Few living creatures are as carefully engineered as a milk cow. Like an interchangeable part, it’s been streamlined and tinkered to perform a single task with monotonous precision. Farmers and breeders have fabricated these beasts to carry bloated udders with teats sculpted to match milking machines that power commercial dairy farms. These bulging sacs swell to such enormously unnatural proportions that many cows, in moments of fatigue, will suddenly collapse, their hips yanked to the floor by the udder’s bulging heft, forcing the owner to haul them onto their wobbly legs with a forklift. Farmers further refine these beasts by searing their incipient horns into small nubs with a scalding iron. This alteration diminishes injuries when the cows are packed in line to be milked. Farm hands dock tails to lessen the manure that cows fling at the milking machine operators. Newborn calves have a magnet installed in their necks to catch the potentially intestine-destroying metal pieces that combines invariably grind into their corn. In every way imaginable, milk cows are sculpted to fit into a system that literally milks them for all their worth before sending them off to an ignoble finish. Indeed, after 18 months and 3000 milkings, the cows are slaughtered for beef that’s so tough only fast food restaurants will touch the stuff.
Peter Lovenheim purchased three calves from an upstate New York dairy farm as a premise for describing these sort of details while documenting his calves’ journey from “conception to consumption.” Through a blend of objective reporting and personal narrative, he tactfully weaves into a compelling story the interrelated experiences of the cows, their handlers, and the larger industry that churns them into butter, milk, cheese, and beef. Rather then grind a political ax, as Eric Schlosser does with admirable precision in Fast Food Nation, Lovenheim–who knew nothing about cattle before this project–places the routine activity on livestock farms in the more neutral context of his own emotional reactions to cows #7 and #8 (one of his calves dies after birth). The result is a strange but fascinating and honest book whose flaws are as forgivable as the ambivalence one might feel when consuming the likes of # 7 and #8.
“I’m getting a little obsessed about the fate of my calves,” Lovenheim admits as the planned April slaughter date approaches. His obsession feels genuine, and it thus opens a door onto a world that complicates the mundane act of buying a gallon of milk or biting into a fat burger. If nothing else, the book makes you think about where your food comes from.
It would be comforting to imagine that our meat and dairy products had their ultimate origin in a raucous act of bovine copulation out in a green pasture, the breeze blowing on a warm afternoon, heifer and bull doing what comes naturally. But that would overlook the role that Genex plays in cattle reproduction. With more than 300 technicians and annual sales of $68 million in cow semen, Genex artificially inseminates over 10 percent of the nation’s dairy cows. Lovenheim writes, “If you have eaten a hamburger lately, there is about a one-in-eight chance that the biological father of the dairy cow from which part of the meat came was a Genex bull.”
Artificial insemination is about as romantic as a root canal. You can forget the formalities of courting: the first step is to help the bull generate a sustained erection. To initiate this process, a few dozen bulls are led into a compact “collection ring” where a handful of “jump stock”–castrated bulls whose semen once proved substandard (Lovenheim calls them “prison bitches”)–await the indignity of being humped by a raging bull. Lovenheim, when he visited a Genex demonstration, observed a bull named Bonanza at work.
Here is what he reports:
Bonanza leaped again onto 339’s back. [339 is a prison bitch; prison bitches don’t enjoy the privilege of a name]. . . On Bonanza’s third mounting, his penis became erect and aimed near 339’s rump, but soon retracted. …. Suddenly, Bonanza reared up on his hind legs and leaped onto the mount . . . The semen collector took a position on Bonanza’s right side, holding the artificial vagina in his outstretched hand.
That’s right, artificial vagina. Evidently it doesn’t take much for a twelve-hundred pound bull to ejaculate, so “a long tube about the size of a rolled-up wall poster” heated to 120 degrees and affixed with a ring of warm water at the base usually does the trick. The semen collector removes the jar at the end of the device and takes the semen to a lab where a technician dilutes it with whole milk and feeds it into hundreds of insemination straws the size of a thin straw. A new team of specialists then inserts the straws into heifers that have been marked as experiencing estrus. (Literally marked. Cattle farmers cover their heifers’ backs with reddish dust so that when a perceptive but impotent steer mounts her she’ll leave a tell-tale scarlet blaze across his chest, thereby signaling to the farmer that it’s high time for some Bonanza juice.) The semen collected from one ejaculation is worth about $80,000. Bonanza’s yearly wad adds up to about $2 million in sales.
