A look at the practices of modern ranching and the healthier, more primitive methods of the Bolivian ranch.
A review of Reviel Netz BARBED WIRE: An ecology of modernity
A postmodernist's predictable tale of the politics of barbed wire is missing only one thing: knowledge about either politics or barbed wire.
Edward Luttwak, London Review of Books (Vol. 23 No. 3), 8 February 2001
At the Wye plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland, the department of agriculture of the University of Maryland raises beautiful Black Angus cattle with all the latest equipment and best techniques. It produces bullocks and breeding heifers, but serves as a model for Maryland's 'cow-calf operations' that produce beef for the table rather than milk. Corrals, chutes, catch-pens all seem brand new because they are so perfectly maintained, with everything neat, clean and freshly painted. The results are impressive: 90 per cent of the Wye cows produce a calf each year, and steers are ready for sale by their 18th month, at impressive weights. I went there to find out how my family's primitive Bolivian ranch might be improved - only 60 per cent of our cows give birth in any one year, and our steers grow so slowly that we must keep them for 30 months to achieve worthwhile weights for the market. Cattle are capital, and were indeed its very first embodiment, yielding their offspring as interest. The higher the birth rate, the higher the rate of return, if costs are equal. And time is money with cattle as with any other form of capital: a steer sold at 30 months earns less net revenue than one sold after 18 months at equal weights, prices and costs - just how much less depends on the interest cost of waiting, which exceeds 12 per cent per annum in Bolivia. All in all, the Maryland numbers showed that there was much to be improved on our ranch.
The Maryland experts were interested in how we ranch and how we sell our cattle, given the 200 roadless kilometres to the nearest town (by rafting down river to Brazil). They were eager to help. Our humped Nelor cattle, a Brazilian breed evolved from brahmins originally brought from India by the Portuguese, conceive by the 15th month or even earlier, give birth after nine months of gestation, and can become pregnant again a few weeks later, just like the Wye cows. But our fertility rate is so much lower, I learned, because if cows and bulls are left to commune according to their desires, many cows resist impregnation, preferring to raise their calves for at least six months before becoming pregnant again. Artificial insemination is the remedy. In Wye, all cows ready to breed again but not visibly pregnant are tested with sonograms by the resident vets, and those carrying no embryo are separated from the herd to be frequently tested with a thermometer inserted into their vaginas, until oestrus is detected. At that point, the frozen semen of prize bulls is defrosted and injected, with the procedure repeated until sonogram results are positive.
With our cattle dispersed over 78 square miles of savannah grasslands interrupted by islands of tropical forest, we cannot emulate any of those practices. With one-by-one animal husbandry impossible, our cows and bulls are left to graze and procreate on their own, except for the few days a year when our eight cowboys, their older children, the manager and myself round up all the cattle we can find to corral them for counting, the branding of yearlings, castration, foot-and-mouth vaccination, the feeding of a vermifuge and fumigation against external parasites. During the long rainy season, when swollen streams, enlarged lagunas and swamped pastures drastically limit movement even on our sturdy criollo horses, we do not even know where our cattle are much of the time, let alone which of our heifers is ready for impregnation. In any case, we have no sonogram machines or the electricity to operate them, our cows are too wild to be tested for oestrus with a thermometer, and we can't preserve semen for we have no refrigeration. The only way we can increase the fertility of our cows - the key to our entire profitability as we have no dairy cattle - is to provide enough bulls. In Wye, they keep a few 'clean-up' bulls with their 170 cows to complement artificial insemination, but we have 40 bulls for each lot of 500 cows, deliberately selecting smaller-framed animals because young heifers flee from the very large bulls that win prizes - heavy and slow, they seem to enjoy standing around looking impressive, but mount few cows and only earn their keep with extracted semen. Our calves are also born smaller of course, but that is no disadvantage at birthing time, when our heifers easily drop their young without any help at all, let alone the pulling chains, winches and risky caesarians used by cattle raisers in all advanced countries.
