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The udder truth about cows

In "Cowed," Denis and Gail Boyer Hayes suggest that we all re-think eating beef.

Excerpted from Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment by Denis Hayes & Gail Boyer Hayes. Copyright © 2015 by Denis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

From the Introduction:  Setting Out

Cows shaped America. Cows enabled Europeans to successfully occupy the Continent. Cows, and the food grown to feed them, radically remodeled the nation’s landscape. Cows are partly responsible for Americans’ increasingly rotund bodies and poor health. Cows have exerted a remarkable degree of influence over our economic system, our politics, and our culture. Although cows themselves are now mostly hidden out of sight, cow molecules abound in every room of our houses. If gathered up and put on one side of a giant balancing scale, with humans on the other side, the cows living in the United States would weigh two and a half times as much as the human population.

Cows matter.

Our focus on cows began as a lark some years ago when we drove through Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and England. Leaving Edinburgh, we were immediately struck by the many small herds we saw. In the United States, even in farm country, we seldom see cows these days—they have been moved off pastures and into confined feeding lots or giant dairy barns far from thoroughfares. Furthermore, the cows we saw in the British Isles appeared to come in more varieties. To add spice to the trip, we began competing to spot, and snap photos of, unusual cows.

Near the end of our trip, we had reservations at a thatched-roofed B&B deep in the verdant countryside of Devon, England. The tangle of one-lane country roads and the paucity of road signs prevented us from meeting our hostess till dusk. But there was still time for a short walk before dinner. Gail—who reliably gravitates toward any warm-blooded animal—had noticed a small herd of Holsteins grazing in a nearby pasture. White hides sporting Rorschach-like inkblots gave the cows a festive air

We strolled down the hill toward them, picking our way around stones, bushes, and cow pies. Fifty feet from the cows, we paused, a flimsy hedge separating us from them.

The nearest cow was snacking on a tree. A tongue rolled out of its mouth like a muscular tsunami, wrapped itself around a small branch, and reeled the branch in. We edged closer. When we were about thirty feet away, the cow stopped eating and stared at us, leaves sticking out of both sides of its mouth. This cow was huge, easily five times as large as both of us combined. As city dwellers, we tend to forget just how large cows are. Relatively few Americans ever have a face-to-face encounter with the source of their milk and hamburgers. A trivial fraction of 1 percent of Americans has had the experience of milking a cow; an even smaller fraction has killed a cow to eat its flesh. We are more isolated from the source of our food than any previous generation.

The Holstein’s tail switched back and forth. It wasn’t a friendly sort of puppy-tail wagging or a lazy shoofly motion. The half-dozen other cows also stopped snacking and all of them stared at us. Not knowing any better, we stared back. In the air between us hung a bubble of mutual awareness.

Unlike horses, cows don’t raise their heads high. The lowered heads, combined with unblinking stares, seemed menacing. Cows in those parts had no reason to trust or love humans. Over four million of them had recently been slaughtered and burned to prevent the spread of mad cow disease.

We knew that Holsteins were well regarded as milk cows, each cow now producing twice as much milk as a cow did in the 1960s, when we were in college. Our decision to stroll into the pasture had been prompted, in part, by our idle curiosity about these prodigious modern milk machines. The nearest cow pawed the ground. Gail nudged Denis and whispered, “No udders. They must be bulls.” Unlike the hornless Holsteins pictured on milk cartons, these animals had sturdy, sharp-tipped horns.

Denis squinted at the herd. “Nope. They’re steers.” Still, a steer is no pushover.

From where we stood we couldn’t tell if there was a fence buried in the hedgerow between us and the steers, or whether the barrier consisted only of delicate twigs and leaves. The lit windows of the B&B high behind us seemed far away in the gathering darkness. We backed off and returned to our lodgings.

Connecting the dots

Gail’s interest in cows outlasted the trip. Back home in Seattle, she began reading up on cows. Her conversation became peppered with cow facts. Did Denis know, for example, that cows sweat through their noses? That they have a magnetic sense and tend to align themselves in a north/south direction when grazing? On drives, John Pukite’s A Field Guide to Cows in hand, she started watching and identifying breeds of cows the way some people watch birds.

It was hard to find many cows to watch, however. Were the hidden-away cows being treated well? Books and articles made it clear that many factory-farmed cows were abused. She wondered whether it was possible, in the States, to catch a brain-eating disease from eating a well-cooked hamburger. What she learned was not reassuring.

Denis, with his broad interest in matters environmental and a penchant for hiking around obscure corners of the world, had always been more interested in endangered wild animals than in domesticated creatures. Eventually, though, he came to share Gail’s conviction that cows deserve more attention. Once he focused on cows, he found their heavy hoofprints on almost every major environmental problem. Compared to other meat sources (like pork and poultry), conventional grain-finished feedlot beef produces five times more global warming per calorie, requires 11 times more water, and uses 28 times as much land. Eating a pound of beef has a greater climatic impact than burning a gallon of gasoline. And as he looked more carefully at feedlots and conventional dairy practices, Denis, too, became ashamed of how Americans treated cows.

We both sensed that if we could just connect the dots, an important story might be revealed about the impact of America’s 93 million cows—roughly 120 billion pounds of cow—on our lives. We began to spend evenings reading about the curiously entangled lives of cows and Americans and discovered that cows cast considerable light on who we are as a people.

Problems caused by cows were easy to find. Solutions were more elusive. We left Seattle to seek out people who treat their cows well, who are finding solutions to cow-related environmental problems, and who are applying lessons learned from eons of beta-testing by Mother Nature. Among them were beef ranchers and worm wranglers, dairy farmers, an artisanal cheese maker, soil experts, and public health professionals.

People and cows have been modifying each other’s genomes and environments for thousands of years. Initially, those changes benefited both species. More recently, the costs to humans and cows alike outweigh the benefits. Aided and abetted by a shortsighted federal farm policy, Big Ag (corporate agriculture) treats cows barbarously, even as it ruins some of the best soil on the planet, destroys irreplaceable aquifers, fills the air with warming gasses, and creates enormous dead zones at the mouths of rivers.

Affordable and simple

All this was interesting. But the two of us are getting on in years, and still hoping to clean up some of the mess we’ll otherwise leave behind for future generations. Was writing about cows a good way to spend our time? We decided it would be . . . if we could propose some solutions. Convincing readers that something needs to be done should be easy, we reasoned. Getting people to act would be much harder. We looked around for trends already under way. It helps to have the wind at your back. We found those trends in the popularity of the organic and eat-local movements, in the mounting concern over food security in an era of climate disruption, and in the increasing urgency to do something about the unhealthy diets of many Americans.

Our proposal is affordable and simple. It does not require the engagement of America’s dysfunctional Congress or its compromised bureaucracies. It does not require civil disobedience, mass marches, or expensive lawsuits. All it requires is that enough like-minded people seek out organic dairy products and grass-fed-and-finished beef. Most people can do this without busting their budgets by reducing their beef and dairy consumption to levels that are better for their health. As with computers, smartphones, and wheeled suitcases, so will it be with ranches and dairies: When upstarts begin eating the economic lunch of the establishment, even the most reluctant establishment must change—or become history’s roadkill.

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