November 14, 2013

The Feed Lot We can See from Space. ~ Jenna Penielle Lyons

See those tiny black dots? They are cows.

I grew up in Pocatello, Idaho.

Every morning, Pocatello is blanketed with an inversion, which is caused by a combination of land features and smog from the Simplot plant that sits a few miles outside the city’s center. You can see the plant pumping out a continuous grey cloud every night—a glowing dragon puffing out smelly steam into the air we breathe.

As a kid, I never really questioned what Simplot was doing. I knew that they mined phosphate, but I never knew what the phosphate did or where it went.

A representative from Simplot even came into my fifth grade class and explained phosphate mining to us by giving us a straw and a piece of Funfetti cake. We would shove the straw into the cake, and then examine the core of the cake in the straw. The melted sprinkles inside represented phosphate. All the other white parts of the cake? Waste.

But phosphate mining is anything but sweet. And all the cake that we ate after we learned about phosphate mining? It actually represents a grim reality that affects the entire planet. It represents part of an entire system that is making humans, cows, the earth and the global economy extremely sick.

There’s karma in everything we do as humans, and this system has grown to such large proportions that we inevitably will not be able to handle the environmental and ethical implications of it.

The photo above is a screen shot from a Google Earth image of a Simplot feed lot outside Grand View, Idaho. If you’re driving to Boise from Pocatello, you can smell it from the interstate.

According to Simplot’s website, the feed lot covers 750 acres. This feed lot can house more cows than any other feed lot in the country—about 150,000. When you drive past these feed lots, all you can see is black soil stretching out along the horizon. But it is not soil.

It’s cow manure.

Thousands of beef and dairy cows are fed here every day. If you’re a beef or dairy farmer, the main goal of putting cattle on Simplot’s land is to fatten them up and get them off your own hands.

So what do the cows eat? 

Simplot—and other feed lots—feeds the cows a combination of potato and corn by-products. These foods are mixed with various phosphate products. What is interesting about this is that Simplot is a company that also makes fertilizer. So essentially, the cows were evolved to eat grass, and they are eating chemicals, corn, and potatoes. I will talk more about this later.

Simplot owns fleets of trucks that serve the purpose of transporting the cows to meat packing plants. In the feed lot, they live a sad, crowded and inhumane existence. Simplot claims that this is an affordable and efficient way for beef and dairy farmers to get their cows ready for butchering and processing. They even claim that they have enforced a number of sustainability measures.

In fact, one of the “sustainability” measures Simplot has adopted is not driving, but walking the cows from their other feed lot in Pasco, Washington to the adjacent Tyson meat packing plant.

What happens after their death march is not something I will discuss in detail, but something you can research on your own if you choose to know. Hint: times have not changed much since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In fact, things have gotten much worse.

There is nothing sustainable about these feed lots—or any feed lots. In fact, there is nothing sustainable about the all-encompassing, conventional process of growing beef for human consumption.

Here is why:

1. Feed lots themselves ruin the land and our drinking water.

Cows were meant to eat grass, and we feed them potato and corn by-products. In a PBS interview, sustainable eating icon Michael Pollan talks about the fact that the average American beef or dairy cow actually eats very little grass in its short (less than a year) lifespan.

In order to get a cow to learn to eat corn and potato, you have to give it antibiotics because cows get sick when they stop ruminating (what happens in their bellies when they stop eating healthy grass). The rumen in their bellies that helps them digest grass acidifies when you feed them corn. So you have to keep giving them antibiotics.

So when Simplot says they have a veterinary specialist or nutritionist on site in the feed lot, they actually mean that they have someone there to administer the antibiotics to the bloating cow (whose liver may be failing).

Now, when you feed 100,000 cows a diet of corn, phosphates and antibiotics, and those cows are concentrated onto a piece of land that is only 750 acres, you are setting yourself up for 750 acres worth of cow poop that is infected with E. coli and consists of large concentrations of antibiotics. These antibiotics are toxic, and therefore they aren’t used in human medicine.

This stuff all goes into the water table—the aquifers we drink from. So this is why the current system of growing beef is terrible for the land and our water.

