One journalist struggles on her quest to determine if her palate should remain steak-free

Words by Molly Longman

I’m looking at a dead cow.

On the outskirts of a feedlot in Chappell, Nebraska, population 926, the rotting carcass coalesces with the dirt. The brown of the hide blends with the muddy earth, morphing into one wasted, lifeless entity.

Cindy Williams, the co-owner and bookkeeper at Chappell Feedlot, is nervous. Only moments ago I divulged to her that I’m not only a journalist and former 4-H’er, but also a vegetarian, scouring her lot for facts that would reaffirm or refute my belief system about the treatment of animals within the beef industry.

I can’t help but hear Mufasa going all “circle of life” in the back of my mind as Williams tells me the feedlot’s death rate is under one percent. There’s panic in her voice as she says, “You don’t have to look at it,” while I crank my neck to stare at what will someday be part of my dog’s Purina.

This was the last thing I saw on my tour of Chappell. After spending a few hours chatting with Williams about the ins and outs of the beef industry, I came away fixated on one dead cow among approximately 7,500 other alive and mooing creatures. Williams explains that this inclination to be consumed by the small slivers of sadness in an industry that feeds the world is typical within the beef business. “One bad apple incident can ruin it for everyone,” she said. And she might be right.  

Mindful Eating

Most people don’t like to think about where their food comes from. They push their hot dogs’ humble beginnings into the far corners of their minds as they douse the rubbery skins in relish. I am not one of those people. I hate relish, and after spending a few years raising cows for 4-H, perhaps I spend too much time analyzing every bite I take. I read labels. I count calories. I pay the extra 92 cents for organic kettle chips.

I wanted to see for myself exactly where beef products come from. I wanted to follow a calf through its short life, starting on a family farm, proceeding to a feedlot, a slaughterhouse and finally landing on a table at Texas Roadhouse.

I also found myself craving steak. And not just regular steak. I wanted cool steak. Like triple-seared Kobe steak cut from one of those sake-massaged, beer-fed, Japanese Wagyu cows. The kind of steak that makes you drool all over your laminated menu. The kind that tastes like beefy champagne. The kind that makes you moan a little when you take a bite.

This would not a be a particularly phenomenal statement since I’m from Iowa, where we’re weaned on corn syrup and have myoglobins running through our nice, plump veins.

But it is. Because yesterday I was following PETA on Instagram and hadn’t eaten an ounce of red meat for two years. Yesterday, I was a socially conscious, liberally inclined vegetarian. But not one of those vegetarians who actually plays by the rules. A rebel vegetarian. I would occasionally throw chicken into my lettuce, and one time after Thanksgiving, I woke up in the middle of the night to eat leftover turkey. Trust me, tofurkey is a nightmare of dilapidate-in-your-mouth, Elmer-glue-flavored mush.

But red meat was different. I was being ethical. I saw a Steve-O video and—I won’t bore you with the details, but I truly thought that I was giving up on delicious, doused-in-evil animal byproducts because their manufacturing was inhumane.

But then I talked to Mike Nenneman.

A Cow Named Oreo

I met Nenneman in the middle of a field. It was harvest season, so he hardly had time to stop. He agreed to talk with me because I already had an in: he was from my hometown. He owned the cows I once named Oreo and Annabel. The cows I spent two frigid Iowa winters sledging through muck to care for. The cows I had nothing to show for now but a few purple ribbons and a sinking feeling in my stomach when I enjoyed steak or watched Humane Society ads. I climbed up into Nenneman’s monstrous green combine and chatted with him about cows, corn and people I used to know, while he distractedly harvested the golden-brown corn stalks.

“I’ve had cattle since I can remember, and I just can’t imagine doing anything else. It gets in your blood,” Nenneman said.

He sells most of the 100-head of cattle he shepherds to feedlots when they weigh “around 750 pounds.” He says he has some of the nicest heifers, bulls and steers in auction rings every year. He’s proud to raise quality beef and feed the world. After he sells his cows, they’ll go to a feedlot like Williams owns, where they’ll ramp up the grain intake, aiming for three pounds of gain every day, harvesting at least 1,200 pounds.

That night, I went to Nenneman’s cattle pens. I filled buckets with grain, pouring yellow waterfalls of it over fences into troughs—just like I’ve done a thousand times before. The Angus cows all have giant, deep black eyes that shimmer and look kind, but sometimes crazy. I thought of the cute way Oreo used to drag me through the mud. I couldn’t decide if I was feeling guilt or resentment as I buttered a new bull up for a feedlot.