There was one consolation in my failure to learn anything useful about fertility. Our procreation costs start and end with our bulls, bought at $400 each - and we can eventually recover more than that when we sell them for meat in their eighth year, for middle-aged bulls easily put on weight. At Wye, by contrast, as in all commercial cattle-raising ventures in Europe and the United States, high fertility does not come cheap. Sonogram machines, veterinary care, even the semen at more than $30 a shot are all very expensive, and there are many more abortions and stillbirths when cattle are bred for size, to jump-start the race to the market. Doing my sums, I discovered that for us a 60 per cent live birth rate was better than Wye's 90 per cent in spite of all the extra bulls we have to keep, simply because of the vast difference in the cost of keeping animals in the first place.
At Wye, as in almost every cow-calf operation in Western Europe or the US, cattle cannot feed themselves all year round on green pasture. Only hobby farmers with few cows and a lot of land have the ten acres or so of decent land per head that are needed - and even they must usually provide baled hay during the coldest winter months when grass stops growing. With all the better land in Europe and North America taken up by the intensive or arable farming that inherent productivity or subsidies make more profitable, almost all commercial cattle raisers must complement whatever green pasture they have with hay and other feeds at a cost of roughly $250 per year per head - it makes little difference if they buy the hay ready-baled or grow it themselves, with tractors, harvesters, fuel, fertiliser, weed-killers and pesticides. The left-over straw of cereal crops and other roughage that may cost little or nothing is used, too, but lactating and pregnant cows and those fast-growing steers must also be fed more costly, more protein-rich concentrates, such as maize, oats, barley, grain sorghum, wheat, beet-pulp, oilseed or soya bean meal, molasses, synthetic urea and, until recently, processed animal offal, including the sheep brains that have led to present difficulties. Our cattle, by contrast, eat only the natural grasses of the savannah, picking and choosing among different plants at different times of the year to find all the nutrition they need, except for salt with mineral additives that costs us $3 per head per year.
We can afford to keep all those extra bulls and the 40 per cent of our cows that fail to give birth in any one year, because each steer we sell can pay for the salt of 83 heads. With feeding costing us 1 per cent of what cattle raisers in Europe or North America must pay, their animal husbandry holds no lessons for us. True, we must keep our steers for 30 months before they are ready for the market, but that only costs us $7.50 in salt as opposed to the $375 or more in hay and concentrates eaten by a Maryland or British steer by the time it is ready for sale at 18 months. Of course, there is the interest on delayed revenue to be reckoned, as well as the much lower weight of our steers, but given our abundance of grass it simply does not pay for us to minimise time and maximise weight at high cost, let alone fatten our animals in feedlots with expensive concentrates and supplements.
In other words, while European and North American cattle raisers pay their dues to the corporations that supply them with everything from tractors and fuel to bagged concentrates, we pay our dues to nature by accepting its pace and limits. So far that has been a rewarding choice: our return on cattle capital exceeds 30 per cent, more than twice what North American and European cattle raisers can expect, though their corporate suppliers fare much better of course. The profitability of the entire sector is so tenuous in the US that many ranchers stay in business only because they are not in business at all, but rather keep their ranches for pleasure and display, à la W. Bush or CNN's Ted Turner, losing money each year, which they bill to the taxpayers by way of loss credits against the earnings of their real trade. Recently 'buffalo' (bison) ranching became fashionable among the tax-loss crowd, though it was attempted by some desperate cow ranchers as well, who discovered that costs are even higher - not least for steel-tube fencing - and profits even lower. Among the dwindling band of genuine ranchers, a great many are consuming their capital year by year by accumulating mortgages against their land. As the number of independent ranchers and farm-based cattle raisers continues to decline in the States, as it would in Europe but for subsidies, they are replaced by large-scale corporate operations, some of them immense; but they, too, are not faring well.
All that frantic productivity is thus an attempt to offset miserable margins with sheer quantity, which in turn drives down prices, reducing profitability even more. During the last two years, we have sold finished steers in the border town of Costa Márquez, in the back of Rondonia, one of Brazil's least developed areas, at prices ranging from $1.05 to $1.45 per kilo, measured at 50 per cent of live weight ('pencil shrinkage'), only a few cents less than the price to be had in Chicago for animals on which far more money has been spent. But then if Amazonian ranching were not so inherently profitable, Amazonian forests would not be endangered (for the record, we preserve our forests intact; our land in San Joaquín province is on the very edge of the uninterrupted rainforest that begins just across a ten-mile lake, but is still mostly savannah grassland that was never de-forested).
