Any traveler who has spent time in rural Western Oklahoma or the Texas Panhandle knows what a CAFO is.
As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation where "animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs generally congregate animals, feed, manure, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures."
Some Oklahoma farmers are trying to find a way around both the problem of overcrowding and the simple economics of raising typical cattle. They're doing it by raising smaller breeds that can subsist for their entire lives on grass alone.
Cattle rancher Linda McKay runs the AAA Lowlines operation in Noble. She started raising "Lowline" Angus cattle in 2001, just five years after the breed was introduced in the U.S.
"I thought about raising Longhorn cattle," McKay said, "but I knew I was going to be doing all of my own work, and Longhorns are notoriously hard on fences. That's when I stumbled on the Lowlines. It's been a good deal for me."
"Lowlines" are actually just Aberdeen Angus cattle, of Certified Angus Beef fame. Started as a research project in 1974 in Australia, Lowline cattle were selectively bred from a herd of Angus show stock to convert food more efficiently to muscle. Cows of the Lowline breed are different from "miniature" cattle, as they are not dwarf specimens but rather have been bred to their current small size.
The name Lowline refers to their "low line" in the breeding chart, as the cattle were divided by size into three groups: the smaller ones designated "Lowline," the larger animals designated "Highline," and a control group.
"The beef industry has now realized that they've created a whole race of giant cattle that cannot sustain themselves," McKay said. "Lowlines are the quickest way to downsize and, at the same time, improve meat quality and efficiency on grass."
Jerry Billingsley of Norman agrees.
"What has happened to the Angus breed through the years is that we have mongrelized the breed and bred so much exotic blood into it, they've gotten bigger and bigger and less efficient," he said.
The larger breeds of cattle that comprise nearly the entirety of the beef industry have diets primarily of grain and hay or silage, in addition to grass. The term "grass-fed" has become increasingly popular as a selling point in beef, but most CAFOs are too crowded and polluted for any vegetation to grow, meaning the cattle require a constant diet of grain.
"Last winter, I looked at some cows "¦ and these cows weighed 1,800 pounds. In the middle of winter," Billingsley said. "There's nothing efficient about that."
Lowlines, by comparison, will "marble," or grow the intermuscular fat that makes for a good steak, just living their entire lives on grass and with little or no dietary supplement. McKay said she feeds grain by-product cubes to her younger stock, but weans them off when they are about a year old. Unlike the larger beef stock on most farms, Lowline cattle only grow to between 38 and 48 inches in height, and weigh anywhere between 700 and 1,500 pounds.
"They look like the cow on the Sirloin Stockade sign," said Fittstown Lowline rancher Bruce Dennis, who runs 50 Lowline cattle on 100 acres. He said that Lowlines are an excellent resource for anyone looking to raise smaller cattle. "We sold some to an older gentleman who can no longer handle a full-size herd," he said. "They are very gentle animals."
Dennis said it's a "breeder's market," as interest in Lowline cattle increases, and he has a waiting list for people who want a cow to slaughter for freezer beef.
Billinglsey said he hasn't heard a lot of interest in the Lowline Angus from the American Angus Association, the group that created the "Certified Angus Beef" campaign, but he believes there is a future in Lowline cattle that will prove attractive as economic pressures force some ranchers to look for new methods.
"I think we're going to have to look at replacing some of the current operations with these Lowlines," he said. "Most farmers and ranchers don't have 10,000 acres, and don't run several thousand mama cows. Most farms are much, much smaller than that. I think that the Lowline genetics can be the future of the Angus breed, to get a smaller, more efficient animal that will produce more pounds of beef more efficiently."
"These cows have what I call those 'golden Angus genetics,'" she said. "We're selling them to reproduce because they contain those original genetics that the old-time Angus was famous for. That's their kick: to cross them into today's cattle. It'll downsize and improve the meat quality." "Nathan Gunter