Meet your meat
If it’s true we are what we eat, our intern is a 700-pound steer. He follows his food from hoof to bun.
Meet Ferdinand. Don’t get too attached, I’m going to eat him.
His name really isn’t Ferdinand, but I don’t know any other names for a steer. According to his ear tag, he’s No. 150. He’s black and white and weighs about 700 pounds. That’s how much he weighs without his skin and organs, anyway. Nobody keeps track of how much he weighs before that stuff is removed.
It’s about 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday at York Meats in Fallon, owned by Lawrence Mori. Wednesdays are doomsday for many local livestock driven in by the surrounding farming community. Inside, the slaughterhouse workers are getting ready to usher Ferdinand to his final fate. The giant refrigerator’s motor is humming, knives are sharpened, and equipment is cleaned and readied.
As things come to life inside the building, Ferdinand and six other steers unknowingly wait for it to end. But it is too early to start, and the first slaughter won’t take place for about an hour.Home on the range
Most cattle in Nevada live similar lives, said Tony Lesperance, director of the Nevada Department of Agriculture. They are born in the spring and weaned off their mothers in the fall.
Unlike in other parts of the country, most Nevada cattle spend their summers wandering miles upon miles foraging for grass. Nevada is arid, so it takes more land to support the cattle.
Since it takes so much more land to feed a cow in Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management allots ranchers an average of 2,100 acres. Ranches in other parts of the country are much smaller, about a quarter of the size.
“Some of these big ole ranches cover a million acres or something like that, you know,” Lesperance said. “Of course, if you go back to Nebraska, you might have the same sized operation on a thousand acres. It’s just the fact that it’s big country, and it takes a lot of land to support a cow.”
Some may wonder why someone would even want to raise cattle in Nevada if it takes so much land. Nevada doesn’t produce a lot of cattle. The United States Department of Agriculture ranked Nevada 37th in production, with about 200,000 head of cattle a year, whereas the No. 1 state, Texas, produces about 10.5 million.
However, Elko County is one of the highest producing counties in the country, only behind Cherry County in Nebraska. And cattle ranching is considered by some to be the best use for a lot of Nevada’s empty open spaces. There are also a few fringe benefits of cattle grazing, like reducing fire hazards and increasing the quality of the soil with their natural fertilizer.
Nevada ranchers may go months at a time without seeing their cows. After the summer is over, cattle will be rounded up, and around November, sent to other parts of the country for fattening up.
Some go to California if the season is wet enough to grow the green grass cows like. Others may go to Texas to chow down on the winter wheat harvest. Then the cattle stay at the feedlots until they reach a kill weight of about a thousand pounds. Then they take the trip to big commercial slaughter plants. Most Nevada cows end up in Washington or Colorado. The processed meat is sent out all over the United States from there.
“The meat industry is a very complex situation,” Lesperance said. “Slaughtering is in very few facilities; it’s processed and sent out all over in refrigerated trucks and what not.”
Bovine terminology is also complex: A steer is a castrated male cow; a heifer is a young female cow; a bull is an intact male cow; and a cow is a female cow that has produced calves. Cow is also an umbrella term for Bos taurus.
Ferdinand is a little different from other Nevada cows. Ferdinand and his friends come from Valley Beverages Inc., a dairy farm in Yerington. Ferdinand didn’t get to roam the Nevada landscape, since his owner, Joe Frade, doesn’t have enough cattle to register for a land grant from the BLM.
Frade said he raises cattle for Mori as a side business, a way to keep workers busy when they aren’t tending to the farm’s dairy cows. Frade feeds the cattle hay, corn and soy bean meal until they are about 15 months old when he sends a few each week to slaughter.This is the end
It’s about 7 a.m. at the slaughterhouse, and the workers are just finishing cleaning the equipment. The kill floor is a large room with concrete floors and white walls. There are various hooks and hoses hanging on the walls, with a rail bolted to the ceiling that leads to a gigantic metal door.
The room lacks any evidence that hundreds of animals are killed and skinned in the space every year. The walls and floor are free from bloodstains, and the stench of death is absent. The room could almost be mistaken for some sort of indoor, by-hand car wash if it weren’t for the giant chainsaw suspended mid air and the men carrying belts full of sharp knives.
