Before the invention of the light bulb, chickens stopped laying in the fall and started laying again in the spring around Easter time. It takes twelve hours of light to stimulate egg production, and when natural daylight falls below that in the fall the chicken stops producing eggs.
At the first light of dawn the chicken brain releases a hormone that induces the release of the yolk into the oviduct. It then takes 25 hours to make the rest of the egg around the yolk. Most of this time is involved in making the shell. The ovulating hormone isn’t released again until the egg is laid. Each succeeding egg is laid an hour later until the early afternoon. Production skips a day, then starts again in the early morning. Good layers lay six or seven eggs in a row before skipping a day.
Now with light bulbs chickens can lay eggs year around, but they still need a rest. The feathers get old and worn and aren’t replaced until the bird stops laying and molts. Egg production is at its peak at the beginning of lay and gradually decreases. When it drops to 40 per cent the birds are either sold as spent hens or molted and production begins again.
Chickens running loose hide their eggs in the bushes. The hunt for Easter eggs is an old tradition. Wild rabbits come out of their burrows in the spring just as the eggs appear. The Easter bunny is laying eggs! Chocolate eggs. Where did that come from? Who cares, its all good fun.
In the early days of the republic ninety per cent of the people lived and worked on farms. Today less than two per cent do. The ninety eight per cent who don’t are now subject to endless stories about what really happens on these mysterious farms, some true, but most wildly exaggerated or even outright fabrications.
One of the silliest stories, cow tipping, has been around for years but keeps coming back. Based on the fact that cows can sleep standing up, the story goes that people go out in the middle of the night, sneak up on a cow and tip it over. Then the cow can’t get up! Horses can also sleep standing up. Why don’t we hear stories of horse tipping? Consider that the average adult cow weighs 700 pounds. It would take more than a gentle push to tip one over without waking it up. Cows are light sleepers. It wouldn’t be easy to sneak up on one in the first place. And if it happens to be a bull you’re in big trouble. Can’t get up? Of course it can. Just because a cow can sleep standing up doesn’t mean it always does. Drive by any dairy and you can see that most cows sleep lying down and don’t have any trouble getting up.
Then there are the stories about how cruel and inhumane raising cows for veal is. Allegedly the cows are kept in the dark and not allowed to move just to keep their meat pale and tender. And they are deliberately kept iron deficient to keep the meat pale. Most people telling this don’t even know what veal is, the meat from milk-fed calves four months of age and younger. This definition is written into our laws. One of the cow’s four stomachs, the omasum, is used to digest milk. This stomach closes up around four months of age and the calf is no longer able to live on milk. Most of the photos allegedly showing how veal is produced are of animals over eight months old.
All calves are born with pale, tender flesh, and it continues to be pale and tender until they are weaned off of their milk diet no matter how they are raised. This should be moot by now – the public stopped buying veal over 30 years ago. Most slaughter houses stopped accepting calves for slaughter. When was the last time you saw veal in the grocery store? The few veal producers still left have stopped using crates and are hand feeding their calves. But the issue keeps coming up.
Greenhouse gases are another issue. Cows have been accused of being the greatest source of methane on the planet. Actually this distinction belongs to tropical rain forests. All plant material, not just that passed through cows, decays into carbon dioxide and methane. No one is clamoring to cut down the forests, for good reason. All of the greenhouse gases released by forest decay were taken out of the air in the first place. Why can’t people consider that the same is true of cows? This cycle, beneficial to both plants and animals, has been going on for billions of years. This isn’t true of fossil fuels. No one has yet recycled carbon dioxide back into gasoline. The effect of burning fossil fuels on greenhouse gases is cumulative. Blame it on cows? Look again.
“Factory Farms” has become a pejorative term for modern large scale farming, but virtually all farms in America are factories turning out an assembly line product for sale. The old self sufficient family farms that produced their own food and clothing are a thing of the distant past.
For California dairies there is little real difference between the huge “factory” dairies and the alternative “organic” dairies. Both are the same size and follow the same general practices. The only real difference is that organic dairies offer grass pasture and don’t use hormones or antibiotics.
Would this country really be better off with a return of the old, smaller dairies and poultry farms that once were prevalent? My grandfather had a seven cow dairy in Northern California that was far from ideal. The cows were milked by hand and he didn’t wash his hands. Every day the manure in the milk barn was swept into the small creek that ran behind the barn. Six of the cows regularly showed up at milking time, but he always had to go looking for the seventh one, beating her with a stick to drive her in. He used a hand crank cream separator to separate the cream from the skim milk. He sold the cream to the creamery truck that came by once a week and fed the skim milk to his hogs. He had no refrigeration for the cream. Were he in operation today the health department would shut him down.
