Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Monster

There is no more obvious face of American environmental problems than the cow. In the name of cattle production the American farmer has damned up streams to create livestock watering opportunities, ripped out native grasses to plant brome and fescue, plowed under wetlands and riparian lands to plant alfalfa and hay, and concentrated them into a location so densely that rainwater becomes lethally toxic. Cattle production (or maybe just farming in general) is probably directly responsible for more species becoming extinct than any other human activity in North America.

But that doesn't mean the cow itself isn't a fascinating animal with a cool story. The scientific name of the cow is Bos primigenius (at least, that's my understanding...there's some taxonomy confusion here), and it was first domesticated back in the 6th millenia BC in Mesopotamia. The original animal is known now as the Aurochs and holy god is it a cool animal. Aurochs once roamed basically all of Europe and Asia, and were independently domesticated at least 3 times. This is particularly amazing if you read the following account by Caesar about the aurochs in Germany:

Gallic War Chapter 6.28, "...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise. But not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed. "

I've never seen much written about animals using domestication as a life-history strategy, but this is one species where it has obviously been an advantage. The domesticated aurochs (i.e., cattle) began wiping out the wild aurochs almost immediately. Humans found cattle to be incredibly useful animals: You can hitch your wagon to one to pull things, you can feed it grass and it will produce milk, and killing even a single adult will give you enough food for months. As a result, humans agressively aided the expansion of cattle at the expense of aurochs. The last known aurochs lived in Poland and were 'protected' by royal decree. Nevertheless, the last individual died in 1627 and its skull currently resides at the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm. Two brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, had the bright idea of recreating the aurochs back in the 1920s (oddly enough, as part of a Nazi propoganda campaign). Theoretically, this might be possible if all the original genes are still around, you would just need to combine them. The results of these efforts are the Heck cattle, and man, you need to look into this yourself, because there is no end to the awesome (see awesome picture below).

Modern cattle have been developed into distinctive breeds for different purposes. In the United States, a federal grading standard in 1927 somewhat stupidly lead to meat quality becoming associated with 'marbling', and so breeds like Angus and Hereford have been the ideal. Marbling was considered important primarily because it made farmers more money. Marbling happens because grass fed cattle are 'finished' on a grain-heavy diet. In particular, a guy named Alvin H. Sanders, editor of Breeder's Gazette, promoted this idea so strongly that it caught on with the Department of Agriculture. The stated purpose was to promote meat that was of high quality culinarily, but as it turns out, marbling contributes relatively little to the overall tenderness of cooked meat. The U.S. eventually altered the grading system to lessen the importance of marbling, but is still one of only three countries in the world that grade beef on fat content (Japan and Korea are the others).

Cattle are generally slaughtered between 15 and 24 months in the U.S. (usually closer to 2 years), while in Europe the slaughtering times vary with the culinary traditions (Italians: 16-18 months; 3-4 years in France and England prior to prion diseases). Generally these variations have to do with the toughness of the meat and the flavor, although a lot of both has been sacrificed on the alter of efficiency. For instance, most culinary applications value the flavor of grass-fed beef, yet in the U.S. the economies of scale and a traditional over-abundance of cheap corn have resulted in massive feedlots where cattle are raised for 4-8 months on grain instead of grass.

I've never eaten veal and I can't honestly say I see the appeal. Veal is essentially beef that tastes and feels nothing like beef. The longer an animal uses its muscles, the tougher and more colored the meat becomes. Veal are usually confined so they can't move and slaughtered before ever given a chance to eat solid foods. The result is meat that is pale, extremely tender, and delicate in flavor. My feeling is that if you want to eat pork, just eat pork!

Because cattle are so closely associated with humans, there is ton more information out there: Their relationship to other ungulates, the amazing amount of fish kills that they caused prior to the clean water act, and their impact on rangeland birds are all interesting topics. However, I just got back from vacation and this is all I'm going to write today.

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