As Lito Magallon finishes the cleaning, Derek Sammaripa and Rebecca Strand wager a soda over whether a co-worker will make it to work that day. Strand puts on her USDA smock and hardhat and inspects the floor.
“Holy moly, look at all that rust,” Strand says as she inspects the metal cradle they use to keep the cows in place during skinning.
Strand directs Magallon to a couple of spots that need to be cleaned, then watches Sammaripa pick out hooks they will use for the day, making sure they are clean enough to be approved.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Magallon yells after Strand.
“I am,” she shouts back. “I’m a girl.”
At around 7:45, the first cows are taken out of the pen and led down the wooden labyrinth to the slaughterhouse. Two by two, the animals are herded out of the pen, never to return. It’s 8:40 a.m. and Ferdinand and a friend are let out of the pen accompanied by a few shouts of encouragement from Magallon.
“Heya,” he yells.
The two steers walk toward the slaughterhouse. After making it down a corridor, a door is closed behind them to keep them in place until the workers are ready. The space is about two cows across and two cows long.
The two seem a little scared at first. They thrash around the pen a bit and one gets a leg up on a wall. One kicks a fence, prompting a cascade of pig squeals from next door. After calming down, they stand there, sometimes muscling for a little more room or sticking their noses into the nearby pen.
At 9 a.m., Magallon opens the chute leading to a small chamber, just big enough for a single animal. Both Ferdinand and friend head toward the chute and get riled trying to fit into the space together, but Magallon sorts out the confusion with his cattle prod. Ferdinand hits his head on the steel door during the commotion. Seemingly unaffected, he stands there, looking around the newly opened space.
It’s 9:14 a.m. and Magallon has opened the chute once more. Ferdinand jumps around a bit. Magallon offers a few “whoas” to calm the other steer down. After carefully taking aim, he pulls the trigger on the rifle, settling the steer down once and for all.
Inside, Magallon opens the trap, and Ferdinand comes tumbling down from the wall near the thick metal door. Ferdinand kicks a bit when he hits the floor.[page] Disassembly line
Magallon wraps chains around Ferdinand’s legs and hoists him up until he’s dangling upside down from the ceiling, his tongue sticking out like an insulted second grader. Magallon sticks a knife into Ferdinand’s chest and drags it toward his throat. Blood pours out into a trash bin.
Magallon then removes Ferdinand’s head and washes the body with a hose. He clears the blood from his hands. Another employee, Claudio “Ray” Re, positions Ferdinand on the metal cradle. Ferdinand’s hooves come off with a snap. Then Re sticks metal hooks through Ferdinand’s back legs. Re makes an incision up Ferdinand’s chest and uses a two-handed butcher’s knife to crack open Ferdinand’s rib cage. He then gets busy skinning and removing Ferdinand’s organs.
Afterward, Ferdinand is hoisted upside down once again and puppeted by a hydraulic rod into the spread eagle position. Once that is complete, Mori gives the chainsaw some gas, and Ferdinand is carved in twain in under a minute.
Ferdinand then moves down the line, where Mori cuts away extra fat. Filling in for the missing washing woman—whose absence wins Sammaripa the bet—he hoses Ferdinand off one more time, sending a fine mist of clear water ricocheting off each half of the carcass. He examines what is now meat for its quality and marbling of the fat. It is 10:06 a.m. Ferdinand is pushed into the big refrigerated cavern behind the metal doors of the kill floor, and Mori waits for the last kill of the day. Then Strand, who has been poking organs for most of the process, certifies the beef as safe to eat.View to a kill
Mori and his meat business have been operating for more than 45 years. His father started the meat packing plant Lahontan Valley Meat Packing in the early ’60s when Mori was about 15 years old. The two would hire others to do the killing until they bought their own federal kill plant in the mid ’70s. Now, Mori and his sons kill, cut and wrap all their own meat with the two businesses.
“We’re trying to pass it on through the generation,” Mori said. “That, to me, means a lot. A lot of companies don’t stay in business much over five years.”
Mori used to raise his own cattle to slaughter, but a few years ago he got sick and handed the cattle rearing off to Frade. But a lot of Mori’s slaughters are called “custom killing,” meaning Mori slaughters and processes meat for other ranchers or hunters. About 40 percent of his animal slaughtering is meat that he sells, and the other 60 percent is custom jobs.