But at the Wye plantation I also learned something else, or rather saw it while we were talking. It was the veterinary chart of a Maryland cow-calf operation, with separate rows for pneumonia, diphtheria, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, parainfluenza-3, bovine viral diarrhoea, bloat, three kinds of clostridial infections, coccidiosis, pink-eye, cancer eye, footrot, actinomycosis lumpjaw, hard lumpjaw, acidosis, laminitis, nitrate poisoning (from heavily fertilised pasture) and many more conditions. Treatments were also listed with antihistamines, dexamethasone, adrenaline, sulpha boluses, dimethyl sulphoxide, nitrofurazone and novalson as well as several vaccines, vermifuges, fumigants, homely iodine and castor oil, and many, many applications of antibiotics - a long list of them, starting with penicillin and going on to LA-200 and others equally obscure to me.
The reason I found this chart startling - though I later learned that it reflected normal conditions throughout Europe and North America - was that in our ranch we get by with one vaccination, two vermifuge doses and two fumigations per year, all done by ourselves as there is no vet within reach. How could it be, I asked, that Maryland cows needed all those medicines, and the frequent services of veterinarians? The experts immediately pointed out that only the largest cattle raisers and feedlot operators had full-time vets on staff as they did, while most raisers only called them in now and then, because they could apply most treatments themselves. But yes, a great variety of medicines was indeed essential, for otherwise cattle would die of disease. They estimated that veterinary care and supplies added some $50 per head per year to the average cost of upkeep.
We, too, lose cattle to disease as well as to jaguars, maned wolves and anacondas (yes, they can swallow a new-born calf), but our combined losses have been running at roughly 1 per cent per year. No, I was told, it was nothing like that: without several specifics and lots of antibiotics, cattle raisers would lose a great many head, and in feedlots mass deaths would be inevitable for infections spread immediately among animals kept within inches of each other. Again, I asked why cows in salubrious Maryland - or Britain for that matter - were so much more vulnerable to disease than our cows, which live in the intensely tropical Amazon basin, dense with every form of life including a myriad of micro-organisms, internal and external parasites and blood-sucking vampire bats that carry all manner of diseases.
I received two answers. The first was that our slim Nelors, while much less productive of meat and useless for milking, were resistant to disease because they were the offspring of natural selection undistorted by veterinary interventions, rather than cattle systematically bred for productivity alone. The second answer, however, was the more consequential: unlike humans or pigs, who can eat anything organic, animal or vegetable, except for grass and wood because our stomachs cannot break down cellulose, bovines are pure herbivores. Their four-part ruminant stomachs break down the cellulose in grass that we can't digest to extract all the proteins, vitamins, minerals and calories they need. Conversely, cattle can't easily digest proteins, beyond the tiny amounts consumed by the microbes in their first stomach (the rumen), which break down cellulose. Yet for the sake of rapid weight-gain and rapid procreation, European and North American cattle are fed with cereals and all those other concentrates that contain even more protein, as well as pre-bloom alfalfa hay which is itself 16 per cent protein. One result is that European and North American cattle raisers are always in danger of losing their animals to bloat, a foamy gas build-up in the rumen that presses against the lungs with a suffocating effect. Anti-foaming agents are used, and trocars are kept on hand to puncture the rumen in emergencies.
The other results of feeding proteins to herbivores are much less dramatic, altogether more prevalent, and of far greater significance for human health: chronic diarrhoea and acidosis, which hardly ever kill cattle outright but disrupt their immune systems, exposing them to all the diseases I saw on the Wye chart, and a few more besides.
To put it plainly, nearly all beef cattle in Europe and North America are permanently unhealthy, and only survive in a chronic state of low-level sickness with large doses of antibiotics. Because they are cheap and induce water retention that increases weight, antibiotics are just the thing for cattle raisers and feedlot operators - whose animals could not survive a week without them. For those who eat the resulting beef no ill consequence need follow individually, although I myself am nauseated by the idea of eating the meat of sick animals pumped full of antibiotics and assorted medicines - since visiting Wye, I eat only Argentinian beef when I can get it, and my own when in Bolivia.