2. The process of mining for phosphates that make corn and cows grow faster ruins the land.

Forcing such a large number of animals to live on one piece of ground ruins that piece of ground for, well, forever. But there is another, larger problem. Simplot—and other feed lots—feed the cows phosphate products to get them nice and large. Essentially, they fertilize the cows like you would fertilize your lawn. The EPA has targeted a number of phosphate mines as Superfund sites, and Simplot owns three of them. Here is a gorgeous and scenic Google Earth image of Simplot’s chemical tailings pond near their mine in Vernal, Utah:

If you Google search “Simplot phosphate mine,” you’ll find a bunch of results about two-headed trout and cancer. Mines permanently damage land and the water that comes out of it.

If you’ve taken a high school chemistry class, you know about phosphate.

Phosphate occurs naturally. It is important for all organisms, and too little phosphate in human and animal diets can lead to health problems. Conversely, too much phosphate can damage one’s health as well. White phosphate is dangerous, and it does not occur naturally in the environment. It does, however, show up when industries mine phosphates and discharge waste-water into nature.

If large quantities of phosphates get into the surface water, they can travel far. I know a lot about this because Pocatello’s main river, The Portneuf, has experienced a devastating amount of eutrophication over the years. Eutrophication happens when phosphate concentrations lead to overgrowth of algae and other phosphate-loving organisms.

When this happens, sunlight can’t reach the water, and other organisms can’t live near the water anymore. Then, waterborne diseases, such as E. coli, inhabit the water. This isn’t good for anyone.

Simplot is ruining land so that we can have tremendous quantities of nice, marbled meat.

3. This system is dangerous for human and animal health. 

Ruminants are traditionally beneficial for the vast expanses of grazing land they live on. These feed lots damage the cows, the land and the manner in which they care for the cows is detrimental to human health too.

Farmers who put their cattle into these lots can actually tell the lot owners that they want their cows to gain a certain amount of weight every day, and there is a formula that takes into account weather, food ration, etc. and will make the cow gain amount of weight in amount of months. So they give the cows antibiotics to make them eat more corn—and tolerate the hot diet—and therefore, all the beef that is treated with these antibiotics continues to contain them right down to the minute you take a bite of a hamburger.

Cows who graze in grass don’t become infected with E. coli bacteria. Cows who eat and sleep in their own feces do. Slaughterhouses do not clean them off before they stun (kill) and process them. So the risk of our beef becoming infected with E. coli is there, and it has happened before.

4. This system contributes to climate change.

The amount of land and oil it takes to grow the corn, mine the phosphates, and transport it all is much larger than the feed lots themselves. In fact, it takes hundreds of gallons of oil to grow one pound of beef. So the “cheap beef” that you can buy at the store or at fast food restaurants is actually not cheap at all. It is cheap for you because corn is subsidized by the United States Department of Agriculture. In other words, the government pays farmers to use corn to feed cows so that the farmers can produce more beef at a faster rate.

A 2005 Congressional Budget Office report claims that billions of dollars worth of corn feed subsidies were doled out to farmers across the nation. This has a multitude of negative implications for the global economy—and the environment.

5. This system contributes to poverty in developing nations.

Those subsidies I was speaking of earlier? They contribute to starvation in other nations. The only countries that can afford to give subsidies to farmers are those that are wealthier, such as New Zealand, European nations, and Asian nations. Corn farmers in the United States can sell their product for far less than it costs to produce it because the government picks up the cost of growing and transporting it.

Because farmers in developing nations cannot possibly compete with this process and the  inexpensive prices of corn from subsidized areas of the world, they cannot produce as much food/beef and therefore they exist in poverty and they are forced to resort to processes such as deforestation to graze their cattle.


Who pays for these corn subsidies (and in turn, pays for the rest of the world to starve)? You do. Your tax dollars fund these agricultural subsidies.

The solution?

The only thing that you can do is purchase organic, locally-grown, free range, sustainably fed beef. Buy your own cow and make sure that it does not become a part of this process. Don’t eat food from huge fast food chains. The McDonald’s empire plays a huge role in these economic schema; if the demand for beef from fast food chains ended, the Department of Agriculture would be forced to end corn subsidies.

The pressure can only be applied from the source: the public who eats the beef.

Or, more drastically, you could refrain from eating beef altogether if you do not have access to beef that is not a part of this huge system.

Cows don’t have a choice in their fate. But you do.


Like readers for animal rights on Facebook.

Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photos: via Jenna Penielle Lyons/Google earth.}

Read 3 Comments and Reply

Read 3 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Jenna Penielle Lyons  |  Contribution: 8,640