I remember when I was a vegetarian and I first encountered literature on veganism that described the dairy industry. When I learned about how older cows and unwanted calves were sent to slaughter, it made sense to become a vegan. To this day, beyond people who don't like meat or who come from a vegetarian cultural tradition, vegetarianism doesn't make much sense to me. Even for people who are religious vegetarians, the dairy produced in most of the US is a far cry from that traditionally consumed in India.
Even the beef cattle from the worst farm gets to spend part of their lives, usually most of their lives, on pasture. It's a far cry from factory egg and milk production, where animals are often in a state of continuous overcrowding in filthy low-quality conditions. This is true confinement agriculture.
In confinement dairies, after cows have reached the end of their "production cycle" they are normally sent to the slaughterhouse. This was in the news recently because some animal rights activists exposed the mistreatment of a dairy cow at a slaughterhouse. The video is worth watching if you can stomach it, but the cow was a "downer" cow, meaning she was sick and was lying down. The video shows workers torturing her with electric prods. It's sickening.
Beef from dairy cows is 6 percent of all beef production in the U.S. and about 18 percent of ground beef, but the amount varies. I'd imagine that because of the drought, more and more farmers will send their cows to slaughter as feed prices continue to soar.
Typically this isn't exactly premium beef, but it doesn't have to be this way. The NPR article notes:
Veterinarian Richard Wallace, who spent 15 years at the University of Illinois before joining Pfizer Animal Health in 2010, has led the campaign. "Slaughter is not a place to dump animals," he says.He tells dairy farmers to think of their older cows differently — not as "cull animals," but as potentially valuable beef cattle. And instead of going directly from milk barn to slaughterhouse, Wallace says farmers should coddle those animals for a few weeks. After ending their milk production, the cows should just get to rest and eat. The result, Wallace says, is a healthier cow, higher-quality meat — and more profit for the farmer.
If you are buying from a local dairy this might be a great opportunity to get some decent grass-fed beef for pretty cheap. I find that a lot of people, particularly people who eat grass-fed beef for health reasons, don't care all that much about getting the very best quality. For example, my family slaughtered an older cow and the beef was a little lean and chewy. At $3 a lb, it sold out immediately, mainly to the Crossfit types. I ate it too. It was fine, and even very good in certain dishes like Chili or Ropa Vieja, which means "old clothes" so it's quite fitting.
Another great option is pastured veal. Now this isn't the kind of veal you feel bad about buying. It's from young steers that grazed with their mothers on pasture, not from confined grain-pap fed calves. It's actually really really good and I think it is going to become a trend, because the cuts are so much smaller and so easier to fit in a small freezer.
Indeed, the method of chaining and crating veal calves is a new practice, established in the years following World War II when the agricultural communities of the United States began their dramatic move from the small, intimate and self-sustaining farms they were to feed-lots and monocropping. Dairy farmers moved male offspring, who otherwise held little value, indoors to save space and costs in an era when young farmers were encouraged to “modernize.” Tradition, as is often the case, was lost under the effort to modernize the agriculture of America’s heartland. Prior to this change, veal calves were raised alongside their mothers in open pasture, under the sun and with access to clean air and fresh water before their brought to harvest at about the same time lambs are traditionally slaughtered. Thanks to the renaissance of truly traditional and sustainable farming practices – and, in a way, to the raw milk movement – humanely raised veal is increasing in availability.
I don't know anyone who eats confinement veal and it amazes me that they still produce it. The dairy farm next to me has about 20 calves in teeny tiny pens. It's not as bad as a PETA video, but I do not think it is a production method that respects the animal. This dairy farm is also a small family farm, so once again proof that this is no guarantee that such an operation is a good one.
A commenter on my last post pointed out that craigslist is a good source for finding some affordable beef, if you don't mind the animal having had some grain in its life. One of the first results for Chicago was a pastured Jersey steer for $1.40 a lb. Surprisingly big though at 1000 lbs, but I wonder what the yield on this breed is. The yield is the actual weight of the meat since there are things you obviously aren't getting in your freezer order like skin/hooves/horns/etc. It's an on-farm pickup which is great too, since you can see what the farm is like, though obviously it would be awkward if you got there and it was not to your liking. Maybe this calls for a new post on interviewing your food suppliers...
Jersey cattle in the UK from Wikimedia