“How old are your cows when you slaughter them?” Tonya asks Heather Kading, the co-owner of the farm we’re visiting, JSK Cattle Company. “And how long can a cow live?”
“So, we’ve had our breeding cows live up to fifteen…usually like ten to twelve. We’ve had some that were fifteen,” Kading replies. “Our feeders—our ones that get corn—we usually slaughter them between sixteen and eighteen months, and our grass-fed ones are usually more like twenty-four to thirty months. They take longer to finish when they’re just on grass.”
“Do you know the, like, biological life expectancy of a cow? Like how long they can live?”
Kading pauses. “Usually like the ten to twelve. Years. For a cow, a breeding cow,” she nods.
The question is innocent, the moment only slightly awkward. Tonya Ingerson, my classmate, is a vegan. In the farm store, where we are surrounded by refrigerators of beef, pork and chicken, when I ask whether she’s angry, she replies that no, being surrounded by animal corpses evokes in her only sadness.
Heather Kading and her husband Jason are farmers, born and raised; each of them was born into a family that had been farming for generations, and the two of them met while showing beef cows in 4-H. Their 40-acre farm, primarily beef but with ancillary pork and fowl and egg operations, is located in scenic, rural Millbrook in Northern Dutchess County, a historical dairy district. They began as solely a beef breeding farm, selling the calves they produced to other farms, but began selling beef right on the premises in a farm store after demand increased among family friends and associated farms. JSK sells online and delivers, too, to accommodate for their inconvenient, out-of-the-way location. Their market is direct-to-customer. While Jason Kading handles the breeding and the care of the cows, Heather operates the business, makes deliveries. JSK’s meat is USDA-certified, as is required by law, and thus the Kadings outsource their necessary slaughtering to area slaughterhouses: Malafy’s Meat Processing in Milan (pronounced “my-lan”), New York, another in Pine Plains, and either Mountain Products or Hudson Valley Sausage Company for “things that need to be smoked.” Nothing of JSK’s goes farther than the borders of Dutchess County: “We try to keep everything as close to home as possible,” Kading tells us. “It’s also less stress on the animals.” She isn’t talking about quality of life, here, but product quality: “They can lose weight between here and there, and ‘cause they’re tense, you know, it can affect the taste of the meat.”
Tonya is gentle and journalistic in her inquiries, never attacks or criticizes Kading. Having been vegan for three years now, she is to a degree repulsed by the act of carnivory, but her motives for veganism are environmentalist and practical: “The amount of food a cow needs to grow before it gets slaughtered is so much larger than the amount of food you get from the one cow,” Tonya explained to me in an email. “Some estimates say that if we redirected all the grain that goes to grain-fed livestock in the US and gave it directly to people, we could feed 800 million mouths with it. Cows also require immense amounts of water, and we’re getting to a day and age where clean freshwater is an increasingly precious resource. Of course, JSK’s cows are mostly pasture-fed and humans can’t eat grass, but the greenhouse gas contribution of livestock (especially ruminants) is higher than that of the transportation sector (13% in transportation vs. 18% of animal agriculture).”
Kading’s motivation for going into farming ties into her own particular set of principles, which are, as she explains them to us in the farm store and then later elaborates upon as we stand in the middle of JSK’s chicken enclosure, as follows: “…Educating people on why it’s better to buy local and know where your food comes from, instead of buying stuff from the grocery store. You don’t know what country it’s coming from, anymore; you don’t know what it’s being fed. When you get to know your farmer, you get to know how things are raised, how they’re taken care of, how they’re fed. We try and give our animals the best life that they possibly can [have], you know, that’s important to us. But people can know exactly what they’re eating. We think that’s really important.”
Following Kading, we are shown not only JSK’s egg-laying chickens but their meat chickens (known as “broilers”) as well. They are pure white, and selectively bred to be lower to the ground and significantly fatter than their longer-lived relations. These chickens, Cornish Crosses, often drop dead of heart attacks; “They just can’t carry that weight,” Kading tells us.