Guest post by Gowan Baptist
I often post pictures of our bull, Lascoux (spelled with an o, because he’s a cOw, not a cAw), named for his resemblance to the famous cave paintings in France. One day, someone responded to one of the photos with, “I hope you’re not planning to eat him.” It was a flat statement, with no question being asked, but it sparked an internal dialogue that led me to answer.
Cows can live to be over 20 years old. I deeply hope Lascoux does. I would love to have a relationship that long and deep with him. I’d be 50 when he’d be nearing the end of his life. I might have children close to adulthood who would have known him their whole lives. I can only imagine, as a rotational grazier, what knowing an animal that long could feel like when it comes to how we move together on the landscape. At this very moment, I believe he’s being shown the ropes by a sweet 9-year-old cow named Pippin, all in the wisdom of old cows.
We’re not raising Lascoux for meat, and we do not run a commercial meat operation at all. However, if he breaks a leg, goes lame in an untreatable way, or becomes too arthritic to be comfortable, I will likely kill and eat him.
To give you a better idea of my context and why I’d even consider such a thing, I’d like to share a bit about the years of experience and education that brought me to that conclusion.
Let me begin by telling you about my first cow. Her name was Maple. She was a big, swaggering, pirate-gaited Guernsey with three working teats. A trampling event resulted in one teat getting stepped on as a calf, and also caused her to walk with such a rolling gait for the rest of her life. This made her undesirable for a commercial dairy, so she came to live with us. She was opinionated and stubborn and would drag people around with almost no effort. She was powerful! She once ran through three fences and broke a barn door because the neighbor’s tiny terrier got into the pasture and relentlessly chased her.
I saw her as a refugee from the forced conformity of the industrialized agricultural system, and I intended for her to live out her life on the farm: which, she did. At the age of about 13, she slipped and fractured a disc in her back. That is a fatal injury when you weigh 1,750 lbs. A cow that is down for a long period of time will die. Always. Quickly. They are very heavy and will cut off their own blood flow to their legs. That’s why getting a cow into a sling so that she’s standing is an emergency. (This is the source of many videos showing ranchers trying to scare and harass cows into standing up. The only way to help them is to get them up as soon as possible.) She was put into a hanging sling and seen by a vet, who confirmed she needed to be put down.
Her body, all 1,750 opinionated, awkward, bossy pounds of it, was left behind.
I was vegan for years. Many people who know me now and the work I do would probably be surprised by this, but it’s true, even though it was only for a few years of my life. I became vegan, like many do, as a teenager when the horrors of the industrial agriculture system and it’s treatment of animals became clear to me. I stayed vegan through most of college, living in a city. After veganism was proven physically unsustainable for me I would buy the tiny amounts of eggs and dairy I could afford that was raised in a way I found acceptable. I still felt that the legumes, grains and vegetables I was eating were best for the planet.
Then I studied agriculture and saw farming with my own eyes.
That same love for wild animals and landscapes and the same respect for the sentience of animals that brought me into veganism brought me back out of it as I studied the industrial farming system more deeply. I saw the complete ecological wasteland of crop farming, the animals it kills, and the plague-like pest explosions it creates. I saw rabbits, raptors, snakes, raccoons and deer killed and mauled by farming equipment in horrible ways, some which died while I was at the tractor wheel. Nearby, a baler that was used to put up wheat straw ran an entire family of foxes through it, crushing them into flakes where they were mummified and only revealed after the bales were cut open.
Growing up in a sheep ranching community, I knew first hand that wool wasn’t the cruel bloodbath which vegan literature claimed it to be, yet I certainly knew that its alternatives were harmful. Cotton, that emblematic crop of slavery, is one of the most toxic crops grown in terms of chemicals applied. It is also a heavy nutrient feeder that is armageddon on soil life. I was told by a professor that cotton meal was often used by sneaky organic farmers as a fertilizer, knowing full well that it still contained residual pesticides. I wonder if that loophole has been pulled shut yet?
I saw that the very confinement of animals I was so against was an integrated part of the commodity crop system I supported by buying processed vegan foods, as the waste products of both industries have cyclical relationships. The organic soy I ate was fertilized with the blood, bone and feather meals of the battery hens I eschewed, and the soy waste went back into chicken and pig feed as a dietary form of lysine, an amino acid which pigs and chickens need and can’t get otherwise from their grain-based diets.
The conventional system wasn’t any better- it was fertilized and sprayed with petroleum-based, life-destroying chemicals.
My mind and body completely recoiled at the idea of eating a sentient creature that was killed after spending a short miserable life of sickness and only knowing the crowded, filthy, manure-laden cage or pen it lived in and the industrial byproducts it had no choice but to eat. I came to understand, though, that I was supporting industries that make that kind of intensive feeding operation possible through their cheap abundant waste being used as feedstock. I learned about the post-WWII farming “innovations” that allowed for mass production of grain, which historically was too labor-intensive and hard on the land to justify feeding to livestock who could be harvesting their own food on pasture, and drew the line directly between mass grain production and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
But then I learned about the amazingly good things that were happening in agriculture, such as the dynamics between ruminant and soil, the soil itself, and how grass plays an important role in soil health.