Agriculture vs. the Media

When I arrived at the Chappell feedlot, Williams was hesitant to have me poking around. She worried I’d portray her family’s livelihood in a biased or unfair way. She feared that I’d talk about my experience out of context. She was probably concerned that I’d do something like start my story with a dead cow anecdote.

When she said “one bad apple” could ruin things, she wasn’t referring to the dead cow I saw. The apple represented the beef industry as a whole. It signified the few inhumane lots in a world full of regulated ones—the abusive exception to the rule that is often depicted of the industry.

But a few bad seeds in the cattle industry can ruin it for everyone.”

-Brad Skaar

Williams, Nenneman, and most feedlot operators agree that agriculture has a bad rap with the media, and vice versa. Brad Skaar, an associate professor of animal science at Iowa State University, thinks he knows why. Skaar put it to me like this: lots of good and bad people own dogs. And if a schnauzer owner abuses his dog, it’s horrible—but not everyone who owns a dog takes the rap for him. “But a few bad seeds in the cattle industry can ruin it for everyone. Feedlots aren’t hiding anything. They just have been misrepresented so many times by outlets like PETA they’d rather not take their chances with the media,” Skaar said. Feedlots don’t trust media reps not to tell their stories out of context, and media tend to be distrustful of feedlots because they’re not generally open operations. He says that if the two entities could both be more willing to work with each other, the “false stigma” that feedlot operations are inhumane might cease.

Skaar argues that spending all day, every day with cattle isn’t a job for someone who doesn’t like them. “You can’t work with animals every day and not love them,” Skaar said. But we don’t hear feedlot fairytales about happy cows very often—except maybe in Babybel cheese commercials. We hear from PETA reps like Emily Lavender who scare us.

My conversation with Lavender got real, fast. As we casually chatted about “third-degree burns” and “testicles … ripped out of their scrotums without pain meds,” I felt a little faint.

And yet, my time with Nenneman and Williams opened the door to an array of questions about how the meat industry is represented, and the role I play in said representation. It’s our job as journalists to tell stories. But it’s not news if someone feeds and cares for their beagle everyday like they’re supposed to; it’s news when they hit him with a baseball bat.

If you Google search “cow rights,” almost the entire first webpage consists of articles outlining reasons to “Go Veg!” When I was doing research two years ago, when I decided to give up meat, almost everything I read was one-sided. I didn’t find a lot of information on the pro-Kobe side of things. But it’s hard for news outlets to create that content—to tell a story that isn’t there.

One Out of Every 7,500

I did not have fun on my tour of the Chappell feedlot. It was cold. It smelled like a combination of a truck stop bathroom and my dog after she rolls in dead squirrel. But I’m glad I went. Seeing where my food was coming from actually made a part of me want to eat it more. It made me want to dive into some steak at Texas Roadhouse.

Though my time there was short, I learned a lot. I saw a lot. I tried not to breathe through my nose—a lot. Williams explained to me that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Environmental Protection Agency provide rules and formulas that enforce the humane treatment of animals. They determine how many cows can be in a pen so each animal has ample room. They also require every feedlot to have a “lagoon,” or literal lake of poop (not suitable for swimming) where manure and waste products go.

“We like to consider ourselves a cow bed-and-breakfast,” Williams said of the lot. “[Cows] mostly just come here and get to sleep and are feed two times a day until they move on.” Their next destination is the slaughterhouse. (The houses we reached out to declined to comment.)

The logical side of me knows that all cows die eventually—that is their purpose. The illogical side of me thinks we should let all cows be pets and take over the world.

Irresolution

The image of the decomposing calf at Chappell still bothers me. It makes me uncomfortable. But it makes me more uncomfortable that I can barely picture the thousands of fat, happy-looking cows I’d seen just minutes before. Letting the dead cow, the bad apple, color my entire experience at the lot was unfair.

To be honest, seeing the beef industry from a raw, up-close vantage point made me even more confused than ever. I think of the hard, honest work that Nenneman and Williams do every day, and I want to fill my freezer with filets. I also think of Oreo and want to stick to Bombsicles. So, sadly, I’m still confused by all this. But I did figure one thing out: You’ll never see the steaks in life if you only look for dead cows.