A Butcher's Case for Small Cattle and a Small World

We've learned to want everything big. But small is more efficient—and cuter, especially when it comes to beef.

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It doesn't really matter how you feel about confined animal feeding operations, feedlots, or any other unsustainable farming practice. Why? Because they're unsustainable and by their very definition doomed to obsolescence. The thing that most pro-factory farming advocates will bellow right after a statement like this is "How can we feed the world if we don't grow animals in CAFOs?" Well, number one, we're all going to have to get used to the idea that we will need to eat less meat, but beyond that we're also going be forced to get a little more crafty about raising animals.

For every one lumbering mega-cow we could graze two (the statistic is actually 2.3 but who's counting?) cute little Low Lines on the same amount of pasture and get almost twice the amount of steaks.

Oddly, I think the future might look a lot like the past: commons, greenbelts, and parks in rural, suburban, and perhaps even urban America completely free of lawn mowers you ride on and weedwhackers and instead replaced by small roving herds of sheep and cattle. There's just one problem with this picture—modern American cattle are way too big to be useful trimming the verge in Central Park.

Americans in the 20th century really liked everything big: big cars, big hair, and big cattle. Between 1900 and today the average carcass weight of a steer slaughtered in the U.S. nearly doubled. Angus that used to clock hot weights in the 500- to 600-pound range are dressing out at as much as 1100 pounds just a hundred years later! America's cattle have been bred to be taller and longer by crossing in European bloodlines like the gargantuan Chianina (giant Italian draught oxen) and others to achieve the biggest possible frame to hang feedlot meat on.

Why is big a bad thing? It's not. Big animals have lots of advantages when it comes to processing because you can slaughter fewer animals and get the same amount of meat. Those advantages are outweighed by the fact that modern cattle are just too heavy to graze well on pasture. Imagine you're snow shoeing across a field of fresh powder, then imagine you aren't wearing snowshoes. Well, snowshoes, by distributing your weight over a broader area, makes you light enough, in a pounds-per-square-inch kind of way, to walk on the snow without sinking down to your knees. Cattle have gotten bigger and bigger, but their feet are more or less the same size, which leads to "pugging."

Pugging is not some sort of kinky sex act—it's what farmers call it when heavy-footed cattle destroy grass by putting big divots in the field with their feet. To be clear, cattle trample more grass than they eat; that's normal. But when a cow is giant, it goes way past trampled grass (which can recover to be grazed again fairly quickly) to blades that have been buried under inches of soil, which takes a long time to recover from.

Smaller cattle, on the other hand, do far less damage to grass and are more efficient grazers. How much more efficient? As it turns out the Trangie Research Center in Australia wanted to see what happened when you bred Angus to be both bigger and smaller. They divided their herd into smaller Angus, which they called Low Lines, and larger Angus, which they called High Lines, and a third group called Control Lines. After 15 years they had cattle that were not only 30 percent smaller than the High Lines but also cattle that could be grazed with more than twice as many animals per acre and also produced 80 percent of the loin the High Lines yielded.

What does that mean in practical future-times terms? It means that for every one lumbering mega-cow tearing holes in the sod we could graze two (the statistic is actually 2.3 but who's counting?) cute little (not more than three-and-a-half feet tall at the shoulder) Low Lines on the same amount of pasture and get almost twice the amount of steaks. Win! Win!

Unfortunately Low Lines and their small, efficient brethren like the Square Meater don't do quite as well on uneven terrain or on marginal grass like you might find if you were pasturing cattle in a vacant lot or on the side of a freeway overpass.


MORE ON MEAT:
Tom Mylan: The Call of the Grill
Mark Schatzker: Is Aged Beef Overrated?
Helene York: The Myth of Green Beef

No matter. Luckily, long before ADM or Monsanto were modifying organisms to suit their needs, natural selection, helped along by shrewd and forward-thinking Scotsmen, created a rugged breed of cattle now known as the Highland. These cattle's genes were forged in the furnace of dodgy fodder and barnless winters. Where few other domesticated animals can live, the small, shaggy Highland flourishes, producing lean but delicious meat and costing far less than even the smallest John Deere lawn tractor.

Sure, I'm a dreamer. But I much prefer my own vision of Hobbit-sized cattle dotting the suburban landscape and front lawns tilled under to plant carrot patches to the grim, industrial nightmare of Matrix-esque factory farms, antibiotic-proof diseases, and joyless Soylent Green-style dining. To me the future looks, well, kind of cute.

Image: Hunter-Desportes/flickr

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Tom Mylan is the executive butcher and co-owner of the local, sustainable butcher shop The Meat Hook in Brooklyn, NY. He loves good meat, good music, and good whiskey, but not necessarily in that order.

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