More calves are born in Kentucky every year than in any other state east of the Mississippi River. Elmwood Stock Farm contributes about 60 of those. Twenty years ago, 99 percent of Kentucky-born calves were loaded onto trucks and taken to a feedlot somewhere in the Midwest at weaning. The other 1 percent of Kentucky-born calves were those that people kept back to take to local butcher shops for their and their neighbors’ freezer beef. With the success of the local food movement, Kentucky now keeps 2 or 3 percent of its calves here.
The calves at Elmwood Stock Farm are born to mothers that have known no other surroundings for generations. The seemingly minor contribution of the bull to this lineage is how we maintain a diversified gene pool. Each year, we select the best of the best to keep on the farm for future breeding stock and to go into our grass-fed beef program. As the calves grow, moving with the herd to the various fields with trees and ponds, they mature to an optimum level of protein and fat for nourishing humans and supporting farmers. At the end of their time here, a few at a time take a quick trip in a trailer to the abattoir in Casey County, where they are handled with care.
If we had to declare everything we did to get our organic, grass-fed beef into its packaging, the label would read: Beef (bovine, grass, water, sunshine, salt and a short haul). This product also comes with a seal of approval for carbon sequestration, another for supporting the local economy and another for providing heart-healthy food for our community.
The Conventional Beef Book
Most Kentucky calves are raised on small family farms and are treated by the conventional-farming book. Now, you read excerpts from our regenerative-farming book above, so take note of the differences.
On today’s small cattle farm, the whole herd is corralled and run down the handling shoot where each animal gets an insecticide-laden “fly tag” put in its ears, a small hormone-laden pellet injected under the skin of one of those ears, a dose of insecticide poured on its back to permeate its bodies to systemically rid it of internal and external parasites, plus some vaccinations. This process happens once when calves are a couple of months of age and is repeated before weaning to prepare them for the stress of weaning. At this point, some get “bunk broke,” a process that teaches them to eat grain from a feed trough.
From weaning, most Kentucky calves take a short ride to the largest stockyards east of the Mississippi, outside Lexington, where they are commingled with hundreds, if not thousands, of others and then taken on a long truck ride out west. Maybe they will be grazed for a few more months—called backgrounding—before being confined to feedlot life. They go through another regimen of shots and antibiotics and insecticide treatments here, then are released into a small dirt pen, where feed trucks deliver a grain-centric diet a couple of times a day. The feed grains are undoubtedly proprietary, genetically manipulated strains of corn and soybeans, raised on farms with all manner of herbicides and insecticides, with some sort of fermentation modifiers to help the cattle better digest this unnatural diet of concentrated nutrients with a minimum of fiber. The cattle all stand around in the same bare lot for six or eight months until they all get harvested along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others on the same day.
One must marvel at the efficiency of the men, women and machines working in the big harvest facilities. I have toured many that handle each species—bovine, porcine, avian, ovine— and there does not seem to be much regard for how the animal got there or where it is going. As we learned earlier this year, in the case of pigs and poultry, when these facilities could not run at full operating capacity because COVID-19 sickened so many workers, animals had to be depopulated (euthanized) on the farm because of the production delays.
To disclose all that has gone into the production of this beef, the meat packages that come out of these facilities would have an ingredient panel that reads like this: Beef (bovine, GMO corn [glyphosate and/or other herbicides and insecticides], GMO soybeans [glyphosate and/or other herbicides, insecticides and fungicides], by-products of various industrial food-processing systems, grass, water, steroids and/or hormones in that pellet in their ear, the systemic insecticide poured on them several times, and diesel fumes from all those truck rides). These products get the fast-food seal of approval for allowing for 99-cent value meals.
Governor Beshear’s Office of Agricultural Policy and the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board offers grants and loans to the small meat processors, like the one we use, to increase their capacity to keep more Kentucky-produced beef right here in the commonwealth. We are excited about this and already scheduled additional dates to bring more beeves, pigs, lambs and poultry to our processor next year. Some entrepreneurs are looking to build new facilities to keep even more animals in Kentucky, but that is years off with a steep learning curve. Still, this is all possible because of the local food movement.
Eating is more than an agricultural act: It’s an environmental act and a public-health issue. Consider the supply chain variables in these two vastly different paths that beef takes to get to your plate. Suffice it to say, less is more. —Mac Stone