11/25/2006 07:28 AM
Power Steer - New York Times
Page 1 of 9
March 31, 2002
By MICHAEL POLLAN
Garden City, Kan., missed out on the suburban building boom of the postwar years. What it got instead were sprawling subdivisions
of cattle. These feedlots -- the nation's first -- began rising on the high plains of western Kansas in the 50's, and by now developments
catering to cows are far more common here than developments catering to people.
You'll be speeding down one of Finney County's ramrod roads when the empty, dun-colored prairie suddenly turns black and
geometric, an urban grid of steel-fenced rectangles as far as the eye can see -- which in Kansas is really far. I say ''suddenly,'' but in
fact a swiftly intensifying odor (an aroma whose Proustian echoes are more bus-station-men's-room than cow-in-the-country) heralds
the approach of a feedlot for more than a mile. Then it's upon you: Poky Feeders, population 37,000. Cattle pens stretch to the horizon,
each one home to 150 animals standing dully or lying around in a grayish mud that it eventually dawns on you isn't mud at all. The
pens line a network of unpaved roads that loop around vast waste lagoons on their way to the feedlot's beating heart: a chugging,
silvery feed mill that soars like an industrial cathedral over this teeming metropolis of meat.
I traveled to Poky early in January with the slightly improbable notion of visiting one particular resident: a young black steer that I'd
met in the fall on a ranch in Vale, S.D. The steer, in fact, belonged to me. I'd purchased him as an 8-month-old calf from the Blair
brothers, Ed and Rich, for $598. I was paying Poky Feeders $1.60 a day for his room, board and meds and hoped to sell him at a
profit after he was fattened.
My interest in the steer was not strictly financial, however, or even gustatory, though I plan to retrieve some steaks from the Kansas
packing plant where No. 534, as he is known, has an appointment with the stunner in June. No, my primary interest in this animal was
educational. I wanted to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter.
Eating meat, something I have always enjoyed doing, has become problematic in recent years. Though beef consumption spiked
upward during the flush 90's, the longer-term trend is down, and many people will tell you they no longer eat the stuff. Inevitably
they'll bring up mad-cow disease (and the accompanying revelation that industrial agriculture has transformed these ruminants into
carnivores -- indeed, into cannibals). They might mention their concerns about E. coli contamination or antibiotics in the feed. Then
there are the many environmental problems, like groundwater pollution, associated with ''Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.''
(The word ''farm'' no longer applies.) And of course there are questions of animal welfare. How are we treating the animals we eat