Before the corn industry took America by storm following World War II, cattle and other herbivorous, pastured animals were raised in fields using rotational grazing. This grazing practice divides a pasture into several sections and moves the herd between sections regularly throughout the year to prevent over-grazing. In return, the cattle provided their rich manure to help replenish the pasture year after year. This manure was also used to fertilize the crops grown on the farm. In fact, the working farm was very nearly a perfect cycle with no waste.
However, once World War II ended, the U.S. found itself left with an overabundance of synthetic nitrogen which had been used to make bombs. In an attempt to use it, it was given to farmers to use on their fields. With synthetic nitrogen now replenishing the fields, there was no longer any need to pasture animals. That same land could be used for growing more corn. Thus, the animals moved from the farm to the feedlot, where nature's balanced cycle was indelibly broken. Farmers were no longer forced to rotate crops in order to keep nitrogen in the soil and corn became the golden child of the commercial agriculture industry. It has since made its way into over 2/3rds of consumer products.
And as for those big steer in the feedlots?
A typical commercial steer is given access to "feed" fairly frequently while being contained in a pen with hundreds of others like it. I put the above word in quotes because I'm not sure that this diet can necessarily be considered food to an animal that is, by nature, an herbivorous creature. Here is what the average steer gets:
Flaked corn, liquefied fat which is often in the form of beef tallow, molasses and urea (a protein supplement made from the same synthetic nitrogen fertilizing the fields), alfalfa hay and silage, Rumensin and Tylosin (antibiotics), and synthetic estrogen.What's important to remember is that steer evolved eating grass. Their stomachs contain a unique fermentation-like chamber where they can actually convert grasses into a form of protein. They're not biologically equipped to digest corn and force-feeding it has created the host of problems (like bloat, acidosis, and infection) that cause the antibiotics to be necessary. In fact, cattle are so ill-equipped to digest this food that it can only be given to them for 150 days at most before they must be taken off of it. According to Dr. Mel Metzin, a staff veterinarian at a feedlot in Kansas, 15-30 percent of feedlot cattle are found to have abcessed livers at slaughter, and in some places the figure is as high as 70 percent. The antibiotics are also needed because the cows sleep in the very same pen where they eat, which often means sleeping in their own manure for extended periods of time. While not a pleasant thought at the start, it becomes even more reprehensible when you consider all of the hormones and antibiotics the average steer is laying in on a regular basis.
These antibiotics make their way into our meat and unfortunately have caused antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like e-coli to evolve. All of this doesn't even take into account the fact that the corn being fed to these non-corn eating animals is littered with chemical fertilizers and has been genetically modified to produce maximum yield (some new strains even have built in pesticides! Eee...).
If this sounds overwhelming to you, breathe a sigh of relief as I tell you that you absolutely do not have to support this even if you are an omnivorous human like myself. Below are the URLs of the two local farms that I choose to get my bison, pork, and poultry products from. I provide their websites to use as a reference for what you should look for if you want to find a sustainable farm in your area. Notice how open these farmers are about guests visiting and how freely they describe their agricultural practices. Farms like these can provide you with quality meat/poultry products from animals that are raised on the foods their biology programmed them to eat, without any added antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified food.
Please note that I choose bison over beef purely for the health reasons (higher protein content/lower fat) and because it is more readily available at my local market. I have nothing against sustainably raised cattle. If you're really interested in finding a sustainable source of quality meat and are having trouble, please leave a comment and I will be more than happy to help you in your search. After all, I'm in library school...I can always use practice on those reference questions!
Kessler, David. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, 2009).
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin, 2009) and The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2007).