Saturday, March 12, 2011

Anyone for a burger with a side of E. coli?

The Blog Fodder had a post the other day about meatless Mondays at Bowdoin College in Maine. It got me to thinking about farming, food production, and cattle as an environmental issue, but naturally not in any sort of logical fashion. Instead I started thinking about nonpoint source pollution, the Shenandoah valley, and cow pies.

Back when I was in grad school, I spent a semester hanging out with agricultural engineers. Okay, I wasn't really hanging out -- I was completing a class assignment in qualitative research by doing a participant-observation study of identify formation within a particular profession. (I even got a published -- sort of [do conference proceedings count?] -- paper out of the experience: "Nobody Knows Who We Are: A Participant-Observation Study of an Agricultural Engineering Seminar"). Margaret Mead got to go to Samoa; I walked across the drill field to the Ag quad and sat in a seminar series sponsored by the ag engineering program at VaTech. It was fun. I came close to going native -- the ag engineers had some of the same problems we poor saps in Science and Technology Studies did (e.g., no respect). I learned all sorts of nifty bits of trivia, most of which I've managed to forget, although the presentation on Monte Carlo modelling to calculate how many cows you could graze on a field that drained into the Shenandoah and not create a health hazard did stick in my mind, even if I can't remember the answer. I also stumbled across some interesting tidbits in the history of technology that I thought would make great thesis topics. My committee had different ideas.

One of those topics was, in essence, the history of getting shit out of the barn. Literally. Dairy cattle used to be routinely confined to stalls for milking, first with cow chains (we still have cow chains hanging in our barn up on the tundra) and later with stanchions. Only one problem: cattle shit. Cattle shit a lot. They don't process grass quite as fast as geese, but they come close. So how do you deal with all that crap? For many, many years the answer was "gutters." You built a trench into the barn floor that would (hopefully) catch most of the fecal material and liquid waste. The liquid would run down the gutter and out; the more solid waste would get shoveled. Nineteenth century agricultural journals were full of designs for barn floors that had the ideal gutter shape and slope. Shovels were carefully crafted to fit the gutters just right -- and then someone had the brilliant idea of mechanical gutter systems, conveyors that would move the shit out the door and on to the manure heap. I really, really wanted to do a thesis on the history of barn cleaners; my committee said, in essence, "Shit? No." Anyway, year after year, decade after decade, the journals touted various mechanical gutter cleaning systems, zillions of patents got filed, and then. . . the ultimate breakthrough.

How about if instead of getting the shit out of the barn, they took out the cows and eliminated the barn? Enter the milking parlor: cows walked in, stood in one spot long enough to get milked, and walked out again. Instead of being in stalls waiting their turn, the beasts got to mill around on concrete pads that could be cleaned with a blade on a tractor or with a pressure hose and water.

On one level, this was brilliant. On another? Well, one of the basic laws of technology is that every innovation has consequences, some good, some bad. One of the effects of just about every innovation in agriculture has been to increase the costs of doing business: the guy with the shovel was a much lower initial investment than the mechanical gutter cleaner, and the gutter cleaner cost less upfront than putting in a milking parlor, just like milkmaids with pails were a much lower investment than a Surge milking system.  You start getting into economies of scale that require more livestock in order to break even. Herd size grows, various costs go up, profit margins shrink -- it's amazing anyone still wants to farm, especially on the industrial scale required today in order to be in compliance with various state and federal regulations.

And what does all this have to do with the title of the post?  Short verison: the more cattle (or hogs or chickens or livestock of any sort) you have to put together in one small space in order to make a profit from "farming," the bigger the pile of shit is going to be. That shit has to go somewhere -- and where it too often ends up is in rivers, lakes, and irrigation canals. A particularly virulent serotype of E. coli happens to enjoy living in cattle guts -- cattle shit pollutes irrigation ditch, irrigation water gets sprayed on lettuce, and, voila, you get served shiga toxin producing E. coli O157 with your salad.  

It really is a testament, in a weird way, to the efficiencies of our modern, highly industrialized food production system that E. coli are able to go from cattle gut to lettuce field to human consumption sufficiently quickly for the bacteria to still be viable. Coliform bacteria are anaroebic -- a couple days out in the open, exposed to sunlight and air, and they're dead.

So, yep, the kids at Bowdoin are right: cattle are an environmental problem. They're also a public health problem. Will meatless Mondays change that? I doubt it, but at least I understand some of the reasoning behind the attempt -- and when we have steak, maybe I'll skip the salad on the side.


  1. A wonderful blog. Thank you so much. Now you won't stop will you?

    The economics of mechanization are easy to explain. Regardless of the cost up front, they are cheaper than paying labour. Mechanization doesn't displace labour, it replaces it. The labour has already left for the city and a decent wage.

    And every new technological innovation has had a long term negative effect on income. The early adopters profit for a short time but as adoption spreads, it simply drives prices down and the bottom producers drop off. Which is why ag research should be publicly funded as it only benefits consumers in the long run.

    Is it really legal to spray liquid manure through irrigation pumps onto vegetable crops like lettuce? Gross. Spraying manure has been done onto cereal and forage crops by a few people that I know of but it creates horrible smell problems and too much of the nutrients are lost into the air. (Even spraying water is horribly inefficient. Most irrigation is converting to low pressure. Losing 40% of water is ridiculous).

    Injection is how most of it is going now. Much lower losses and much less smell.

    Farming is an industry and the scale is industrial too. Why people are afraid of the word factory farms is beyond me because that is exactly what they are. And all the OHS standards and regulations that apply to people in factories need to be applied to the animals too.

    The days of the calendar "farms" are long gone. Industrial farms need to be regulated and the regulations enforced to prevent abuses, pollution etc. Same as any other industry.

  2. It's not legal in the US (so far as I know) to spray liquid manure on crops like lettuce, but it's fairly easy for irrigation canal water to become contaminated in areas that have livestock operations and produce farms side by side, like California's Central Valley.

  3. Cattle shit a lot

    And they don't care where they shit. About eight miles east of here there is a dairy farmer that creates a lot of cow shit, and sprays it on the fields to fertilize them, of course everyone around him have wells, so you know they are damn concerned.

    I had a burger at Granny's the other day, told the cook to cook it on the light side, she damn sure did, it was red in the center, I didn't give a shit, I ate it anyway, it was good.

    Tear off its horn's, wipe its ass and herd it in here and I'll eat it. :-)

    I think the only way to avoid problems with shit is to require such places to be some distance from water sources and others.

    Maybe it won't be wars and natural disasters that do us all in, maybe it will be all the shit.

  4. Burn your shit, burn your shit, hahahaha

  5. my plumber was right...shit does run down hill.

  6. I remember reading once that chickens were boxed up and grown for five glorious weeks during which their poop was liquefied and reprocessed via the chicken feed back into the chickens right before we ate them. It was all very efficient. In general, our food, as well as our "food," is too cheap for our own good.

  7. We continue to be very good at shooting ourselves in the foot and trying to regulate it well again.

  8. I don't know if chickens end up ending their own droppings, but for sure chicken poop does get processed into cattle feed.

  9. but for sure chicken poop does get processed into cattle feed.

    For the nitrogen?


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