- Historic Sites
The American Farm
Still Family, Still the Wonder of the World
February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
Domestic animals were seldom treated as pets on the old family farms, since sooner or later they would be killed and eaten; increasingly today they are being treated as biochemical factories, fed scientifically balanced diets mixed with vitamins and antibiotics, confined in monitored housing to direct all their energy to growth, killed younger, and packaged in close proximity to the farm. The packing houses in Kansas City and Omaha and Chicago have all but closed down. There are cattlemen in Kansas who net only run breeding herds but fatten the calves in enormous feed lots, slaughter them, and ship from their ranches the sorted, graded, retail cuts of meat that the cattle industry calls “boxed beef.” Why, after all, ship waste on expensive lines of transportation?
Devotees of organic food and others abhor these high-pressure efficiencies and, because of pesticides and the injection of hormones, fear for human health, and those of’us who remember home-grown vegetables and meat notice the decline of flavor, not to say of taste. So much criticism has been leveled against the practices of modern farming that it seems fair to present here the opposite side of the argument. Many such practices are indirectly the result of government policy designed to hold down the cost of food, policy that has been remarkably successful in the United States: chicken may be bland, but it’s also the best bargain in town, and to ask for a return to the twelve-week, yard-scratching, worm-fattened chicken of yesteryear is at least romantic. Fresh tomatoes in January are an indulgence (at Drumm, though in summer we were piled and barricaded and fortified with tomatoes, we ate them canned from September to July); they have to be shipped from Florida and Mexico and California; the juicy beefsteaks I buy in the Missouri summers from river-bottom truck farms can’t be shipped practically; and so one pays for winter tomatoes in the coin of taste: they have the disagreeable, fibrous texture of balsa wood. Eggs are often tasteless, beef too soft (but much leaner than it used to be, as is pork), milk and butter as good or better than they once were-but you know the litany. American consumers might be better served by a twotiered agricultural economy, one that supplied high-priced, organic, old-fashioned vegetables and meats to those who are willing to pay the difference and mass-produced foods to those who can’t or won’t. Something like that seems to be happening to the market, at least in large cities: Kansas City, where I live, has more than one organic supermarket, and gourmet frozen foods in nearly every store. To paraphrase the slogan of the A & P (“Price and Pride”), it’s a question of price versus pride. What it isn’t is a conspiracy to deprive the American people of nutritious food. It’s a pocketbook issue, for the farmer as well as for the consumer, and one notes that half the beef slaughtered in the United States now goes to hamburger, and a major portion of the chicken to chicken pies and the boxes and buckets of the Colonel and his imitators.
I saw the future of what my vocational-agriculture instructor called “animal husbandry” at the Farmland Industries Demonstration Farm south of Leavenworth, Kansas. There, not only laying hens but also hogs and dairy cattle are confined indoors, and beef cattle in sheltered concrete lots. The confinement of dairy cattle intrigued me, because herding the cows in from pasture was one of my duties at Drumm. Farmland’s research animals, big raw-boned Guernseys, never leave the barn and its attached open-air lot. A manager feeds them hay and a diet of grain and protein pellets; their energy goes to milk production, not to grazing, and they produce more milk than ordinary cows. At a spotless milking station, the milk flows through glass tubing into a stainless-steel cooler, later to be pumped untouched into a refrigerated truck for delivery to the dairy. There was nothing surreal about the dairy barn; it even boasted the obligatory cat, black with white paws.
Hog production at Farmland is even more automated. Sows farrow indoors in pens too narrow to allow them to turn around, which helps prevent them from stepping on their pigs. At weaning, the pigs go into a special building where they feed ad lib on a diet of protein pellets. The floor of their pen is assembled from metal slats; below the floor aerated water flows through a wide trough, liquefying and oxygenating their manure; beyond the building is a sewage lagoon. Sewage disposal is a major expense of livestock production today. At Drumm we walked the pasture watching where we set down our feet, a habit I still haven’t shaken.
Barrows—castrated males-go to another building, similarly arranged, for fattening. Gilts—female pigs—go to indoor pens for eventual breeding. The boar lives there too, in a pen of his own, his presence and his odors stimulating the gilts to sexual maturity. The gilts are sorted by size to reduce dominance battles. They are fed fully, but only once a day; their hunger, and subsequent activity, gives them squealing exercise. They eat not in a common trough, as has been the usual lot of swine, butin individual stalls, to assure that each gets her full ration of feed. They are bred by artificial insemination, but not with frozen semen. Boar semen, I am told, doesn’t freeze very well.