Public health, however, is another matter. At a time when old diseases such as TB are reappearing, and wounds and fractures are once again followed by stubborn, even lethal infections because many bacteria strains have become highly resistant to antibiotics, their use in mass quantities by cattle raisers adds to the problem. Until recently, it was thought that humans cannot absorb antibiotics from cooked beef, but research prompted by BSE has incidentally disproved that reassuring belief. One result is that those who eat beef may be spared an infection now and then; another is that they, too, are contributing to the evolution of increasingly resistant strains of bacteria.
The much larger issue is the entire logic of European and North American beef production in its present form. Tens of millions of head of cattle are raised in spite of the lack of anything like enough green pasture for them. In Western Europe, subsidies provide an incentive to raise beef cattle even without any pasture at all, or almost none, as in Tuscany, for example, whose Chianini - the source of much-celebrated Fiorentina steaks - is the largest of all cattle breeds, but where meadows are a rarity among all those vineyards and villas. When I questioned the systematic use of antibiotics by the entire industry of both continents, the Wye experts replied that without them there could only be grass-fed beef, which tastes wonderful, as any visitor to Argentina can attest, but is too tough for palates used to the very soft flesh of grain-fed animals, further softened by immobility in feed lots - and by antibiotics. But their stronger retort was that beef fed on grass alone would be necessarily scarce, and expensive. It could no longer be an everyday food for virtually everyone, but only for the affluent, and only an occasional treat for the poor or parsimonious. Yet at the same time cardiologists unanimously assert that most people in Europe and North America eat far too much beef - that it should be an occasional treat rather than an everyday food, which many eat twice a day.
The veterinary profession has therefore systematised, indeed normalised the raising of unhealthy cattle to achieve the very abundance that makes people unhealthy. In its rarity, BSE is only an extreme consequence of feeding animal proteins to herbivores that can't eat even alfalfa in any quantity without ill effect, let alone sheep brains. If the unending BSE drama finally attracts public attention to the habitual malpractice of the cattle industry, we may yet see North American and European herds reduced to their naturally-fed size, that small fraction of present numbers for which green pasture can be provided all year round. And if that supply is insufficient, the pampas and savannahs of South America can provide all that is needed, my ranch included, of course, with its beautiful Nelors.
A review of Reviel Netz BARBED WIRE: An ecology of modernity
Edward Luttwak, Times Literary Supplement, June 2, 2005.
Barbed wire is important in my life – the cattle ranch I run in the Bolivian Amazon could not exist without it. In Britain as in other advanced countries, it is mostly fences of thin unbarbed wire enlivened by a low-voltage current that keep cattle from wandering off, but in the Bolivian Amazon they have no electrical supply to transform down, and in any case the cost, over many perimeter miles, would be prohibitive and the upkeep quite impossible. Ours is a wonderful land of lush savannahs and virgin forest, but it is just not valuable enough to be demarcated by anything more expensive than strands of barbed wire held up by wooden posts driven into the ground.
Invented and patented by Joseph F. Glidden in 1874, an immediate success in mass production by 1876, barbed wire, first of iron and then steel, did much to transform the American West, before doing the same in other prairie lands from Argentina to Australia. Actually, cheap fencing transformed the primordial business of cattle-raising itself. Solid wooden fences or even stone walls can be economical enough for intensive animal husbandry, in which milk and traction as well as meat ar obtained by constant labour in stable and field to feed herbivores without the pastures they would otherwise need. Often the animals are tethered or just guarded, without any fences or walls. But in large-scale raising on the prairie or savannah, if there are no fences then the cattle must be herded, and that requires constant vigilance to resist the herbivore instinct of drifting off to feed – and also constant motion. As the animals eat up the vegetation where they are gathered, the entire herd must be kept moving to find more. That is what still happens in the African savannah of the cattle herdsmen, and what was done in the American West as in other New World prairies, until barbed wire arrived to make ranching possible.
