As a born and bred “city girl” and a vegan, I had many preconceived notions of what a feedlot would represent. Years of misinformation and stilted documentaries had prepared me for a filth-laden pen where cattle stood shoulder to shoulder in their own excrement and were tortured and force-fed day and night. After my visit to Beef Northwest, however; I saw that nothing could be further from the truth.
Driving in toward the property, I was amazed by the acres of corn and potato fields on either side of the road; each one snaked by a long irrigation system. Randy Sifford, our guide, explained that these irrigation systems extended 160-200 acres wide and moved in a slow circle each day, drenching the crops with water pumped directly from the neighboring river. He explained that the silage from the corn crops – corn husk and leaves, mixed with alfalfa and chopped hay – were fermented, and then fed to the cattle to help promote gut health and improve their digestion. As a student of nutrition, I was impressed to note that while the field of human nutrition is just now starting to recognize the health benefits of fermented foods, the field of animal nutrition has been utilizing its benefits for years.
Entering the property, Randy then asked which lots we would like to see, generic, pasture-raised, or non-GMO. I, of course, asked to see all three!
Randy first took us to where the generic beef were fed. Despite the dry day, the ground was not as dusty as I would have anticipated. Randy explained that the ground was periodically sprayed down to lessen the amount of dust in the air and protect the cattle’s respiratory systems. I asked him about the tags in the cattle’s ears and he explained that the tags in their right ears were their individual ID numbers; the number that identified the animal from birth to slaughter. The tag in their left ear, he explained, was the lot number, used to identify the animal as a Beef Northwest steer, and the white dot was an electronic chip that was scanned by sensors throughout the animal’s stay at Beef Northwest – monitoring the steer’s activities and feeding patterns. Randy explained that the long troughs, or “feed bunks” contained a combination of corn, miscellaneous grains, and a potato slurry made of remnants from the nearby French fry plant. The animals, he said, were fed three times a day and would gain an average of 3.5-4 pounds a day during their stay.
Randy then drove us over to where the nonGMO cattle were raised for Country Natural Beef. I was initially surprised to note that the nonGMO cattle did not have access to pasture land, but Randy explained to me that pasture raised and nonGMO were entirely different attributes, and as such, the cattle were raised in different environments. While the nonGMO cattle did not have access to open pasture, it was evident that they had access to a broader range of feed than the generic cattle. The nonGMO feed, Randy explained, was a mix of wheat and barley – no corn – which was blended with hay. When the cattle first arrive at the lot, their feed has a higher hay-to-grain ratio. But as their gastrointestinal systems adjust to the new variety of feed, the amount of hay is slowly phased down, and the cattle’s digestive tracts don’t endure any duress, thus negating the need for antibiotics. Randy had me hold the fresh feed and it was wonderful to see how fresh and pungent it was. I could see each individual strand of alfalfa and smell the nutty fragrance of the barley, and I joked to Norm that it wasn’t unlike the cereal I have each morning for breakfast!
While I would have loved to see the cattle have access to pasture, it was evident that they all had ample space in which to roam, and that they were all healthy, active, and well cared for animals.
The pasture raised cattle were the final stop on our tour. These cattle, Randy noted, were not on a fully nonGMO diet, however; in addition to a grain silage feed, these animals were given the freedom to roam on open pasture. The pasture raised cattle served a dual purpose, Randy stated. In addition to clearing out invasive species and reducing fire hazards by eating down the dry brush, the cattle’s hooves were natural tillers; breaking down the soil and redistributing nutrients for later growth. Randy explained how the cattle at Beef Northwest were all part of a greater food system: they cattle ate the silage and the grass, the manure was used to fertilize the crops, the crops were grown and more silage was created, and so on and so on. It was wonderful to see the cattle roaming happily, and it was also nice to note a small calf wandering about. She was a “surprise” as it turned out, but was allowed to stay with her mother and the other protective members of the herd until she was old enough to be on her own.
I was extremely impressed by my experience at Beef Northwest and was pleasantly surprised to see every one of my preconceived notions regarding a feedlot completely ameliorated. The most striking to me was the level of symbiosis I saw portrayed on the lot. The cattle manure was used on the corn and potatoes – the potatoes were sent to the factory – the silage from the corn and the potato factory refuse was fed back to the cattle – the manure was then returned to the crops, and the cycle was continued. There was no waste, simply an efficient and natural redistribution of resources that followed a natural ecological system. I’ve heard the words of Doc Hatfield stated many times; that Country Natural Beef should focus on “the health of the land, the health of the animal, and the health of the beef eating experience”, in that order. I saw those words being put into action at Beef Northwest and I believe Doc would be very proud.