Plants help form soil organic matter with their dead roots and leaves, builds soil aggregates and contributes to biological and ecological diversity by photosynthesis and through the bartering system held at their roots. They utilize atmospheric CO2 with their leaves and exude with their roots the sugars and proteins soil biology needs. These soil organisms exchange minerals that are concentrated in their bodies by accepting such tasty “gifts” from the plant. They also make their ultimate contribution when they are killed and eaten by their own tiny predators.
There were millions of these tiny, diverse oases in the field, playing out the same life-death dramas as we are more used to seeing in any aboveground busy ecosystem.
Cows, among other graziers, are an essential part of this ecological process. By cropping grass, temporary root die-offs occur, creating organic material that decomposes and feeds soil biology. Grazing opens the canopy to allow for light to access the surface, and hooves crush and trample down the standing grass, further breaking it down and feeding the biology. If none of this happened grass would otherwise release most of its nutrients to the atmosphere as it dries.
Far from being a climate disaster, I saw how ruminants could actually sequester GHGs. I was also shocked to learn that rice, which I ate almost every day as a vegan and vegetarian, was actually possibly the biggest single human-created source of methane. I had blamed cows for methane and never considered rice, or petroleum, which is another major source, for being the more serious sources of GHG emissions.
With all that said, I was falling deeply in love with the ecology of grasslands and was simultaneously heartbroken by their destruction for crop farming.
I wanted to find a better way. Small; intensive, compost-based, not including broad-acre tillage, making enough space for all animals, both wild and domestic, to completely express their true natures. So, I began reading a lot of Permaculture books and studying small scale intensive gardening and market farming.
I ended up managing a farm-to-school program that feeds low-income children and teaches interns how to grow food. I introduced a small barnyard program, where animals were loved by the kids, and where kids were taught a great deal about the animals. Goats were taken for brush walks and kids made notebooks of what they most liked to eat. Carbon-cycle posters were drawn, and cows were loved: for the enzymes that aid in grass seed germination; for their manure that draws in insects and which draws birds; for their role of Great Cycler; and as analogs to the Pleistocene megafauna that have gone into extinction.
Maple was a goddess in the cosmology I created and knew it. Maple was also mortal, and could never be destined to live forever. Yet, even after her death, her memory still lingers. She was returned to me as many hundreds of pounds of ground beef.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I had kept her beautiful speckled hide, but I didn’t have those resources then.
Still wary about eating my first cow, I donated a lot of the beef to a community dinner.
Then, with some trepidation, I finally got up the courage and ate some. It was good. It was cellular-level good. This surprised me since an old dairy cow isn’t what our culture usually considers as the best beef. Years later I read in Nourishing Diets by Sally Fallon Morell that the Lakota peoples preferred middle-aged and older female elk and buffalo for their high-quality meat and fat. Obviously, that might not be true for all Lakota or indigenous peoples, and I don’t know if there’s a direct comparison with beef, but I understood. Her fat was orange. I felt all my synapses firing on high alert when I ate her. We referred to her by name over the almost two years it took to eat her beef:
“Get a pound of Maple out of the freezer for tonight please.”
After an initial adjustment, there was nothing horrifying nor emotionally challenging in it for me. It was just how we cycled all the nutrients she accumulated in her life one more time. We were contributing to the cycle of life just by us eating her.
As for our bull Lascoux, if he has a horrible accident, or if in his old age he becomes painfully impaired and isn’t enjoying life, I’ll take his death into my own hands the way I would with any animal I care about. And, since he’s made of beef, I’ll certainly eat him. I imagine eating a beloved bull after that long of a relationship would be a really unique and intense experience.
There has already been a public debate about exactly this scenario. Bill and Lou, elderly oxen who had worked on a university farm, were scheduled to be euthanized. The school planned to have them butchered. The students who knew and worked with them would have the opportunity to eat them in the cafeteria at a meal commemorating them. Lou had a painful degenerative issue with his leg and with winter coming would mean a lot of suffering for him. A vet’s recommendation was to euthanize both, due to their deep bond and advanced age. However, this angered the animal rights activists who wanted them moved to a sanctuary instead despite the recommendation of the vet. Local slaughterhouses were threatened, online petitions were signed by people all over the world, and a public outcry prevented the students from having the same experience I had with Maple.
Bill was left alone per public demands to suffer herd bereavement we can’t possibly understand for the short years remaining to him. This was seen as a partial victory, despite the euthanized Lou, who was rescued from pain but not allowed to teach nor nourish students in the last final way he could have achieved.
