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Discovering a NY Feedlot

October 9, 2017

Regardless of your thoughts about the holiday or the accuracy of its history, Columbus is popularly credited with the discovery of America. Except, of course, he did not discover it. The land was already inhabited. Still, he learned something that challenged the perceptions of his community at the time.

Ultimately, it changed the world in profound ways.

This past weekend I had a big discovery of my own. Of course, my big discovery doesn’t even rate on the same scale as crossing an ocean on a wooden boat five hundred years ago, and stumbling upon uncharted lands on the other side of the world.

While what I’m going to share may not change the world, it certainly changed me, and my perceptions of conventionally produced beef. And this was because the New York Beef Council organized a tour of a few farms in Central New York.

Including one of the largest feedlots in the state.

The feedlot is the last stop beef cattle make before being sent to the slaughterhouse. They are also sometimes known as concentrated animal feeding operations. And I’ve written unflattering stories about CAFOs on the FLB in the past.

Part of that was driven by the direct experience of driving past the 800 acre Harris Ranch feedlot off Route 5 halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

While living out on the west coast, I would make that drive relatively frequently. And it was critically important to make sure the windows were rolled up, and the air conditioning was drawing from internally circulated air, because the stench from this operation was one of the most foul sensory experiences I’ve ever encountered.

The feedlot I saw in Walworth, a thirty minute drive east of Rochester, was the exact opposite.

It is part of a 2000 acre integrated and diversified farm. They grow feed grain, apples, and have a cow-calf operation where they breed and raise cows on three different pastures. The animals that were born on the farm, in addition to purchased beef cattle, will make their way into the feedlot. And at the end of the year, farmer Mike should send off 600 head to the slaughterhouse.

Meet farmer Mike. In this picture he’s standing in front of one of the pastures. We learned about the steps he takes to wean the calves from their mothers, and how everything they do is designed to keep that process as stress free as possible. The calves and mothers are kept together on the pasture, so the two animals can get through the process together. A weaning ring is inserted into the nose of the calf, without any piercings, which prevents it from using the teat. When presented with some of the other ways calf weaning is accomplished, this seemed much much better.

But this post isn’t about pretty pictures of cows on pasture. I have to show you the feedlot, and I took a panoramic picture so you can get a sense of the whole thing. I didn’t want anyone to think I was being selective in the images I chose to use. You’ll see some other bloggers on the tour taking some pictures themselves.

First, it’s just not that big. I asked Mike if there were other building that were part of the feedlot operation that we weren’t seeing. And there weren’t. This is the whole thing.

Second, it doesn’t smell bad. At all. In fact, it surprisingly smells rather pleasant. And I am really really sensitive to smells. So I had to ask about this, which is how I learned the next thing.

Third, the poop is removed every week and used to fertilize the fields. But Mike needs a thousand acres of land, and a lot of tractors, to accomplish this task as part of his CAFO management plan.

Wow.

The animals themselves, are clean and happy. They look like they have plenty of space. And we got to meet with the farm’s veterinarian who described the antibiotic protocols, which are pretty simple. Sick animals get treated. They get pulled from general pen while they recover, and there are no antibiotics left in the animal’s system by the time they are sent to market. But the vast majority of the cattle never require antibiotics.

Mike and I happen to disagree on the subject of GMO feed. But it was interesting to hear some of the reasons why he wasn’t discouraged by buying a product that he can’t own, and having to pay a licensing fee for its use year after year. Some of which has to do with New York licensing fees he would have to pay in order to spray pesticides and herbicides on crops.

GMO corn makes his life simpler, and it produces significant yields. Mike is not sure the operation could be economically viable without it.

But it was also interesting to hear, that despite the availability of GMO alfalfa, his is not. Through soil nutrition, and improved farming practices, Mike has been able to significantly increase his yields over the years on this important cattle feed.

My big takeaway from this experience is that perhaps I’ve been too hard on conventionally raised beef. Certainly, I had been painting all feedlots with the same brush, and now I have seen that not all feedlots looks the same. There are a tremendous amount of differences in production practices around the country, and I now I have a lot more to think about.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a tremendous discovery. It may not change the world, but I am hoping it may help change some perceptions.


In the spirit of full disclosure, this was part of the New York Beef Council’s blogger tour. I never ever take money in exchange for blog posts. That said, lodging for the weekend, meals, and transportation to the farms was paid for by the New York Beef Council. They also gave us gift bags with Beef scwhag, including two pounds of ground veal. But I drove out on my own dime, and paid for my drinks at the hotel.

Visiting local farms and getting to talk to local farmers about these issues has been something I’ve wanted to do for years, and I was thrilled that the NY Beef Council helped to create a weekend where this could happen.

Thanks to them and all the farmers who opened up their gates to let a bunch of bloggers get smarter on New York beef production. I learned a lot, and you may be hearing more about this tour in the days and weeks to come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2017 6:05 pm

    Thank you Daniel! so glad you came and discovered something new!

  2. albanylandlord permalink
    October 13, 2017 1:09 am

    Great article, thanks. Now we just have to be able to figure out if our meet came from a good feedlot or a bad one. I would guess restaurants in the area know to get their Meet from Mike’s operation.

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