Meet Your Meat: Feedlot Vs. Free-Range

Before buying your next cut of beef, consider these two photographs.

Harris Ranch Feedlot


Open Space Cattle Mariposa Ranch

The top one is of the Harris Ranch Beef Company feedlot along Interstate 5 about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There, up to 100,000 cattle at a time are crowded on top of their own excrement into one square mile of what can be euphemistically called mud (winter) or dust (summer). From the highway, the stench wallops you like a punch in the face and lingers in your car and clothing for miles—and in your memory forever. Critics call the feedlot Cowschwitz.

Harris gained a flicker of national fame when its chairman, David Wood, wrote a letter to the president of California Polytechnic State University threatening to reconsider “financial support” for the college unless it cancelled a solo lecture by Michael Pollan, who was critical of feedlots in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a position in part inspired by driving past Harris’s facility. Money talked, and Pollan was relegated to being part of a panel discussion,

Most of the beef consumed in the United States comes from such feedlots, where cattle arrive after living for six months on pasture and grass to be finished for another six months or so on a corn and other grains. Because a diet mainly made up of corn wreaks havoc on the digestive systems of cows, which are ruminants and designed for grass not grain, they are fed daily rations of antibiotics.

The bottom photograph was taken across the valley from Harris’s feedlot on ranchland leased by Open Space Meats. Those cows will stay on pasture eating grass for their entire lives, “doing what God intended a cow to do,” said Seth Nitschke, who owns Open Space with his wife, Mica. When I visited, Nitschke was at the ranch for one of his weekly inspections to see that all was well with his cattle and check on their rate of weight gain.

From the crown of his worn Stetson to the pointy toes of his boots, Nitschke is every inch a cowboy. He often checks his cows on horseback, but that day his steed was a mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle. I jumped on back and held on for dear life as the contraption bucked, heaved, and lurched across streams and blasted through steep, rock-strewn pastures and stands of oaks where the flat valley floor gives way to the foot hills of the Sierra Nevada.

Raising beef cattle on pasture is inherently more challenging than fattening them on feedlots. Nitschke’s first problem was one the folks at Harris never face. There was no sign of any of the 75 cows that called the 1,100-acre ranch home. Near the stone foundation of an old forty-niner’s shack, Nitschke cupped his hands to his mouth and issued an impressively authentic mooooo.

A 1999 graduate of California Polytechnic, Nitschke is no stranger to the feedlot beef business. After graduating, he became cattle buyer for Excel Fresh Meats (part of the agricultural giant Cargill), where he purchased 150,000 animals a year. But when the time came to strike out on his own, he did an about face.

“The way I raise my cattle is more expensive and takes longer (his cows go to slaughter at between 18 and 24 months of age versus 14 months for a feedlot animal), but grass is a wonderful thing. Cows eat it. They get fat, and I produce a better product. They aren’t maxed out to all their livers can handle. We don’t need hormones or antibiotics.”

Nitschke let out another bellow, and this time a few dozen stocky black and brown cows reluctantly emerged from the forest. “The real cowboys say that I’m producing ‘hippie chow,’” he said, in a drawl that would be at home on any range. “But I have a whole lot of customers who love what I do—and I sleep well at night.”

We get our beef from LaPlatte River Angus Farm, which raises a few hundred head a year on pastures near our Vermont home. Perhaps because of my British heritage (via Canada) we faithfully observe Boxing Day, which wouldn’t be Boxing Day without a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. But this year, when we placed our order, the grocer said that all the LaPlatte roasts had been spoken for weeks earlier. All he could get was “Western beef.” Images of Cowschwitz flooded into my mind—and nostrils—and I demurred. Then, after rechecking his supply, the meat man corrected himself. There was one unclaimed roast.

Our beef won’t measure up to Nitschke’s standards. Although the cow that produced it never received antibiotics and grazed on fields for 12 or 15 months, it joined about 80 comrades at LaPlatte’s “home farm” for a couple of months to fatten on corn and hay. Not perfect, but with the help of a big Rhône red, I’ll swallow it.

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  1. Thanks for this glimpse into two worlds. The barbed wire is an especially ‘nice’ touch.

  2. Barry says:

    Thanks for the note, domenicacooks. The question is the razor wire there to to keep the cows in or sightseers out.

  3. vanessa says:

    most certainly to keep the sightseers out! those poor cows are probably so dazed, i doubt they’d even consider an escape. many of these feedlots prohibit people from visiting and photographing their facilities. if everything they’re doing is above-bar, what could they be hiding?

