For many cattle ranchers, sustaining their animals on grass alone is too expensive. Vegetarian cows, Shell explained, produce less milk than those fed on meat, and don't grow as large or as quickly because they receive less protein. But because the inexpensive meat-based supplements that farmers have long relied on to nourish their animals are now thought to be susceptible to contamination by Mad-Cow Disease, new regulations are beginning to outlaw some of the components of such feed. Shell discussed this issue of cattle feed with one concerned rancher who, like many others, was struggling to make ends meet.
Johnston paid $69,581.57 for feed supplements in the previous ten months alone, but he figured it was money well spent. Without the supplements, he said, milk production would slow down and his balance sheet would look even worse. He has seen a lot of farms go under.
Shell herself admitted that after researching the article, she decided to make certain changes to her diet. Beef not ground by her butcher, for instance, was no longer an option. She stopped buying pasta sauce made with meat, and her daughter gave up deli meats in favor of "vegetarian burgers," which consisted of American cheese melted over two pickles. Although no cases of Mad-Cow Disease had yet been found in American cattle, Shell explained that "given the gravity of the disease ... [making] small culinary adjustments seems well worth doing."
While feeding cattle primarily grass would lower the possibility of an oubreak of Mad-Cow Disease in the U.S. and result in healthier meat, in some parts of the country the issue of sustaining cattle on grass is politically charged. Out West where water is scarce, many environmentalists are strongly opposed to allowing cattle to trample and devour precious vegetation. In "The Rancher Subsidy" (January 1996), Todd Oppenheimer expressed the views of environmentalists who feel that the cattle industry is being given free rein to damage the environment.
The U.S. government, he wrote, is giving ranchers discounts on land, free cattle-feed handouts, and assistance in eliminating cattle predators, all because, in his view, the powerful ranching lobby has a strong voice in Washington. The result, he argued, is that vegetation in the West is ending up decimated, causing soil erosion and the elimination of species that depend on greenery.
Oppenheimer's proposed solution was a harsh one:
Let ranchers face their true costs.... The public can make its choice: increase the subsidy to preserve this rare but resonant icon of American identity, or decide that change is inevitable, and that ranchers ... must go the way of the horse and buggy.
But three years later, in "Winning the War for the West" (July 1999), Perri Knize took a more positive stance on the idea of allowing cattle to graze in the West. Contrary to the portrayal of environmentalist critics, she argued, ranchers are not a powerful, money-hungry force that cares nothing for the environment. Rather, they love their profession and the western landscape, and are struggling to make a go of things in spite of terrible odds:
On average, ranchers make only a two percent return on their operations, and many don't do that well. They would be better off liquidating their assets and putting them in a passbook savings account. Instead they turn down big offers from real-estate developers, put up with "ecoterrorists," and hang on by taking temporary jobs in town when the cattle market bottoms out. Ranching, it would seem, is a profession for romantic idealists, not profiteers. Those who hew to it do so for only one reason—they love the land and their way of life.
Knize argued that allowing cattle to graze has, in fact, been shown to have some environmental benefits. Keeping vegetation short, for example, can stimulate the kind of new growth that many species in the ecosystem depend on. And grazing cattle have been shown to play a useful role in dispersing various kinds of seeds.