Replacing one 7,000 cow dairy with 1,000 seven cow dairies would be a regulatory nightmare, not to say a giant step backward in animal welfare. As long as people drink milk and eat ice cream the dairies will be here.
Few diseases have inflamed the public as much as so-called Mad Cow Disease. The name did it. The official name Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE just didn’t register. When the first case in the U.S. appeared in 2003, sales of beef dropped by one-third overnight. Slaughterhouse buyers stopped buying at the salesyards. The panic lasted less than a week, but the damage continued. Now the rest of the world quarantined exports of U.S. beef.
Ironically, control measures already in place had succeeded in stopping the spread of BSE by the time it first appeared in the U.S. New cases dropped rapidly around the world. But the disease remains undetected eight years or longer before the symptoms appear and the only method of diagnosis required examining the brain.
The first case of BSE occurred in the United Kingdom in 1986 and rapidly became an epidemic in that country. Countries around the world, including the U.S., quarantined beef and cow imports from that country. The disease had already spread to Ireland, France and Germany, and these countries were quarantined as well. The U.S. used import records to identify almost 600 cows imported from the UK before the quarantine was in effect. They could only find 200 of these, destroyed them, and found no evidence of the disease.
It took almost a year to identify the new disease as a prion disease, spread by a transmittable protein without any DNA. The very existence of prions was still highly controversial in the scientific community. The BSE prions were present only in the brain and spinal chord. Early studies established that BSE was not transmitted from cow to cow. It took almost three more years to find the source of transmission, meat and bone meal containing rendered cow brains that was then included in the cattle feed. This came as a shock to the average consumer who had no idea that cows were fed cow meat.
Rendering (cooking) dead animals of all kinds to produce tallow and meat and bone meal had been around for over a century. It became the standard method for disposing of dead animals, including dogs and cats killed at animal shelters. A very profitable business, rendering works paid livestock owners for their dead animals and even sent trucks to pick them up. Now they faced requirements to remove the brain and spinal chord from cows before rendering. Most just chose to stop accepting dead cows.
Now what? What do you do with a dead cow? Burial was banned in most of the U.S. over concerns of contaminated groundwater, and landfills wouldn’t accept them for the same reason. The U.S. government backed off and settled on a ban on feeding meat and bone meal to cows. This was extended to poultry and pigs when they found that some chicken feed made its way into cow rations.
But what do you do with the meat and bone meal now? A once profitable product, it now was practically useless. The tallow could still be sold as grease for a variety of commercial uses, but the profitability of rendering had dropped. Half of the rendering works went out of business, and those that remained now charged a minimum of $100 to pick up a dead cow.
With quarantines in place and a worldwide ban on feeding meat and bone meal, the UK remained the only country with a full blown epidemic of BSE. Before it was over, 134,000 cases of BSE were found in the UK and another 4.4 million cows were killed to contain it. Ninety-four per cent of all BSE in the world occurred in the UK.
The question still remained – what if it’s there and we’re just not looking for it? To answer this question the U.S., Canada, and other countries initiated surveillance programs in 1990 to examine brains from cows at slaughter plants. The disease is undetectable in cows under two years of age, 90 per cent of the cows going to slaughter in the U.S. Downer cows were selected as most likely to have the disease, but even there the likelihood was low. Most downer cows go down because they slipped, not from any disease. Meat inspector veterinarians already examined cows at entry to the slaughterhouse and held visibly sick and downer cows over to the end of the day to be slaughtered just before the plant was hosed down and disinfected for the day. It was an easy matter to once a week pick a representative sample of heads to be examined. The numbers to be sampled were dictated by the federal government according to statistical calculations. It would have been far too expensive to examine every downer cow. Japan decided to examine every cow over two years old that they slaughtered, but they weren’t dealing with the hundreds of millions of cows slaughtered each year in the U.S.
I was included in the surveillance training program and taught how to use a peach pitter to take a brain sample. Most of the actual sampling was done by livestock inspectors. Then California passed a law banning downer cows from slaughter houses and the cows were sent directly to the renderer. If you think slaughter houses smell bad, the rendering works is ten times worse. But we survived. No BSE was ever found through surveillance. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, just that the possibility was lower than what was considered significant. To date nine BSE cases have been found in the U.S. and another seventeen in Canada. No one would be surprised if another one or two cases showed up, but the expectation is that we are close to the end of it. 2010 saw only five new cases of BSE in the entire world.
Another prion disease, Kuru, was once common in headhunters in New Guinea. They got it from eating the brains of their victims. The disease continued to appear for many years after the British banned headhunting, not because of any illegal headhunting, but because it took so long for symptoms to appear. Kuru is now just a curious historical footnote. Let’s hope that BSE will be, too.