  4. Heidi Baumgarten says:

    Stop eating meat. If you have to, pay more and eat little.

  5. Informative and tasteful article, no pun intended.

  6. Againstthegrain says:

    I’ve been past that Harris Ranch off I-5 in CA’s Central Valley many times. We always make sure to keep the car windows and air circulation vents closed tight so as not to breath the fecal dust that is in the air for miles around the “ranch”. Nasty place.

    I make it a point to not buy feedlot meat. I choose 100% grass fed & finished beef and bison for my family (or wild game when the hunters in the extended family have enough to share). The perception is that grassfed meat is expensive, and I suppose if one only considers the premium cuts from the loin or ribs at specialty shops then that might be true. But when one buys meat in bulk direct from the ranch (quarters, half, or whole) and has it custom cut, wrapped, & frozen, then the cost goes down dramatically – the savings can more than cover the cost of a spare freezer and the electricity to run it, as well as be competitive with supermarket feedlot meat.

    Of course, using the entire variety of cuts one receives in a bulk meat order means actually planning out one’s meal preparation & knowing how to cook, often times using low, slow temp methods like braising & slow roasting. Cuisines from around the world utilize these traditional methods, so there’s no limit to the variety of recipes & cuisines one can utilize. Rachel Ray’s 30 minute recipes aren’t so useful for the majority of the cuts, though, as they usually rely on premium fast-cooking boneless cuts, which make up only a small part of a bulk order. The cooking of the non-premium cuts isn’t difficult, in fact often doesn’t require a lot of cooking skill or hands-on attention either – just indirectly supervised time – which the cook can utilize for other activities.

  7. Bill says:

    There’s a real challenge being in the grass-fed, grass-finished beef business – going up against the industry feedlot-standard. That is, they’ve reduced the lives of their animals to being one aspect of an assembly-line manufactured product. It’s extremely efficient and cost effective. They produce 1000s of tons of beef and beef product a year at an extremely cheap price this way. But it’s pure misery for the animals caught up in it and results in an unhealthy food item.

    The question becomes, how do we in the grass-fed, grass-finished beef business out compete them? Or do we just hope the message will force them to reconsider their model?

    The shame of it is, all those feedlot animals, at least cattle, started out on pasture somewhere. Now if you can only eliminate the middle-man.

  8. Seth Nitschke’s beef is quite good and he’s doing a great job selling it on its merits as such. Nice to see him get a hat tip! As for your beef, I wouldn’t obsess over the short finish that includes some grain. There are shades of gray in beef production and t’s not always easy for cow/calf operators to switch to finishing cattle and finding a market for the beef. I figure that if we keep Seth, the folks at La Platte, and their peers in business, we will see others dip their toes in the market outside of the commodity system. Let’s give room for producers and their partners (e.g. slaughterhouses, butchers) to transition to grass-only programs. I’ve personally seen several do this successfully and believe others will follow.

  9. Linda S says:

    Thank you so much Barry. We need far more of this kind of talk, these kinds of pictures.

  10. Barry says:

    Barry, here, replying to a few comments. Bill and Heidi, the more grass-fed, free-range, or rare-breed meat I eat, the more I believe that you’ve hit upon the logical solution: Eat less of the really great, sustainable stuff. In balance, you’ll pay the same money and your circulatory system and tastebuds will thank you. Againstthegrain, I’ve found Deborah Krasner’s (a fellow Vermonter btw) cookbook “Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat” to be a terrific resource, not only for cooking techniques for “unusual” cuts, but great recipes and tips on those odd bits not normally found in the supermarklet meat section. Here’s a link to the book’s description on my Amazon-powered bookstore:

  11. Lehua says:

    Aloha, Barry, from Maui, Hawaii! I am glad you are continuing to raise the public’s consciousness of our choice in meats (and the life ‘meat’ lived before your plate). I did want to take this opportunity to point out that while a lot of attention has been paid to large cattle feedlots, the way pigs are treated is, if possible, even worse. Pigs are intelligent creatures and they are not only typically confined, but they are also packed in tightly indoors on concrete, locked into metal crates when they birth, pumped full of antibiotics due to the squalid conditions, and their tails are cut off since they often, literally, go insane, from the horrible treatment they receive so they become aggressive with each other.
    We wanted to prove a different standard of humane treatment of these wonderful creatures so we started a rotational grazing model for pigs. Yes, pigs graze. And they root and bathe and frolic. We can still manage the land well to ensure it is fertilized through the process and comes back better than before. Our pork is considered excellent by the top local chefs here in Hawaii and, most importantly, they have visited our farm and seen firsthand that pigs, too, can be born and raised on pasture and treated with kindness and the results are tremendous. Please take a look at our site and then you can also search YouTube for “confined pig” and see evidence of how pigs are often treated both in the US and elsewhere. We’d love to spread the word that a different approach is possible.

