Sane Cows, or BSE isn’t the worst of it

Edward Luttwak

At the Wye plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the department of agriculture of the University of Maryland raises beautiful Black Angus cattle with all the latest equipment and best techniques. It produces bullocks and breeding heifers, but serves as a model for Maryland’s ‘cow-calf operations’ that produce beef for the table rather than milk. Corrals, chutes, catch-pens all seem brand new because they are so perfectly maintained, with everything neat, clean and freshly painted. The results are impressive: 90 per cent of the Wye cows produce a calf each year, and steers are ready for sale by their 18th month, at impressive weights. I went there to find out how my family’s primitive Bolivian ranch might be improved – only 60 per cent of our cows give birth in any one year, and our steers grow so slowly that we must keep them for 30 months to achieve worthwhile weights for the market. Cattle are capital, and were indeed its very first embodiment, yielding their offspring as interest. The higher the birth rate, the higher the rate of return, if costs are equal. And time is money with cattle as with any other form of capital: a steer sold at 30 months earns less net revenue than one sold after 18 months at equal weights, prices and costs – just how much less depends on the interest cost of waiting, which exceeds 12 per cent per annum in Bolivia. All in all, the Maryland numbers showed that there was much to be improved on our ranch.

The Maryland experts were interested in how we ranch and how we sell our cattle, given the 200 roadless kilometres to the nearest town (by rafting down river to Brazil). They were eager to help. Our humped Nelor cattle, a Brazilian breed evolved from brahmins originally brought from India by the Portuguese, conceive by the 15th month or even earlier, give birth after nine months of gestation, and can become pregnant again a few weeks later, just like the Wye cows. But our fertility rate is so much lower, I learned, because if cows and bulls are left to commune according to their desires, many cows resist impregnation, preferring to raise their calves for at least six months before becoming pregnant again. Artificial insemination is the remedy. In Wye, all cows ready to breed again but not visibly pregnant are tested with sonograms by the resident vets, and those carrying no embryo are separated from the herd to be frequently tested with a thermometer inserted into their vaginas, until oestrus is detected. At that point, the frozen semen of prize bulls is defrosted and injected, with the procedure repeated until sonogram results are positive.

With our cattle dispersed over 78 square miles of savannah grasslands interrupted by islands of tropical forest, we cannot emulate any of those practices. With one-by-one animal husbandry impossible, our cows and bulls are left to graze and procreate on their own, except for the few days a year when our eight cowboys, their older children, the manager and myself round up all the cattle we can find to corral them for counting, the branding of yearlings, castration, foot-and-mouth vaccination, the feeding of a vermifuge and fumigation against external parasites. During the long rainy season, when swollen streams, enlarged lagunas and swamped pastures drastically limit movement even on our sturdy criollo horses, we do not even know where our cattle are much of the time, let alone which of our heifers is ready for impregnation. In any case, we have no sonogram machines or the electricity to operate them, our cows are too wild to be tested for oestrus with a thermometer, and we can’t preserve semen for we have no refrigeration. The only way we can increase the fertility of our cows – the key to our entire profitability as we have no dairy cattle – is to provide enough bulls. In Wye, they keep a few ‘clean-up’ bulls with their 170 cows to complement artificial insemination, but we have 40 bulls for each lot of 500 cows, deliberately selecting smaller-framed animals because young heifers flee from the very large bulls that win prizes – heavy and slow, they seem to enjoy standing around looking impressive, but mount few cows and only earn their keep with extracted semen. Our calves are also born smaller of course, but that is no disadvantage at birthing time, when our heifers easily drop their young without any help at all, let alone the pulling chains, winches and risky caesarians used by cattle raisers in all advanced countries.

There was one consolation in my failure to learn anything useful about fertility. Our procreation costs start and end with our bulls, bought at $400 each – and we can eventually recover more than that when we sell them for meat in their eighth year, for middle-aged bulls easily put on weight. At Wye, by contrast, as in all commercial cattle-raising ventures in Europe and the United States, high fertility does not come cheap. Sonogram machines, veterinary care, even the semen at more than $30 a shot are all very expensive, and there are many more abortions and stillbirths when cattle are bred for size, to jump-start the race to the market. Doing my sums, I discovered that for us a 60 per cent live birth rate was better than Wye’s 90 per cent in spite of all the extra bulls we have to keep, simply because of the vast difference in the cost of keeping animals in the first place.