One material difference between ranging in open country and ranching is that less labour is needed, because there is less need for vigilance within the fence. Another measurable difference is that cattle can do more feeding to put on weight, instead of losing weight when driven from place to place. But the increased productivity of ranching as opposed to ranging is actually of an entirely different order. African herders must be warriors to protect their cattle from their like as well as from the waning number of animal predators, but chiefly to maintain their reputation for violence which in turn assures their claim to the successive pastures they must have through the seasons. It was almost the same for the ranging cowboys of the American West, and while their own warrior culture was somewhat less picturesque than that of the Nuer or Turkana, it too was replete with the wasted energies of endemic conflict over land, water and sometimes even the cattle itself. Ranchers are not cream puffs either, but they can use their energies more productively because in most places – including the Bolivian Amazon for all its wild remoteness – their fences are property lines secured by the apparatus of the law, which itself can function far more easily among property-owning ranchers than among warrior nomads and rangers. Skills too are different. African herdsmen notoriously love their cattle to perdition but their expertise is all in the finding of pasture and water in semi-arid lands, as well as in hunting and war, and they are not much good at increasing fertility, and hardly try to improve breeds. It was the same in the American West, where the inception of today’s highly elaborate cattle-raising expertise that makes red meat excessively cheap had to await the stability of ranching, and the replacement of the intrepid ranger by the more productive cowboy.
Barbed wire is important therefore, and the story of how it was so quickly produced by automatic machines on the largest scale, efficiently distributed to customers necessarily remote from urban centres, marketed globally almost immediately, and finally used to change landscapes and societies, is certainly very interesting. But for all this, the reader will have to turn to Henry D. and Frances T. McCallum’s The Wire That Fenced the West rather than the work at hand, in spite of its enthusiastic dust-jacket encomia from Noam Chomsky ("a deeply disturbing picture of how the modern world evolved"), Paul F. Starrs ("beautifully grim") and Lori Gruen, for whom the book is all about "structures of power and violence". The reason is that Reviel Netz, the author of Barbed Wire: An ecology of modernity, prefers to write of other things.
For Netz, the raising of cattle is not about producing meat and hides from lands usually too marginal to yield arable crops, but rather an expression of the urge to exercise power: "What is control over animals? This has two senses, a human gain, and an animal deprivation". To tell the truth, I had never even pondered this grave question, let alone imagined how profound the answer could be. While that is the acquisitive purpose of barbed wire, for Professor Netz it is equally – and perhaps even more – a perversely disinterested expression of the urge to inflict pain, "the simple and unchanging equation of flesh and iron", another majestic phrase, though I am not sure if equation is quite the right word. But if that is our ulterior motive, then those of us who rely on barbed- wire fencing for our jollies are condemned to be disappointed, because cattle does not keep running into it, suffering bloody injury and pain for us to gloat over, but instead invisibly learns at the youngest age to avoid the barbs by simply staying clear of the fence. Fortunately we still have branding, "a major component of the culture of the West" and of the South too, because in Bolivia we also brand our cattle. Until Netz explained why we do it – to enjoy the pain of "applying the iron until – and well after – the flesh of the animal literally burns", I had always thought that we brand our cattle because they cannot carry notarized title deeds anymore than they can read off-limits signs. Incidentally, I have never myself encountered a rancher who expensively indulges in the sadistic pleasure of deeply burning the flesh of his own hoofed capital, opening the way for deadly infection; the branding I know is a quick thrust of the hot iron onto the skin, which is not penetrated at all, and no flesh burns.
We finally learn who is really behind all these perversities, when branding is "usefully compared with the Indian correlate": Euro-American men, of course, as Professor Netz calls us. "Indians marked bison by tail-tying: that is, the tails of killed bison were tied to make a claim to their carcass. Crucially, we see that for the Indians, the bison became property only after its killing."
We on the other hand commodify cattle "even while alive". There you have it, and Netz smoothly takes us to the inevitable next step:
"Once again a comparison is called for: we are reminded of the practice of branding runaway slaves, as punishment and as a practical measure of making sure that slaves – that particular kind of commodity – would not revert to their natural free state. In short, in the late 1860s, as Texans finally desisted from the branding of slaves, they applied themselves with ever greater enthusiasm to the branding of cows."
Texans? Why introduce Texans all of a sudden, instead of cowboys or cattlemen? It seems that for Professor Netz in the epoch of Bush II, Texans are an even more cruel sub-species of the sadistic race of Euro-American men (and it is men, of course). As for the "enthusiasm", branding too is hard work, and I for one have yet to find the vaqueros who will do it for free, for the pleasure of it.