  12. joanne says:

    I will have to mention that Harris Ranch employs around 40,000 people and if you don’t look at how hard it is to find a job these days you are lucky. Even if I do feel sorry for these animals we do eat those and for people trying to keep the employment up why would you try to destroy the reputation of such a great family and a great ranch. Look at this article at a different point of view, people and look at the people that you would destroy…..

  13. David Cusick says:

    In response to Joanne: According to the USDA for every million dollars generated by conventional agriculture 3 jobs are supported. For every million dollars generated by small, sustainable often organic agriculture 13 jobs are supported. It could be argued that by going to a pasture finished model that Harris Ranch could generate better than 130,000 additional jobs.

  14. AON says:

    @ Joanne, I would agree with David Cusick that producing pastured, sustainable meat would create far more jobs than the feedlot/factory farm model. It would support more small scale family farms, higher quality employment and would lead people to support their local economies and would reduce the use of fossil fuels for transport. Of course, providing the public with nutritionally superior meat might result in less health care related jobs!

  15. Gayle says:

    I am so thankful that America is waking up to what the FDA and the food industry is going to our food and therefore destorying our health. I am more thankful that ranchers are stepping up and creating a superior product that I am proud to feed my family.

  16. Christine says:

    A quote from the Harris Ranch website: “Harris Ranch believes raising cattle and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. For us – as well as our ranching partners – the land is not just where we raise our cattle, it’s also where we raise our families. Sustainability means ensuring the land will provide for the next generation by not only focusing on the well being of our livestock, but also by maintaining the ranching environment.”

    Compare this bit of spin to the picture above. I can’t imagine a “great family” (as Joanne described it) selling such a crock. Feedlot farming is NOT sustainable. It destroys the environment. It makes people sick – if not immediately, through long-term consequences of eating the meat.

  17. Arthur says:

    @Joanne, I am sorry but I don’t feel sorry for people who’s jobs involve evil. I would not shed a tear if all of the people working for the TSA lost their jobs, or all of the cops and DEA agents wasting money and lives waging our useless war on drugs. Nor would I care if all of the illegal immigrants working for Tyson chicken and all of the other evil factory farm crap lost their employment.

  18. Syd says:

    Thanks David for setting the record straight on this. Big operations not only don’t treat the animals well, they treat the employees poorly as well. The loss of jobs meme is a false one (while still not a good excuse to commit all those other abuses).

  19. Lisa B says:

    Harris Ranch is known to folks who drive the 5 as “Cow Hell.” Driving by that ranch on my first drive from SF to LA woke me up to the importance of free range farming practices and ethical treatment of farm animals. I simply had no idea that animals were being treated this way. Yes, I was young and naive but that is testimony to how powerful photos are, and getting the word out that these places exist (and the contrast) is key.

    And now to see that they also attempt to influence academic institutions’ choices of speakers? Horrid.

    For those of you worried about jobs, as previously stated, there are jobs involved in conversion to sustainable practices. You just have to be willing to do it. These guys aren’t.

  20. Joseph Curwen says:

    Conditions for both slaughterers and slaughter-ees have remained much the same as those described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. Everyone remembers the people turned into Pure Leaf Lard and the poisoned rat carcasses being ground up along with condemned meat and sawdust to make sausage, but the real horror of that book is the maimed workers dying of blood poisoning, gored by cattle, crushed by machinery, then turned out in the street to starve once they were too physically destroyed to work…Sinclair had hoped the Jungle would create a groundswell of support for the Chicago stockyard workers and socialism would prevail over cruel greed of the Beef Trust. Instead, readers were outraged about filthy meat…legend has it Teddy Roosevelt flung his plate of sausage across the room thanks to probably the worst choice of breakfast reading EVER…anyway, the Pure Food and Drug act got passed and the workers got passed over…”I aimed for the publics heart and hit in the stomach”….

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