At Wye, as in almost every cow-calf operation in Western Europe or the US, cattle cannot feed themselves all year round on green pasture. Only hobby farmers with few cows and a lot of land have the ten acres or so of decent land per head that are needed – and even they must usually provide baled hay during the coldest winter months when grass stops growing. With all the better land in Europe and North America taken up by the intensive or arable farming that inherent productivity or subsidies make more profitable, almost all commercial cattle raisers must complement whatever green pasture they have with hay and other feeds at a cost of roughly $250 per year per head – it makes little difference if they buy the hay ready-baled or grow it themselves, with tractors, harvesters, fuel, fertiliser, weed-killers and pesticides. The left-over straw of cereal crops and other roughage that may cost little or nothing is used, too, but lactating and pregnant cows and those fast-growing steers must also be fed more costly, more protein-rich concentrates, such as maize, oats, barley, grain sorghum, wheat, beet-pulp, oilseed or soya bean meal, molasses, synthetic urea and, until recently, processed animal offal, including the sheep brains that have led to present difficulties. Our cattle, by contrast, eat only the natural grasses of the savannah, picking and choosing among different plants at different times of the year to find all the nutrition they need, except for salt with mineral additives that costs us $3 per head per year.

We can afford to keep all those extra bulls and the 40 per cent of our cows that fail to give birth in any one year, because each steer we sell can pay for the salt of 83 heads. With feeding costing us 1 per cent of what cattle raisers in Europe or North America must pay, their animal husbandry holds no lessons for us. True, we must keep our steers for 30 months before they are ready for the market, but that only costs us $7.50 in salt as opposed to the $375 or more in hay and concentrates eaten by a Maryland or British steer by the time it is ready for sale at 18 months. Of course, there is the interest on delayed revenue to be reckoned, as well as the much lower weight of our steers, but given our abundance of grass it simply does not pay for us to minimise time and maximise weight at high cost, let alone fatten our animals in feedlots with expensive concentrates and supplements.

In other words, while European and North American cattle raisers pay their dues to the corporations that supply them with everything from tractors and fuel to bagged concentrates, we pay our dues to nature by accepting its pace and limits. So far that has been a rewarding choice: our return on cattle capital exceeds 30 per cent, more than twice what North American and European cattle raisers can expect, though their corporate suppliers fare much better of course. The profitability of the entire sector is so tenuous in the US that many ranchers stay in business only because they are not in business at all, but rather keep their ranches for pleasure and display, à la W. Bush or CNN’s Ted Turner, losing money each year, which they bill to the taxpayers by way of loss credits against the earnings of their real trade. Recently ‘buffalo’ (bison) ranching became fashionable among the tax-loss crowd, though it was attempted by some desperate cow ranchers as well, who discovered that costs are even higher – not least for steel-tube fencing – and profits even lower. Among the dwindling band of genuine ranchers, a great many are consuming their capital year by year by accumulating mortgages against their land. As the number of independent ranchers and farm-based cattle raisers continues to decline in the States, as it would in Europe but for subsidies, they are replaced by large-scale corporate operations, some of them immense; but they, too, are not faring well.

All that frantic productivity is thus an attempt to offset miserable margins with sheer quantity, which in turn drives down prices, reducing profitability even more. During the last two years, we have sold finished steers in the border town of Costa Márquez, in the back of Rondonia, one of Brazil’s least developed areas, at prices ranging from $1.05 to $1.45 per kilo, measured at 50 per cent of live weight (‘pencil shrinkage’), only a few cents less than the price to be had in Chicago for animals on which far more money has been spent. But then if Amazonian ranching were not so inherently profitable, Amazonian forests would not be endangered (for the record, we preserve our forests intact; our land in San Joaquín province is on the very edge of the uninterrupted rainforest that begins just across a ten-mile lake, but is still mostly savannah grassland that was never de-forested).

But at the Wye plantation I also learned something else, or rather saw it while we were talking. It was the veterinary chart of a Maryland cow-calf operation, with separate rows for pneumonia, diphtheria, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, parainfluenza-3, bovine viral diarrhoea, bloat, three kinds of clostridial infections, coccidiosis, pink-eye, cancer eye, footrot, actinomycosis lumpjaw, hard lumpjaw, acidosis, laminitis, nitrate poisoning (from heavily fertilised pasture) and many more conditions. Treatments were also listed with antihistamines, dexamethasone, adrenaline, sulpha boluses, dimethyl sulphoxide, nitrofurazone and novalson as well as several vaccines, vermifuges, fumigants, homely iodine and castor oil, and many, many applications of antibiotics – a long list of them, starting with penicillin and going on to LA-200 and others equally obscure to me.

The reason I found this chart startling – though I later learned that it reflected normal conditions throughout Europe and North America – was that in our ranch we get by with one vaccination, two vermifuge doses and two fumigations per year, all done by ourselves as there is no vet within reach. How could it be, I asked, that Maryland cows needed all those medicines, and the frequent services of veterinarians? The experts immediately pointed out that only the largest cattle raisers and feedlot operators had full-time vets on staff as they did, while most raisers only called them in now and then, because they could apply most treatments themselves. But yes, a great variety of medicines was indeed essential, for otherwise cattle would die of disease. They estimated that veterinary care and supplies added some $50 per head per year to the average cost of upkeep.

