National Geographic : 2014 Nov
120 national geographic • november 2014 Administration banned the practice in 1997. In the media a consensus began to form about feed yards: They were cruel, disgusting, and unnatu- ral hellholes, like 14th-century London, Michael Pollan wrote in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “teem- ing and filthy and stinking, with open sewers, unpaved roads, and choking air rendered visible by dust.” Only massive use of antibiotics kept the plagues at bay. In the truck one day I asked Defoor about zil- paterol, a controversial feed additive that makes cattle gain extra weight. He began his answer by asking me to “assume that Mike Engler and Paul Defoor are not evil people.” It sounded odd—but it was a reflection of the great disconnect that ex- ists in America between the people who consume meat and the people who produce most of it. Defoor is a tall, slender man of 40, with a weathered face and a taste for explaining re- condite things like ruminant nutrition—he has a Ph.D. in the subject from Texas Tech. Rid- ing around the panhandle in his pickup, I got to know him a bit. We visited the 320 acres he owns outside Canyon, where he goes after work to plow his wheat field or feed his own small herd of cows and calves. We talked about macro- economics and the role of government. We even talked about God once or twice. It concerned Defoor that I was on distant terms with Him. It concerned me that Defoor, a deeply scien- tific man, wasn’t much bothered about climate change. We agreed to keep our minds open. Defoor was raised on a small farm north of Houston, where his family grew all their own food and sold some as well. “We had cows, we had chickens, we had goats,” he says. It seems to him now that he was always picking peas; they had a few acres of them. He doesn’t miss that life. It’s not how you feed the world, he says. It’s not how you increase people’s standard of liv- ing, starting with the 500 people who work for Cactus. You do those things by using technology to increase productivity and decrease waste. Forty-nine people work full-time at Wran- gler Feedyard, says Walt Garrison, the manag- er. It takes just seven to operate the automated the perfect place for feedlots. Besides abundant cattle, it had a warm, dry climate that allowed them to grow fast—they waste energy in cold and mud—and plenty of grain. Over the next few decades the panhandle became the feedlot capital of the world. Engler started Cactus Feeders in 1975 and built it into the world’s largest cattle-feeding company. (It’s now the second largest.) The way Engler saw it, his company’s mission was to make beef cheap enough for all. “My father didn’t know anyone who didn’t like the taste of beef,” says Mike Eng- ler, the current CEO. “But he knew people who couldn’t afford it.” From the beginning, though, the business faced headwinds: In 1976 per capita beef con- sumption peaked in the United States at 91.5 pounds a year. It has since fallen more than 40 percent. Last year Americans ate on average 54 pounds of beef each, about the same amount as a century ago. Instead we eat twice as much chicken as we did in 1976 and nearly six times as much as a century ago. It’s cheaper and sup- posedly better for our hearts. We slaughter more than eight billion chickens a year now in the U.S., compared with some 33 million cattle. A friendly, unassuming man of 63, Mike Eng- ler is an unlikely cattle baron. When his father was starting Cactus, Mike was at Johns Hopkins University getting a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He went on to do research at Harvard and the Uni- versity of Texas. After 24 years away, he came back to Amarillo in 1993—a traumatic year for the beef industry. Four children died and hun- dreds of people were sickened by hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants that had been con- taminated by a virulent strain of E. coli. After that came the mad-cow scare; no one yet has gotten the human variant of the brain- wasting disease from American beef, but Ameri- cans learned that livestock protein, which can spread the disease if contaminated, had often been fed to cattle until the Food and Drug The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles.