Pressure is mounting to ban the intensive farming practice found in feedlots. What are they, and why are they such a problem? Don Rowe explains
Fifteen minutes out of Ashburton, thousands upon thousands of cattle are penned in grassless paddocks. The cows are meat animals, spending their final days held in these so-called feedlots being “grain finished” before being slaughtered and sent to market here and abroad.
Today 44 of them were quarantined as the giant Five Star Beef feedlot received notice MPI suspected a Mycoplasma bovis breakout at the facility. Chief executive Peter Conley, speaking to Stuff, said the notice wouldn’t affect them at all, because “essentially all our cattle leave the property for slaughter anyway.”
Earlier this week both SAFE and Fish and Game called on government to ban feedlots, calling it an Americanisation of the farming process. I’m with the hippies – feedlots are ethically and ecologically unconscionable, and incongruous with the way we market one of our biggest export earners to the world.
Operational since 1991, ANZCO’s Five Star Beef is New Zealand’s only large-scale commercial feedlot. Its product, Wakanui Beef, is “grain finished”, the company says on its website, in “an idyllic, stress-free environment”, where cattle are “refreshed by breezes off the Pacific Ocean”.
Let’s unpack that, because, as minister for agriculture Damien O’Connor said this week, “the image of pastoral farming is the one New Zealand promotes” – and feedlots don’t look anything like pastoral, stress-free or idyllic.
There is capacity for 19,000 cows on the Five Star feedlot, which comprises a series of roofless, grassless, weather-exposed pens. In the small gap between the pens and the ocean are man-made manure ponds.
Ruminants, as cows, sheep, goats and other grazers are known, are so called because of their rumen, a remarkable “second stomach” filled with billions of microbes that allows them to absorb nutrients from grass by fermenting it prior to digestion. This evolutionary development is the difference between starving or growing into a 1000kg bull on grass alone.
The fermentation that occurs in the rumen produces a lot of gas, which cows normally burp out during rumination. But when a cow’s diet contains too much starch and too little fibre, like when they’re being “finished” with grain in a feedlot, for example, the microbes in the rumen are no longer able to work their magic, and instead a froth or foam forms inside the rumen.
This traps gas inside the rumen, inflating it like a balloon until it literally asphyxiates the animal. Veterinarians can relieve the pressure, say by jamming a hose down the cow’s throat or a spike in its back, but it must be done before the animal suffocates.
Ruminants can be bred to tolerate larger amounts of grain with slightly less misery, as many destined for feedlots are, but grains nevertheless alter the acidity of the rumen, which is typically a pH-neutral environment.
This acidity gives cows a form of heartburn. “Acidotic” animals, as they’re called, go off their feed, salivate excessively, and even begin to eat dirt as a buffer against the burn. Eventually the condition can lead to ulcers, rumenitis and an overall weakening of the cow’s immune system, leaving them more vulnerable to the bacterial diseases that thrive in feedlots. The acidity can also eat away at the walls of the rumen, allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream and eventually the liver of the cow.
This immuno-compromised cow then lives shoulder-to-shoulder in its own shit until the day it dies. And the manure these cows are living in can’t even be sprayed on other farms as fertiliser, because it’s so toxic. And that’s just the runoff they can catch.
In the Canterbury summer, when the feedlot is dry, the cows will likely kick shit-dust into one another’s eyes – maybe the only time you’ll see cattle weep for their circumstances.
There are other feedlots in New Zealand too, ones minister for the environment David Parker admits “haven’t been properly policed by the regional councils”.
“There’s no doubt when you have a rain event, the livestock effluent and the nutrients from the food residues have only one place to go and that’s into rivers, streams … the alternative is into the aquifer and I struggle to see how some of them are legal.”
Last year freshwater scientist Mike Joy described feedlots in the Hawke’s Bay as “as bad as you can get”. Eighteen months later, a local businessman is taking the regional council to the Environmental Court over its failure to take action.
Fish and Game NZ called the continued existence of feedlots an indictment on New Zealand.
“The Ministry for the Environment is quite clear that sediment runoff is one of the big problems for New Zealand,” chief executive Martin Taylor told RNZ.
“We know it’s damaging the environment and yet we allow practices like feedlots to continue. Intensive farming is not good for the country.”
“Not good” is something of an understatement. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan likens feedlots to a Victorian nightmare of open sewerage and filth.
“As in 14th-century London, say, the workings of the metropolitan digestion remain vividly on display, the foodstuffs coming in, the streams of waste going out,” Pollan writes.
“The crowding into tight quarters of recent arrivals from all over, together with the lack of sanitation, has always been a recipe for disease. The only reason contemporary animal cities aren’t as plague-ridden or pestilential as their medieval human counterparts is a single historical anomaly: the modern antibiotic.”
Because ANZCO, a majority Japanese-owned company, was unavailable to comment when approached by RNZ, we don’t know what their antibiotic usage looks like. Overseas, however, cows who are delivered to feedlots offshore immediately begin a course of preventative antibiotics they will consume alongside their feed for the extent of their life.
In America, Michael Pollan writes, most of the antibiotics sold end up in animal feed. These antibiotics stave off the worst of the diseases that plague such a dirty and crowded environment, but also select for the strains of bacteria most resistant to antibiotics – bacteria that will one day infect us too.
Most of the microbes that find their way into our food are killed off by the strong acids in our stomachs, since they evolved in the pH-neutral environment of the rumen, says Pollan. But the acidic rumens of feedlot cows are like a boot camp for acid-resistant bacteria, which happen to also be antibiotic-resistant too.
And so the lifespan of a beef cow on a feedlot is decided by two metrics: how fast we can fatten them up, and how long their body can survive the process.
This is, ethically speaking, fucked up. And most people don’t even know it’s going on in New Zealand.
The government has signalled they will step in by the first quarter of next year to provide national guidance to councils on feedlots. In the Herald, Rachel Stewart warns “a storm’” of animal cruelty allegations is coming. Ask Federated Farmers’ Miles Anderson what’s going on, however, and instead a dastardly vegan conspiracy is unearthed.
“SAFE’s agenda is to get rid of farmed animals. Animal welfare is a secondary concern for them.”
“They are vegan fundamentalists. I take most of what they say with a grain of salt. It would do them a world of good to have a nice leg of lamb.”
In a race to seem the most unhinged on the subject of animals, Federated Farmers are doing a commendable job of beating SAFE at their own game.