By this point in the text some trivial errors occur, readily explained by a brilliantly distinguished academic career that has understandably precluded much personal experience in handling cattle. Professor Netz writes, for example, that "moving cows over long distances is a fairly simple task. The mounted humans who controlled the herds – frightening them all the way to Chicago . . .". Actually, it is exhausting work to lead cattle over any distance at all without causing drastic weight loss – even for us in Bolivia when we walk our steer to the market, in spite of far more abundant grass and water than Texas or even the upper Midwest ever offered, at the rate of less than nine miles a day to cover a mere 200 kilometres, instead of several times that distance to reach Chicago. Used as we are to seeing our beautiful Nelor cattle grazing contentedly in a slow ambling drift across the pastures, it is distressing to drive them even at the calmest pace for the shortest distances; they are so obviously tense and unhappy, and of course they lose weight with each unwanted step. As for "frightening them all the way to Chicago", that is sheer nonsense: nothing is left of cattle stampeded a few days, let alone all the way to Chicago. Unfortunately, his trivial error makes it impossible for Netz to understand the difference between ranging and ranching that he thinks he is explaining.
All this and more besides (horses are "surrounded by the tools of violence") occurs in the first part of a book that proceeds to examine at greater length the cruelty of barbed wire against humans. He starts with the battlefield – another realm of experience that Netz cannot stoop to comprehend. He writes that barbed wire outranks the machine gun in stopping power, evidently not knowing that infantry can walk over any amount of barbed wire if it is not over-watched by adequate covering fires, and need not waste time cutting through the wires one by one. Nowadays well-equipped troops have light-alloy runners for this, as other purposes, but in my day, our sergeants trained us to cross rolls of barbed wire by simply stepping over the backs of prone comrades, who were protected well enough from injury from the barbs by the thick wool of their British battle dress – because the flexible rolls gave way of course.
Perhaps because the material is rather directly derived from standard sources, no such gross errors emerge in the still larger part of the book devoted to the evils of the barbed wire of the prison camps, and worse, of Boer War British South Africa, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (Guantanamo no doubt awaits a second edition). It is reassuring if not exactly startling to read that Professor Netz disapproves of prison camps, concentration camps and extermination camps, that he is not an enthusiast of either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, while being properly disapproving of all imperialisms of course. But it does seem unfair to make barbed wire the protagonist of these stories as opposed to the people who employed barbed wire along with even more consequential artefacts such as guns. After all, atrocities as extensive as the Warsaw Ghetto with its walled perimeter had no need of barbed wire, any more than the various grim fortresses and islands in which so many were imprisoned, tortured and killed without being fenced in.
There is no need to go on. Enough of the text has been quoted to identify the highly successful procedures employed by Reviel Netz, which can easily be imitated – and perhaps should be by as many authors as possible, to finally explode the entire genre. First, take an artefact, anything at all. Avoid the too obviously deplorable machine gun or atom bomb. Take something seemingly innocuous, say shoelaces. Explore the inherent if studiously unacknowledged ulterior purposes of that "grim" artefact within "the structures of power and violence". Shoelaces after all perfectly express the Euro-American urge to bind, control, constrain and yes, painfully constrict. Compare and contrast the easy comfort of the laceless moccasins of the Indian – so often massacred by booted and tightly laced Euro-Americans, as one can usefully recall at this point. Refer to the elegantly pointy and gracefully upturned silk shoes of the Orient, which have no need of laces of course because they so naturally fit the human foot – avoiding any trace of Orientalism, of course. It is all right to write in a manner unfriendly or even openly contemptuous of entire populations as Professor Netz does with his Texans at every turn ("ready to kill. . . they fought for Texan slavery against Mexico"), but only if the opprobrium is always aimed at you-know-who, and never at the pigmented. Clinch the argument by evoking the joys of walking on the beach in bare and uncommodified feet, and finally overcome any possible doubt by reminding the reader of the central role of high-laced boots in sadistic imagery.
That finally unmasks shoelaces for what they really are – not primarily a way of keeping shoes from falling off one’s feet, but instruments of pain, just like the barbed wire that I have been buying all these years not to keep the cattle in, as I imagined, but to torture it, as Professor Netz points out. The rest is easy: the British could hardly have rounded up Boer wives and children without shoelaces to keep their boots on, any more than the very ordinary men in various Nazi uniforms could have done such extraordinary things so industriously, and not even Stalin could have kept the Gulag going with guards in unlaced Indian moccasins, or elegantly pointy, gracefully upturned, oriental shoes.