By Elizabeth Wyss
Well-prepared, experienced stock show families select their show steers in October and start breaking them to lead. While the Wyss family is experienced, we were rarely well prepared.
There’s a lot of beef to butcher in October, so more often than not, my show steers were selected in February and freshly halter broken by the Cole County Fair. Despite the fact that our main selection criterion was disposition, we usually weren’t embarrassed by how my steers placed in the show.
While it may sound morbid to some, I always wanted to eat a steak off my show steers, and as the local butcher’s daughter, my request for the scrappy end ribeye from Otis or Dale (my steers had great names) was often fulfilled. I knew that becoming delicious steaks was a show steer’s purpose. So, if the ribeye I ate was delicious, the show season was a success. In return for my hard (albeit last-minute) work, someone got a freezer full of delicious beef.
While you may think that eating something I named and took care of might not win me any points with people who are considering vegetarianism, I’ve had several conversations with my “city friends” in college where my steer stories helped prove the humanity of eating meat.
Show steers are the most spoiled animals I have ever seen. They get hand-fed every day, petted, bathed and brushed. They get all the special attention of a pet with all the luxury of a special place in the barn. They get fawned over by children on the fairgrounds and scratched on the belly during the show. I spent a lot of time with my steers from February to July, but I never cried when they went on the trailer after the fair. I was glad to see them go, sometimes because they had kicked me in the show ring, but mostly because my steers would be on their way to serving their purpose. My family bred our show steers for carcass quality, so I knew that they would feed someone well. Their whole pampered lives had led to this higher purpose.
At this point in the discussion, my potentially vegetarian friends say something like, “But why would you ever kill a cow that was like your pet?”
If I took Otis or Dale home from the Cole County Fair and put them back in the barn and kept hand feeding them, they would get fat. They would get old. They wouldn’t get enough exercise, even if I walked them every day. The older and fatter a steer gets, the worse its joints, mobility and overall health become. Before I knew it, Otis and Dale, my spoiled pets, would be miserable. If I didn’t let them serve their freezer-filling purpose, they would suffer, and nobody wants their pets to suffer.
As far as humane slaughtering goes, I know that the way any respectable butcher slaughters their animals involves no suffering and spares a show animal the misery of growing old.
Not only that, but the older, fatter, and lamer a steer gets, the less high quality their meat becomes. A steer that dies of natural causes in the lot serves no purpose to the food system at all. While they may have had a pampered few months in their prime, a steer that keeps being a pet after the fair will have a rapid decline in quality of life and all for nothing.
So, even though I may have always picked my steers a few months late, I got a very timely lesson in value-based agriculture communication. Nobody wants their pets to suffer, and understanding the higher purpose makes all the difference.
Wyss is a senior in science and agricultural journalism at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.