“No,” Donnell said. “Please God, no.”
The average American at the backyard grill who cares to think about the steak sizzling before him may imagine little beyond the packinghouse, where meat is cut and shrink-wrapped, or perhaps the feedlot, where beef cattle fatten up on corn on their way to market. But those are only two stops—relatively short and highly industrialized stops—in a long process. Before they get to the feedlot, cattle live the lives their bodies were built for: grazing beside their mothers on endless pastures at ranches called “cow-calf operations.” These are independent ranches, about 750,000 of them in the United States, most of them with fewer than 50 head. The R. A. Brown Ranch, which has 2,000-odd head, belongs to a subset of these ranches that specialize in breeding: the “seed-stock providers.” They begin the beef production chain. The cowboys who run them are the inventors, the tinkerers who choose the genetics that determine the qualities of America’s tenderloin, rib eye, sirloin, filet mignon and burgers.
April marks the earliest days in a commercial cow’s life, and arguably the happiest. The calves at the R. A. Brown Ranch, just 6 to 8 weeks old, have been tagged and vaccinated, and now wander freely, chewing the wild grasses of Texas. The sunrise is so red it fills the sky with stripes of fire and turns the cowboy hats pink. Jeff Bezner, a 29-year-old cowboy with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair, glasses and an air of sparkling innocence, has the back of this cattle drive, while two other cowboys take the flanks. They keep the cattle in a clump, pushing them from pasture to paddock. Herding cows is not difficult, especially Red Angus, famously gentle and polite. (For a good time, try wrestling up some Brahmans.) The cows thunder obediently through the buffalo grass as the cowboys’ horses amble and the men occasionally wave their arms, letting out a “Wheeet, wheeeet,” or “Get on now, gals!”
“I never said nothing about love,” Jeff says to his team, referring to the love he has, in fact, been talking about all morning. (Jeff wants a wife.) A cowboy on a cattle drive has time to ponder such matters.
“You’ve known her for a whole six days!” one shoots back.
“Eight,” Jeff says, slapping his chaps. “I’m telling you, she’s awesome.” He whistles through his teeth. The cattle move as one, a rumbling blanket of rolling amber, humming their lazy cow songs: aaaroooom, aaaroooom, aaaroooom.
Beef, even now, is still personal, is cultural, is cowboys.
It isn’t like pork or poultry. Commercial pigs and chickens live their whole lives in industrial-size barns. Beef, in its beginning stages, will never be produced that way because a simple fact remains: all cows eat grass. You need land to grow calves. Lots and lots of land. That land is divided among many owners. Beef production is unlike any other agricultural industry in that it has remained utterly dependent on the family farm or the extended-family farm, manned by the same people who sing in the church choirs and run the school boards and football leagues that knit the fabric of small towns like Throckmorton. Beef production is the largest single segment of American agriculture, a $76 billion industry, and yet more than 97 percent of U.S. cattle ranches are family-owned and -operated.
The average American eats 62 pounds of beef a year, or almost three ounces a day, and shows no sign of slowing down; as a group, Americans regularly consume more than 27 billion pounds a year. This is, in part, a function of food science and the seed-stock providers: beef keeps getting tastier.
Beef is simultaneously low and high tech. Past necessarily coexisting with future. Because of the cowboys and because of the human desire for better meat.