A Cow's Odyssey from Farmer to Feedlot

March 26, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- McDonald's, I read recently, feeds 28 million people a day and buys about 16,000 head of cattle every week to make hamburgers. I thought of that the other day as I sent a rickety old cow down the road to the livestock auction, a single half-ton drop in an endless consumer-bound river of meat.

My cow probably didn't end up in a Big Mac, but she might have. I'll never know. Like most farmers, I'm at one end of the production pipeline and the consumer is at the other. We never meet, although we both might enjoy doing so. There are just too many people in between.

My major customer, with whom I've done business for years, is a local livestock broker who usually buys my calves at weaning time and sells them to a ''backgrounder,'' who will keep them for another six months or so while they put on a couple of hundred pounds and get big enough to go to a feedlot where they'll be fattened for slaughter.

Sometimes I know the backgrounder, sometimes I don't. Occasionally, driving through cattle country in Maryland or Pennsylvania, I've come across some of my calves -- identifiable by the ear tags I put in when they were born. But that doesn't happen very often.

I don't know personally any of the feedlot operators who've fattened cattle I raised. I probably should; they're my customers too, after all. If the calves do well, which means they stay healthy and gain rapidly, the feedlot will want to keep dealing with the backgrounder who supplied them, and the backgrounder will want to keep buying calves I raised. The better buyer and seller know each other, the better for both.

But while the cattle business may be impersonal, it's downright folksy compared with the buying and selling of feedgrains. I used to sell my corn and wheat to Perdue, Inc., the Eastern Shore chicken colossus, but neither old Frank Perdue nor anyone else ever stopped by the farm to compliment me on the quality of the grain. They just sent a check.

A lot of small farmers who raise fruits and vegetables market their produce directly to the public, and I've always envied them that personal contact with their customers. Not only does it foster pleasant and lasting relationships, but it provides valuable market information to the seller. Both compliments and criticism are most effective when they're delivered first-hand.

This winter, for the first time, we sold hay to retail customers, and found it to be a profitable and enjoyable sideline. As last summer was a particularly good one for hay produc

tion, we had a surplus of high-quality hay, and after we ran little ads in the local newspapers we found that this was a product in some demand.

The hay trade seemed to underscore some of the changes happening out on the exurban fringe. Most of our new customers were people with country interests and city jobs. They kept a few horses, or a few sheep or goats, but lacked the acreage, the equipment and the time to make enough hay to carry their stock through the winter.

Some bought hay by the bale, some by the truckload, but all together they bought a lot of it. Other farmers I know have reported similar sales. It used to be that if you farmed at all you grew your own hay, but I'd guess now that less than half the hay fed to animals in our area is home-grown. Clearly, as the number of real farms dwindles and the number of part-time operations grows, some significant economic adjustments are going on.

Another change we're beginning to see in parts of Maryland as conventional agriculture becomes ever harder to maintain is already leaving its mark on the landscape.

Slowly but steadily, marginal farmland is returning to woods. This is a process that began years before in Pennsylvania, New York and New England. New Hampshire and Vermont, mostly pasture a century ago, are now 90 and 80 percent wooded, respectively. In New York, the woods are reclaiming about 100,000 acres a year.

This process can be disconcerting to long-time residents as old vistas close in and familiar hilly pastures disappear, first under waves of multiflora rose and then beneath the cedars, poplars and hardwoods that succeed it. But it isn't necessarily a change for the worse.

In fact, according to a long article -- ''An Explosion of Green'' -- by Bill McKibben in the current Atlantic Monthly, the vast and mostly accidental reforestation now going on throughout the rural East ''represents the great environmental story of the United States, and in some ways of the whole world.'' It has enormous implications for wildlife, for water and air quality, and for human life in general.

Farmers, of course, are suspicious of change -- change in techniques, change in government policies, change in the landscape. This is because farming teaches a kind of protective pessimism, an assumption that if anything changes it will probably be for the worse. But changes can offer opportunities too, though not only to farmers.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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