Mori’s operation isn’t very big. Even though it is one of the few slaughterhouses in Nevada, it sees about 650 cows a year, about the same number of pigs, and a few hundred lambs.
Mori doesn’t sell many whole carcasses to supermarkets. He sells most of the meat directly to customers—hungry locals who buy a quarter of a cow, or half of a pig, maybe a whole lamb.
“That’s what people want. They want a quality animal that’s fed right with natural feeds, and they want to know where the animal is coming from,” Mori said. “The trouble with the big stores is you never know where the product is coming from, and when you deal with a smaller person, you know that it is coming from a Nevada animal.”
Most consumers don’t really know where their food is coming from, said David Thain, agriculture professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He said that when you go to the supermarket, there is very little chance that the beef you are purchasing came from Nevada.
“It depends on where you buy it from,” he said. “If you buy it from Safeway, probably a very low, low probability it came from Nevada. If you buy the Harris brand label, you may have a chance of getting Nevada product. If you go down to Wolf Pack Meat you got a very, very high probability of getting Nevada products.”
Wolf Pack Meats is an agricultural experimental station owned by University of Nevada, Reno that produces livestock and sells the meat on the premises. It’s located on East McCarran Boulevard.
There are people who are concerned about where their food comes from and seek local sources for their meat, dairy and vegetables. However, Thain said the locavore movement is a niche market that he doesn’t see growing much beyond present demand. He said a majority of consumers only care about convenience.
“The public perception is they don’t know where their food comes from,” he said. “That’s the reality of it, I mean, if you asked the average public where does their beef come from, they’ll tell you the supermarket or McDonald’s. They won’t begin to tell you what the farm looks like or what the ranch looks like that this product comes off of.”
But I won’t have that problem as I pick up a pound of ground beef from Lahontan Valley Meat Packing, just a couple of miles outside of Fallon.
A billboard marks the exit for meat patrons to take. At the end of a dirt road, a sign tells drivers to slow down for playing children, while directing them behind a house.Man bites cow
It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning, less than two weeks after Ferdinand was killed. Mori and his employees are preparing the orders for the day in the house-sized plant. The white boards around the room offer selections of half pigs, whole pigs, lambs, bacon, ham, New York steaks, rib steaks, and chuck slices for carne asada. A man drops in to pick up an elk he shot. The elk leaves in several large cardboard boxes.
Mori moves a whole frozen pig from the table. He is defrosting it for someone’s barbecue. He goes around and shows how the space has evolved over the decades with the addition of a few freezers and some cutting equipment. He is very happy with a computerized smoker the company bought a few years ago.
Mori pushes a quarter of a cow out of a cooler. He plunges one of his knives deep into what used to be the stomach region of the beef and saws off an arm-sized chunk. He hands the slice to Sammaripa and continues to cut from the cow. The two start to work on a few pieces, removing the extra fat and placing the new small chunks into different bins.
Mori asks Sammaripa to grind up some meat for me. Mori gives him a handful of meat, and Sammaripa runs it through the grinder. Sammaripa puts the first chunk in, and white strings shoot from the end of the machine. A second chunk produces brown strings and, after he runs both through together, the pink, meaty hue I’m used to seeing appears. I may be getting a bit of Ferdinand to take home. At least, I hope it’s Ferdinand, but they don’t keep track of individual cows.
It takes about a week for me to eat my way through the pound of ground beef. I would pull it off in chunks and massage the meat into patties ready for a waiting skillet.
Ferdinand, or whomever I ate, had a strong grassy finish—a flavor that hasn’t been present in hamburgers I’ve had at barbecues or restaurants. It’s almost like the difference between regular potato chips and those “dirty” chips that have been cooked in their own natural oils. The grass is a flavor that I never knew was missing, but it’s there, and it’s tasty hot off the grill and topped with ketchup.
I’ve never met an animal before eating it. I never sat there as my future meal unknowingly waited out its final minutes. It made me a little queasy when Ferdinand was basically turned inside out and dismantled right in front of me. But it hasn’t triggered any crisis of conscience, and I won’t be giving up meat anytime soon. Knowing how much blood came out of Ferdinand in the slaughterhouse didn’t make him any less tasty in my kitchen. I met Ferdinand as a steer and as a hamburger, and I liked them both.