Well, today was the day I loaded up Agnes in my neighbors' trailer for a one-way ride to Santa Fe Trail Meats. After reading and rereading everything I had on grass finishing cattle, I concluded that, in spite of being a big-framed girl, at 26 months Agnes looked as good as any grain finished heifer would. She was full in the brisket, round in the hips, and flat as a board across her broad back. By my estimation, she'd register a frame score of 8 (out of 9 for beef cattle): too fat to breed well, but perfect for the butcher. I asked the USDA inspector at the abattoir to grade her for me, to see where she ranks (prime, choice, select, standard). I'm expecting choice, as the rules for prime are biased against the yellow (high beta-carotene) fat of grass fed animals.
I've taken hogs to this butcher for the last two years. We back the trailer up to the chute and in they go through the blue door and out they come in frozen packages. This time, when I called to schedule Agnes, I asked if it was permitted to watch the process. They agreed to let me in, but with their tight schedule, the beeves I watched were not my own. This was more than OK by me. Mostly, I wanted to see how the animals were treated behind the blue door, and how they were converted from walking animal to hanging halves. This little facility is just 14 miles down the road from Bluestem Farm. The owner and head butcher answered my questions while he and two others did the bulk of the work. What impressed me was the cleanliness of the operation. Not to say it was without gore, but every stage was rinsed down with copious amounts of water. Everything was calm, "clean" and efficient. An on site USDA inspector checked the livers, hearts, lungs, teeth, and glands for health and age before the newly hanging halves went to the cooler.
I was still in a cow mood that afternoon, so I came back into Overbrook, KS for the cattle auction next door to my butcher. I didn't intend to buy anything from this or any sale barn, but thought it would be good for my education to see what animals were available and what the buyers were looking for in their stock. There were about 30 men, a few kids, and fewer women in the audience when I got there. The first thing you notice is the stink. Now I had just come from the butcher which smelled like cold meat, and when I clean my barn it smells like manure, but this was something more foul. Cattle of all ages, sexes, sizes, and conditions are herded through a maze of gates out onto large pen built over a livestock scale that rocked a little as they skittered around looking for an exit. Animals were presented in ones or groups for bidding by the "hundred weight." All of the employees seemed to have the same work ethic; if they could clang it, bang it, or beat it with a stick, they did. For reasons that I can't fathom, cattle that were too calm in the ring were shooed, swatted and scared until they were sufficiently wild for their two minutes of show time. It's spring time in Kansas. We've had plenty of rain. There is grass everywhere. How then, could some of these cows have become so emaciated? Were they sick or abused? There were plenty of good looking animals that fetched prices between $130 and $140 per hundred weight. The sick cows brought $44 per hundred weight. Everything sold. Who do you suppose is eating those poor cows?