An individual animal’s death is confronting on a primal level. Seeing death reminds us of our own inescapable mortality. I’ve been told over and over again that we don’t have to kill to live, and that’s accurate. We don’t have to take any personal responsibility for the death that occurs in our culture. That doesn’t mean the death of individuals and ecosystems isn’t happening, nor that what happens behind the scenes isn’t any more or less horrific for the lack of our ability to witness it.
I would rather be a part of a living ecosystem with a diverse community of animals and plants and intact living soil than to eat food grown on stripped bare fields. Animals die there too, as do whole species and ecosystems, above- and below-ground and in neighboring waterways. There are no native bunchgrasses in a crop field. No oak trees. No ground-nesting bees. No wildflowers. No fox kits (I hope, because if there are after planting in spring they may be killed by harvest in the summer). There is none of the biodiversity built by thousands of years of Indigenous management. What does Land Return mean, when the land is nothing more than a toxic moonscape? How can there be justice in such a raped and pillaged landscape?
Large-scale field agriculture has always been a tool of, cause of, and the result of colonialism and warfare.
I appreciate that vegetables can be grown–even though most aren’t–with a minimum of soil disturbance in a very small space. I did that work for years and the farm I’m part of still grows them that way. That leaves the vast oxidizing west neglected. Intensive vegetable farming does not replace the need for extensive land stewardship; it should be in partnership with it. This is starkly shown to us by the devastating fires that raged across California and Oregon, among other places. The land needs grazing. It needs herds, their weight, their manure, their urine, and the calcium in their bones. Oak mortality on grazed vs ungrazed land after the LNU fire tells us this loud and clear. Personally, I would love for this to be done by native herds of elk and Pleistocene-analog animals, but, as an individual, I don’t have the legal access to the kind of resources to make that happen. I will, however, advocate and vote for it whenever possible. I also have access to cows and sheep, where I can do my own part in the fight against forest fires. Link to Hopland video
It’s not necessary to sell meat in order to do that grazing work, though it is how most people fund their work. I don’t sell meat–I never have–instead, I run a grazing operation for fuel suppression and native plant diversity. I would support an animal sanctuary that used regenerative practices, and I would consult for free for them, but as far as I know, there aren’t any such sanctuaries. The closest that I’ve heard of are regenerative ranchers who allow vegetarians and vegans to buy herd shares that support their work and withhold cows from slaughter. I would love to see more programs like that. There is absolutely no more time to waste: people are dying and fires are burning so hot even adapted species are killed.
At a conference once, I heard a woman ask Alan Savory if cattle had to be eaten in order to do Holistic Planned Grazing. The surprisingly slight man visibly tensed with frustration and said something like (I am paraphrasing as it has been almost a decade since then), “I genuinely do not care if they are eaten or not. They can be left behind in the grass for the scavengers when they die for all I care, but we have to do it. We have to do the grazing or we will lose wildlife and humans to desertification. We have no other feasible option.”
Create a way for herders to make a living without selling meat if you disapprove of the sale of meat. The land MUST have large herds of herbivores moving across it. Grazing, planned burns, and mechanical thinning are the only feasible, large-scale tools we have to manage fire in a brittle landscape. There is room for everyone and every diet, but we need to use every tool in the toolbox and we have an absolutely urgent need to do this work.
This is very personal for me because there have been fires raging on my home ranges this year. I have also helped run an evacuee shelter and have witnessed the visceral terror and worry on people’s faces and the melted car doors as they arrived in the middle of the night after they’ve lost everything.
One of the things ruminants do is knock down flammable fuels and trample them into the soil, where they decompose instead of oxidize. We had a fire that started on our ranch on a power pole, which burned through a tree branch and then fell into what would have been waist-high dry grass the week before the flock came through. That fire could have spread into the adjoining and totally unmanaged State Forest, killing people and destroying homes and businesses. Because of the grazing, because of the magic of a ruminant’s appetite, of its weight, its cloven hooves, manure, because of scratching on small saplings and bedding down under trees, it didn’t. Those ruminants stopped that fire from doing the damage that it could’ve done if they hadn’t been there in the first place.
For me personally, when the time comes, and when he reaches the end of a good, long life lived in the meadows, I would rather cut Lascoux up into his component parts and cycle his carbon one last time through myself and my family than hire a backhoe to dig a hole big enough fit his 1-ton carcass in. Eating Lascoux is more respectful and appropriate to me than the wasteful burial that does nothing to honor his life as a carbon-cycling ruminant. . The horror of killing animals for food has been utterly scoured out of me by confronting other, more existential forms of death. I feel the same about my body. If I have usable eyes or heart or skin when I die, take them for people who need them. We will all one day go back into the earth, we should exchange carbon as many times as we can along the way.
There is tension. Necessary tension. Issues of funding regenerative practices, food access and labor ethics, neglected public lands, disastrous USDA policy, Tribal gathering rights, cultural burning access and land return, and a culture of ranching that has historically been hostile to the point of genocide to both Native people and animals, especially carnivores. We have work to do. May every calorie we take into our bodies from the furnace of the sun fuel the journey.
~ Gowan Batist