We, too, lose cattle to disease as well as to jaguars, maned wolves and anacondas (yes, they can swallow a new-born calf), but our combined losses have been running at roughly 1 per cent per year. No, I was told, it was nothing like that: without several specifics and lots of antibiotics, cattle raisers would lose a great many head, and in feedlots mass deaths would be inevitable for infections spread immediately among animals kept within inches of each other. Again, I asked why cows in salubrious Maryland – or Britain for that matter – were so much more vulnerable to disease than our cows, which live in the intensely tropical Amazon basin, dense with every form of life including a myriad of micro-organisms, internal and external parasites and blood-sucking vampire bats that carry all manner of diseases.

I received two answers. The first was that our slim Nelors, while much less productive of meat and useless for milking, were resistant to disease because they were the offspring of natural selection undistorted by veterinary interventions, rather than cattle systematically bred for productivity alone. The second answer, however, was the more consequential: unlike humans or pigs, who can eat anything organic, animal or vegetable, except for grass and wood because our stomachs cannot break down cellulose, bovines are pure herbivores. Their four-part ruminant stomachs break down the cellulose in grass that we can’t digest to extract all the proteins, vitamins, minerals and calories they need. Conversely, cattle can’t easily digest proteins, beyond the tiny amounts consumed by the microbes in their first stomach (the rumen), which break down cellulose. Yet for the sake of rapid weight-gain and rapid procreation, European and North American cattle are fed with cereals and all those other concentrates that contain even more protein, as well as pre-bloom alfalfa hay which is itself 16 per cent protein. One result is that European and North American cattle raisers are always in danger of losing their animals to bloat, a foamy gas build-up in the rumen that presses against the lungs with a suffocating effect. Anti-foaming agents are used, and trocars are kept on hand to puncture the rumen in emergencies.

The other results of feeding proteins to herbivores are much less dramatic, altogether more prevalent, and of far greater significance for human health: chronic diarrhoea and acidosis, which hardly ever kill cattle outright but disrupt their immune systems, exposing them to all the diseases I saw on the Wye chart, and a few more besides.

To put it plainly, nearly all beef cattle in Europe and North America are permanently unhealthy, and only survive in a chronic state of low-level sickness with large doses of antibiotics. Because they are cheap and induce water retention that increases weight, antibiotics are just the thing for cattle raisers and feedlot operators – whose animals could not survive a week without them. For those who eat the resulting beef no ill consequence need follow individually, although I myself am nauseated by the idea of eating the meat of sick animals pumped full of antibiotics and assorted medicines – since visiting Wye, I eat only Argentinian beef when I can get it, and my own when in Bolivia.

Public health, however, is another matter. At a time when old diseases such as TB are reappearing, and wounds and fractures are once again followed by stubborn, even lethal infections because many bacteria strains have become highly resistant to antibiotics, their use in mass quantities by cattle raisers adds to the problem. Until recently, it was thought that humans cannot absorb antibiotics from cooked beef, but research prompted by BSE has incidentally disproved that reassuring belief. One result is that those who eat beef may be spared an infection now and then; another is that they, too, are contributing to the evolution of increasingly resistant strains of bacteria.

The much larger issue is the entire logic of European and North American beef production in its present form. Tens of millions of head of cattle are raised in spite of the lack of anything like enough green pasture for them. In Western Europe, subsidies provide an incentive to raise beef cattle even without any pasture at all, or almost none, as in Tuscany, for example, whose Chianini – the source of much-celebrated Fiorentina steaks – is the largest of all cattle breeds, but where meadows are a rarity among all those vineyards and villas. When I questioned the systematic use of antibiotics by the entire industry of both continents, the Wye experts replied that without them there could only be grass-fed beef, which tastes wonderful, as any visitor to Argentina can attest, but is too tough for palates used to the very soft flesh of grain-fed animals, further softened by immobility in feed lots – and by antibiotics. But their stronger retort was that beef fed on grass alone would be necessarily scarce, and expensive. It could no longer be an everyday food for virtually everyone, but only for the affluent, and only an occasional treat for the poor or parsimonious. Yet at the same time cardiologists unanimously assert that most people in Europe and North America eat far too much beef – that it should be an occasional treat rather than an everyday food, which many eat twice a day.

The veterinary profession has therefore systematised, indeed normalised the raising of unhealthy cattle to achieve the very abundance that makes people unhealthy. In its rarity, BSE is only an extreme consequence of feeding animal proteins to herbivores that can’t eat even alfalfa in any quantity without ill effect, let alone sheep brains. If the unending BSE drama finally attracts public attention to the habitual malpractice of the cattle industry, we may yet see North American and European herds reduced to their naturally-fed size, that small fraction of present numbers for which green pasture can be provided all year round. And if that supply is insufficient, the pampas and savannahs of South America can provide all that is needed, my ranch included, of course, with its beautiful Nelors.