down his breeding line, making it huge animal welfare problem in the future when his offspring can not walk. That being said, culling is very important with cows on an economic standpoint. Her job is to produce a calf to earn her keep (pasture, breeding, vaccinations and supplements are very expensive). When she no longer does that the ranch will quickly begin to loose money. Now the rancher has a huge responsibility. It’s his/her job to make sure that their livestock are well kept, have good body condition, healthy, in a low stress environment and handled gently. There are classes and training to insure vaccinations are administered correctly and safely (for the animal and food safety). Here’s the thing, majority of farmers and rancher do the right thing as far as animal welfare practices. Just because you buy your meat from Walmart, doesn’t mean it was raised inhumanely. Packing plants have put millions of dollars into humane slaughter research and practices. Check out She’s a livestock handling expert who has helped changed the meat packing industry. Cattle fed to harvest in feedyards are safe. There are things done to pens to make them more comfortable for cattle, such as adding mounds in the middle, wind blocks and shelter houses. Feedyards have pen riders who’s sole purpose is to look at every single animal in the yard every single day and take action to improve its health if needed. As far as the “rancher” slaughtering cows that were carrying, that is awful. I am sorry this was your experience. There are some people who don’t belong in the livestock industry. Majority of farmers and ranchers are highly educated and know the correct protocols. There are undergrad, masters and PhD programs devoted to raising livestock. I hope this person thought twice about what he did and never did it again. Love life & Eat Beef.