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The Truth about Cow Ranching

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Honey and her son Elliot. Now over a year after both of their calves’ birth, Honey and Babe still spend most of their time with their grown sons.

Cows are gentle animals by nature. They are herd animals who form deep, lifelong social bonds. Like humans, they form friendships and prefer the company of some herdmates over others. Cows are known to take turns “babysitting” each other’s calves, and raising babies is always a family effort. When they get excited, they do an adorable “happy dance”, spinning and kicking their heels into the air.

In so many ways, cows are just like the companion animals we know and love at home. 

For a number of cows raised on open space ranches across the U.S., early life can seem idyllic. But appearance can be deceiving.

Many cows begin their lives on open pasture before being “finished” in a crowded feedlot. Even calves born on beautiful pastures begin their lives with one or more painful mutilations. Individualized veterinary care is nonexistent on farms and ranches. 

Most calves will be branded with a hot iron to mark them as ranch property. This practice is so normalized that it is often overlooked. But can you imagine how painful it is? Calves are restrained as a hot iron melts their flesh long enough to leave a lifelong scar. If this were carried out on any other animal, people would be horrified. Male calves will then be castrated without pain relief or sedation. This is agonizing.

A calf is branded with a hot iron. It’s so hot that it melts the calf’s flesh into its mold.

Additionally, calves are dehorned. Dehorning is the practice of removing an animal’s budding horn tissue. It’s done by burning the tissue down to the skull. Hot irons can be used to burn the tissue to the base of the skull, or as a more “humane” practice, caustic paste is used. The hot iron method is incredibly dangerous, as burning for even a second too long can cause brain damage or even kill an animal. Caustic paste can burn skin or even cause blindness if it runs off of the horns and onto the face. Dehorning is practiced for human safety, not animal wellbeing. Animals without horns are less likely to injure workers at ranches, auctions, feedlots and slaughterhouses. 

Dehorning a calf using a hot iron.

Around six months old, a calf is forcibly weaned from his or her mother.

The final four to six months of a calf’s life are spent in a feedlot. Feedlots are miserable places. These crowded and barren lots are often unprotected from the elements. In the winter, mud is often ankle or knee-high for animals. Summer days are brutal with little or no shade structures. Feedlots typically house far too many animals to fit underneath those that do exist. 

The accumulation of waste in feedlots makes the stench of ammonia unbearable. If you live in California, you may know the drive between the state’s North and South all too well. Think of the unbearable stench when you drive past the lengthy feedlots off the interstate 5. You may hold your breath to avoid the burning sensation it causes in your lungs. The stench physically hurts to breathe in, doesn’t it? Imagine living in it.

These unnaturally high levels of ammonia take a toll on animal health. A 2011 study found that at least 21% of all feedlot cows suffer from respiratory distress. Respiratory related ailments make up an estimated 45-55% of all feedlot deaths. Ever had a cough so bad your lungs rattled when you breathed, or caused sharp pains? This is the last thing that roughly half of all feedlot cows who die prematurely experience. 

Have you ever smelled a feedlot? Can you imagine living in one?

With no pastures to roam and no enrichment to make life enjoyable, all there is to do is eat. Cows gain an average of two pounds per day in the feedlot, fed an unhealthy diet of grain, corn, soy and silage.

Many people do not realize that even “grass-fed” or “pastured” cows can be “finished” on feedlots. The idyllic photos you may see on meat packaging do not often reflect the end of the animal’s life. While a cow may have been born on pasture, the vast majority of cows live their final days in a feedlot. 

Regardless of where and how they were raised, all cows end up on the crowded and frightening truck to slaughter. Cows are prey animals, and the experience of being rounded up and herded onto a truck is very frightening. Electric prods are commonly used. 

In the United States, farmed animals can be transported for up to 28 hours with no food, water or breaks. There is not a single federal law prohibiting the transport of animals in extreme weather. Overheating is incredibly common in the summer.

This is the last thing that animals experience.

The Humane Slaughter Act mandates that large mammals be stunned or shot with a captive bolt gun before having their throats slit. But fast-moving, assembly-line style kill floors allow a greater likelihood of human error. Improper stunning often leads to terrified cows having their throats cut while fully conscious.

Animal Place kindly asks that you eliminate cow products from your diet. New alternatives are being released constantly and giving up animal products has never been easier. Impossible and Beyond burgers are absolutely delicious and can be used in so many recipes. So many plant milks are available in grocery stores. Animal lovers, we ask you to challenge yourself to cut animal products out of your diet. The cows will thank you!

Beautiful Shelby. An individual and so much more than a meal. 

Written by Chelsea Pinkham