So that’s conception. At times, the road to consumption is paved with similarly prurient and indulgent attention to detail. Too often, though, using his calves as a gimmicky pretext to illuminate what amounts to a grim underworld, Lovenheim redundantly documents the inhumanity of an industry that a new breed of neo-muckraking journalists has already spent the last five years exposing. If you’ve read Schlosser, kept up with the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and Harper’s, Lovenheim’s muck will seem a tad raked over, as well as tentative and antiseptic. His real strength, however, is not so much in restating the obvious brutality of the slaughterhouse as it is in capturing the emotional vicissitudes experienced by the men, women, and children who work in the industry that feeds it. Lovenheim relishes the rock-ribbed pragmatism that distances workers from the nature of their work. “When they’re done, they’re hamburger,” a Genex technician says of the retired sires. When a bull erupts into an especially loud bellow, Lovenheim asks a farm hand what it means. “I don’t know,” says the man, annoyed with the implication that it might mean anything at all. “I don’t have the slightest idea what he might be saying.” A man who drives from farm to farm putting bullets into the heads of sick cows says of his job, “It’s a paycheck.” When asked what she’ll do with an infertile cow, Sue Smith, a farmer that Lovenheim came to know quite well explains, “Beef her.” None of this hardness, however, softens Lovenheim’s conceptualization of his calves in human terms. Observing his cows one afternoon, he wonders:
“If my calf is thinking, what is he thinking on this cold day? Does he recall his mother, 4923, licking his face? Does he long for her? I wonder how being removed from his mother and being raised for the first two months tethered by himself inside this hale bale hutch might affect his personality.”
Personality? For real? Lovenheim’s sensitivity to the macabre fate of his animals becomes increasingly understandable as he encounters industry workers who lack the customary emotional hardness and routinely submit to sympathies for the livestock they slaughter. “I eat hamburger,” Susan Smith’s twenty-year old daughter says, “but I wouldn’t eat one of those cows [she points to a pen] because they’re mine and I’ve seen them since I was little.”
At times, Susan herself feels similar attachments. Discussing the one calf she ever saw fit to name (“Wart”), she explains, “I should have culled her, but couldn’t . . . I didn’t have the heart to send her to market.” For Lovenheim, these expressions validate his own incipient emotional attraction to his cows. And gradually, predictably, we find that the author is no longer observing his cows. He’s interacting with them.
In a typical minuet, man and beast touch:
[S]he approaches, her nostrils now inches from my nose. Her mouth hangs. I can see the bumps, papillae, on her pink tongue. She lowers her head half an inch and quickly licks twice under my chin. Her rough tongue scrapes against the light stubble of hair on my neck. It hurts some, her coarseness against mine. I let the moisture dry on my skin.
It’s easy to roll your eyes at such a scene. As it is when Lovenheim gets out of a folding chair in the barn and observes that “just after I’d gotten up to leave, I saw him go over to the chair and sniff it up and down.” Or when, touring a shelter for neglected farm animals, he remarks, “I have to say that if I were a cow or steer, this is where I’d want to live out my days.” And then there’s the afternoon when “8 takes my whole hand into my mouth,” of which he notes, “It’s warm in there, the inside of a cow’s mouth.”
But the forthright tone that consistently grounds this narrative makes Lovenheim’s slightly overdrawn humanization of these beasts a perfectly plausible reaction. Lovenheim writes with enough honest attention to both his external environment and the texture of his own emotional terrain that the cows slowly begin to matter in some vague or at least canine kind of way. And as April approaches, he’s supposed to kill the things.
Conception to consumption. Does Lovenheim keep his promise? His coyness on the matter is convincing. On the one hand he talks as if he’s going to do the dirty deed himself and spend the next year clad in leather chaps and eating the juicy meat of his beloved cows. On the other, he’s beginning to succumb to the suasions of an ashram guru who opines, “Grow fuckin’ tomatoes instead!” In the end, his decision comes when he sits down to eat a burger that he’s just grilled. He goes to eat but is distracted by the image of a cow’s “black head, short horns sticking straight out to either side, and the long curly hair on top of his head.” He puts the burger down. On his second attempt he recalls the work that his farmer friends put into raising his cows and feels he would be letting them down. “Peter [a farmer] opened work and his life to me,” he writes, “and I want to honor his labor.” It is in the mist of these conflicting impulses that he brings the burger back to his mouth for a third time.
The bite he takes might surprise you.
James McWilliams has developed a craving for salads these days.