At El Oro Cattle Feeders in Moses Lake, Washington general manager Rob Miller proudly proclaims that his cattle are contented locavores. They enjoy munching on the leftovers from Washington's abundant food production and crop farming. These cattle are healthy thanks to the watchful eyes of Rob's team and the diet designed to keep them that way.
When you smell that freshly fried side of tater tots as you dig in to a meal at your favorite spot or rip open a new bag of potato chips, you’re probably not thinking about beef unless it’s the juicy burger next to it on your plate. Which is totally fine. Enjoy your meal.
Wondering where the odds and ends that must result from making perfectly formed golden brown tots or uniform spears of crispy potato goodness go is more like a shower thought. The question passes through your busy mind somewhere between realizing you'll never know what it smells like under water and how your stomach thinks all potatoes are mashed (thanks, Reddit).
The answer to where misfit French fries go is that most of it ends up at a nearby feedyard like El Oro Cattle Feeders, east of Moses Lake to be upcycled into cattle feed. It is mixed with hay, grains and corn to provide just the right ratio of high energy carbohydrates and fat along with proteins and roughage that keeps a steer’s four chambered stomach healthy and working efficiently. Only cattle with a healthy rumen (the bacteria in the first chamber of the stomach that break down what cattle eat) gain weight. So a cattle nutritionist is in charge of formulating and monitoring how well the diet (it’s called a ration on farms and ranches) works and makes changes based on the time of year and what kinds of feed are available locally.
Feeding the byproducts from human food production and other human inedible feeds is not new, novel or niche. It’s a standard practice in cattle feeding. In the U.S. 90% of the land and feed grain-finished cattle utilize to grow and eventually provide high quality protein to our diets comes from crops and byproducts that humans cannot eat. It starts with native grasses on pastures and rangelands that simply could not be converted to vegetable fields or provide human food directly. Cattle also graze on what remains of a variety of fields after the harvest, getting sustenance from the cut down stems and stalks of crops like wheat, barley and corn (it's called "crop residue", rancher Clay Schuster can tell you more about this). Then a mixture of hay, feed crops, and byproducts of food and energy production is fed to cattle over the last 60-180 days, which results in the well marbled, USDA Choice or Prime grade beef people love for it’s tenderness and flavor.
So basically, if you fancy yourself a locavore, the cattle at El Oro probably have you beat at that game. From crops raised by local farmers within eyesight of the feedyard, to that overrun of star shaped potato nuggets (made from potatoes grown in the same county, no less) hauled from a processor just a few miles up the road, cattle reduce waste in our food system, and turn it all into steaks and roasts and burgers that provide substantial nutrition to our diets. Without cattle feeding, our food system would be less sustainable. And less delicious.
Did you know? Only 7 percent of the cattle diet is corn. Some of the corn in a cattle feeding ration is the solid byproduct of making ethanol based fuel. And in regard to the corn that is grown expressly for cattle, much of it is fermented into a feed called silage (it includes the plants stalks, leaves and all) which helps their digestive process and even reduces their methane emissions.
Horseback Health Care at the Feed Yard
For all the good cattle do for us – even before we get to salivate over steaks or nosh hard on a Dick’s Deluxe burger, the people of El Oro make sure cattle are well taken care of. Cattle feedyards are well set up to provide cattle the care they need by working in specialized teams, working together to address problems, and see to it that the overall health and conditions at the yard are serving cattle well. The cattle nutrition team works in concert with the cattle health team to minimize stress and monitor the animals to look for signs of health issues.
As a young man, Martin Camacho studied veterinary medicine in Mexico City. He first thought perhaps a career working with marine life would be his calling. Out on the water, unable to see the shore, he reconsidered.
“Then I thought, maybe I’ll stay on land.” And that is just what he’s done. He’s been watching over the land mammals at El Oro feed yard near Moses Lake for over 25 years. Martin heads up the day-to-day animal health at the yard, where he and his team use tradition and technology to do their job. The day starts with a briefing at the tack room, where potential animal health concerns are discussed based on the team’s observations and larger data analysis.
Then Martin and the other “pen riders” saddle up and make their rounds on horseback through each pen at least once, sometimes twice a day. They are trained to look for signs of potential sickness or injury in individual animals. The riders move calmly and quietly through the pens, and cattle are used to it. As they observe dozens of animals in the pen behaving normally – breathing easily, chewing cud, and moving with a typical gait, any exhibiting signs of sickness or injury stand out to their trained eyes.
“If we keep cattle stress low from the day they arrive, we won’t need to use antibiotics at all.” - Martin Camacho
If an animal is displaying abnormal behavior, the rider then sorts the animal out of it’s home pen and walks it to a hospital pen. It’s given fresh water and feed and observed by the animal health team to see if it’s condition changes for better or worse. He works directly with the feed yard's veterinarian to connect the team's observations with animal health science. Then, if a diagnosis requires antibiotics, a label-directed dose is prescribed by the yard veterinarian and recorded in the electronic database. The database allows the pen riders, veterinarian, and other managers to share information and empowers everyone at the yard to participate in herd health.
If, for example, El Oro's general manager is checking on a new feed truck driver’s work delivering the correct rations to a pen of cattle and he sees anything potentially abnormal, he can check health records of individual cattle and the pen right on the laptop in his pick-up truck to determine if more observation or action by the cattle health team is necessary. Good communication between staff takes care of the rest.
“The pen riders are the first line of defense in animal health and preventing the need for using antibiotics.” - El Oro Cattle Feeders General Manager
The ins and outs of cattle nutrition and cattle health at a feedyard probably aren’t recognizable to the naked eye as you breeze by on the highway at 70 miles per hour. Maybe the visual leaves an impression on you or maybe you don’t even notice it. Either way, there is a lot going on. Feeding cattle is riding horses and analyzing spreadsheets. It’s scientifically balanced rations, and unevenly cut French fries. It’s large-scale, but intensively local. Simultaneously complex, but simple because it all drills down to one goal: raising healthy cattle to provide high quality beef. Cattle feedyards are the key resource we have to make beef accessible to everyone, while using less land and preventing waste in our larger food system. We don’t think feedyard fanboys/girls are a thing just yet, but they probably should be.