It’s 38ºC. I’m standing in the sun, on a windless Queensland day, the air heavy like a blanket. I’m trying to focus my thoughts and energies on the feedlot cattle in front of me.
Today, researching meat, I’ve come to see the kind of place where most of the cattle raised in northern and central Queensland end up. They end up in rectangular, treeless yards, standing on churned, pooey ground, waiting for god to take them (well, the stock truck to take them to the abattoir). They end up standing with nothing to do but eat, sleep, crap and look for somewhere cooler to be, not unlike cows in a paddock. Unless it’s eating, virtually every animal on this feedlot is sheltering as close as it can to the shade cloth that lines only a small portion of each pen. Each pen that has some shade cloth, that is.
Feedlots are humourless places (though maybe it depends on your sense of humour). As I get out of the car next to the pens and nearly pass out from the combination of heat and stench, the owner observes wryly that it ‘smells like money’. It’s late summer, and the stockyards are far from full. I gag, and wonder what it smells like when it’s at capacity.
As I get out of the car next to the pens and nearly pass out from the combination of heat and stench, the owner observes wryly that it ‘smells like money’.
I ask a lot of questions. Such as the one so many people not in the industry worry about: are the cattle given antibiotics? The staff are happy to show me the sick-bay pens, and their register of all the illnesses and medication. There doesn’t seem to be secrecy here, now we’re through the gate. As with any mass grouping of animals, including humans, some of the 7500 animals here today are unwell. Some are lame, some losing condition - but only a handful.
The art of the workers who ride through the pens each day is to find those not thriving, those on the cusp of illness. They find them, ideally, before anything becomes a problem. I farm, so I know animals get sick. And I know that out on those massive cattle stations, the animals probably get injured and sick far from the homestead and die with no outside care. But I also know that Meat & Livestock Australia research shows 90 per cent of feedlot cattle do get put on antimicrobial agents, ionophores (classed as carboxylic polyether antibiotics), to avoid acidosis when they first go on grain.
Surely, such widespread use of medication is a sign of animals that are struggling with their diet?
High acid in the rumen isn’t the only issue. The rumen of a cow – the largest of its four stomachs, where a lot of the fermenting takes place – finds it has less to do, because the grain is already broken down and isn’t as hard to digest as grass. The rumen, eventually, will atrophy and possibly fail.
The cows here are fed genetically modified cotton residues, palm oil, coconut husks and the like – things well outside the normal diet of the ruminant in its natural state. But, this system is designed with northern Australia in mind.
Big cattle stations where the grass runs out each dry season can produce a lot of half-finished beef animals. Feedlots are the fix-it solution for the end of the animal’s life. Even if it’s tough, skinny, and not a great beef breed, feedlotting takes away enough movement, and adds enough fat, to make the meat palatable. It’s meat for the bottom of the market, mostly. It’s cheap, consistent, reliable beef that is available all year coming from this system.
Even if it’s tough, skinny, and not a great beef breed, feedlotting takes away enough movement, and adds enough fat, to make the meat palatable.
Despite my reservations about this style of farming, the feedlots I’ve been to don’t seem to have the huge health problems you get with cattle that are grain-fed and feedlotted their whole life – as they are in the United States, where much of the misinformation about grain-fed cattle comes from. But I do wonder about the shade. I’m positively wilting even underneath the wide brim of my hat when I ask about it.
‘The animals don’t need it,’ I’m told. ‘You just get some customers who think it’s a good idea. We have a big client who won’t take cattle from here unless we provide some shade for the animals, so we do it for them. We only have it because of customer perceptions.’
‘Oh,’ I say, somewhat perplexed, as most of the cattle compete for space under the shade cloth, while I feel the full force of the sun on my back and head. ‘They don’t need shade?’
This is an edited extract from the chapter 'The View from the Feedlot' in the book titled 'On Eating Meat: The truth about its production and the ethics of eating it' by Matthew Evans, published by Murdoch Books [RRP 32.99].
Matthew Evans is back in his brand-new series of Gourmet Farmer, 8pm Thursday nights from Aug 1 on SBS and then on SBS On Demand. You can also binge his three-part doco series, For The Love on Meat via SBS On Demand here.