Ag at Large: Bovine beauties may not be black and white

By Don Curlee | Contributed

It might come as a shock: California’s happiest cows may not be the black and white Holstein dairy animals so often pictured, but their beef cousins in a variety of colors.

After all, beef animals roam in practically every county in California. They enjoy hillside and flat land beauty, a variety of climates and often, movement from one elevation to another in pursuit of the tastiest grazing. Some are even transported to Oregon or elsewhere to enjoy lush summer pastures.

Since they spend most of their time living around the edges they are generally less visible, leading people to forget that the category of cattle and calves is consistently the third or fourth largest segment of California’s agricultural economy.

Even in the drought conditions endured by the state for the past four or five years, beef animals received supplementary feed – hay, a little grain – to satisfy their hunger and keep them gaining weight. Weight gain as calves grow into marketable steers is the industry’s guiding principle.  Each animal is sold at a certain weight bracket, so cattlemen chart their gain very carefully.

Exclamation point for the animals’ weight gain is their typical 90 days at a feedlot, confinement as cattlemen term it. There, each animal increases its weight eating sumptuously of a special diet heavy in corn and grain while huddled in tight quarters with other animals and moving very little.

Of course, if only they knew, the feedlot stay is the precursor of their ultimate unhappiness – the slaughterhouse. It’s there that weight gain stops, as does their lives, and marketing begins. It’s where cattlemen calculate their gain, hopefully profit, and beef marketers begin their pursuit of profit by convincing consumers that “It’s what’s for dinner,” or otherwise irresistible.

Cattle owners earn their distinction as cowboys at least once in the life of each male calf for perhaps its only other time of serious unhappiness, castration. It is cause for a true roundup and roping of the feisty males, done primarily to facilitate weight gain. It also moderates their behavior and discourages fighting with other males and general misbehavior. Branding while they are gathered can occur, detracting further but temporarily, from their joy of life.

Life for male calves born to dairy animals is not that pleasant either. Most of them find their way to market as veal, another term for the meat of young cattle. Naturally tender and with little or no muscle toughness it appeals as protein to those skilled in enhancing its flavor during  preparation.

Cattlemen take pride in maintaining open land, not only for the benefit of their stock, but for general appreciation by the state’s citizens. Having some room to roam seems almost as beneficial for the human animal as it is for beef cattle. Many other animals are indigenous to the state’s cattle spreads, considered environmental havens.

California’s herd of beef cattle exceeds 2.5 million, fourth largest of all the states. Texas leads the nation with nearly 12 million, followed by Nebraska and Kansas.

Like all other agricultural producers in California, cattlemen are troubled by the imposition of onerous regulations, legislators that create rules, boundaries, pay schedules and restrictions without apparent consideration for the realities cattlemen and other owner-employers must face day to day.

To be free of the regulatory jungle, in open country, grazing comfortably, California beef cattle approach idyllic contentment. Without tight milking schedules, limited pastures, traffic and artificial diets they can smile and wonder why they are not promoted as California’s truly happy cows.