Book Review - Cowed

Photograph by Ivan Dupont / Moment Open / Getty Images

Whether or not you eat beef or consume dairy, America's relationship with cattle is incredibly important to understand. In terms of sheer numbers, there are over 89.8 million head of cattle in the US. That's nearly one cow for every three people!

When measuring America's impact on the environment, understanding the beef and dairy industry is critical. According to a report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, cattle account globally for 5.8 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. In beef-hungry America, the average person's annual beef consumption equates to driving 1,800 miles. (That’s just greenhouse gases; we're not even talking about pollution.) And a single pound of beef takes about 1,800 gallons to produce. If you want to get truly informed about the state of the cattle industry and how we could improve it to be more sustainable, there's no more exhaustive book out there than Cowed  by Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes.

For people who care a lot about sustainable animal husbandry, it's great to read a book as on-message as Cowed. The authors are very clear about their conclusions, as summed up in the following passage from the introduction: 

"Was writing about cows a good way to spend our time? We decided it would be... if we propose some solutions."

Their solution: "Our proposal is affordable and simple... All it requires is that enough like-minded people seek out organic dairy products and grass-fed-and-finished beef. Most people can do this without bursting their budgets by reducing their beef and dairy consumption to levels that are better for their health." 

Works for us. Have questions about these recommendations? That's where the rest of the book comes in.

It's best to think of Cowed as required reading in a course on sustainable beef and dairy. It serves as a great source for those who are concerned about issues like animal welfare, food safety, agricultural pollution and farmworkers rights but feel like they need more information. After reading Cowed you'll have all the background needed to convince most anyone that the primary way we raise cattle is unacceptable. From the most disgusting details of the handling of manure to the most disturbing examples of systemic animal-welfare abuses, Cowed collects the unsavory facts about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and relates them with a refreshingly clear-eyed tone that shocks but doesn’t offend or exaggerate.

Cowed really shines when it lingers on the surprising details. I was blown away by the section titled "Cows Move Right into Our Homes" in which the authors outline every typical household product that has an ingredient sourced from the body of a cow. If you think being a vegetarian just means skipping the meat course at dinner, you've got another thing coming. Cattle-based products have made their way into everything from personal care products like makeup and deodorant; to construction materials like paint and sheetrock; to even film, antifreeze and the foam in fire extinguishers. Absolutely mind blowing! 

The other focus of the book is profiling ranchers and dairy operators who are doing it "right" or are on the path to get there. For example, we meet Jon and Juli Bansen who are members of the Organic Valley co-op. Jon is a third generation dairy operator with a degree in biology. The couple began an organic dairy years ago and have since paid off a half million dollars in debt and enjoy a good income. The Bansens care about their milk cows and ensure they’re clean, safe and pretty happy. Jon’s the kind of farmer to say things like: “If getting cancer from [pesticide] sprays isn’t an economic issue, I don’t know what is…” Our kind of guy.

Cowed also features Jann Roney who manages the Pu’u O Hoku Ranch in Hawai’i. Instead of retiring, Roney returned to her farming roots and manages the idyllic ranch for its owner. Jann and the Pu’u O Hoku are committed to protecting its cattle and rehabilitating its land. Alongside these farmers, Cowed highlights the work of other innovators and sustainable producers, each with a drive for success and an interest in doing things better than the conventional industry at large.

However, by the end of the book, a concerning pattern becomes clear among the majority of the farmers that the authors feature: almost all of them benefit from circumstances that differ from many American farmers. Most of the farmers profiled in Cowed had other jobs, inherited their land, went to college or have backgrounds that afforded them opportunities unavailable to the majority of family farmers.

By learning from the sustainable ranchers and dairy operators championed by Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes, we have in hand the exceptions that should become the rule.

According to the USDA’s “Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2014 Edition” 86 percent of family farmers have either low-sales farms, work an off-farm job or are retired. In 2011, the median income for these family farm households was $51,010, just about $1,000 above the median income for all US households.

In other words, about half of the vast majority of family farmers earned less than half of their fellow Americans. By no means is the point that Jon, Juli, Jann and the other beef and dairy producers in Cowed  have it easy or that their struggles are less worthy of praise. Farming is tough work and being successful is even tougher. The point, and one that is also made throughout Cowed, is that it’s difficult to expect most family farmers to be able to implement necessary sustainable practices without significant changes made to US agricultural policy.

Our agricultural system isn’t making a strong enough effort to incentivize responsible innovation, encourage research into sustainability and - most importantly - empower small farmers to transition to higher quality, more sustainable practices. Instead of passing tax money to Big Ag via subsidies, the USDA should be making the transition to sustainable farming and husbandry easy and the road to organic certification as low-cost as possible.

To better understand the practices that should be incentivized and the changes to the system that should be implemented, Cowed is an invaluable resource. By learning from the sustainable ranchers and dairy operators championed by Dennis Hayes and Gail Boyer Hayes, we have in hand the exceptions that should become the rule.