LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Despite the growing popularity of the local food movement, most of the meat consumed in this country is produced by a handful of ag conglomerates. The chicken and pork industries have long been controlled by just a few companies, but cattle business is different. As part of NPR's Meat Week, Peggy Lowe of Harvest Public Media reports the beef you buy at the grocery store is raised by lots of small farmers - that is, until it moves up the food chain.
PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: Picture it like this: If you draw the cattle industry on a piece of paper, it's shaped like a wine bottle. At the bottom is the cow-calf operation. There are more than 750,000 ranchers in the U.S. who do this. Let's start there.
BARBARA MCINTIRE ROUX: I'm Barbara McIntire Roux, and I have been in the cattle business for almost 70 years.
LOWE: Barbara Roux doesn't look like a rancher. She's in blue jeans and white sneakers. But her family's been raising short-horned cattle since her grandfather came to Kansas 100 years ago. She has about 50 cattle - just a little over the average U.S. herd size of 40.
ROUX: We have to record about as much information on those calves when they're born as what a human baby has to have collected. We have to give them the same identifying number as what their mother has, which is an ear tag. And we have to weigh them. We have to measure how tall they are.
LOWE: This is the pretty pastoral part of the cattle industry, the place school kids come for tours. But it's also the piece of the industry with the least amount of power over the process. The animals are put out on pasture until they're weaned off the mother at about seven months old. At this point they're just kids, though they can weigh up to 600 pounds. Now they're sold to what's called a backgrounder.
DR. DAN THOMSON: I liken it to a new student going to kindergarten - and I'm on the school board locally of our community. And so I started to think about, you know, when we have kindergarten roundup.
LOWE: That's Dr. Dan Thomson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University. So now at the backgrounder, the calves immunized and acclimated to new surroundings. They're fed grass and grain and are packing on weight to as much as 800 pounds as they're prepared for their last stop.
ANDREW MURPHY: This is one of our feed yards. This is Great Bend Feed. And this is the yard that our family started or my father started back in 1959. And this has a capacity of about 30,000 head of cattle.
LOWE: We're in Andrew Murphy's pickup, driving through a huge feedlot on a windy, dusty 320 acres outside Great Bend, Kansas, about 75 miles west of Barbara Roux's place. Here the cattle are fed three times a day at the six miles of concrete bunks that lie in the corrals. If it seems like it's straight out of the Old West, well, it is. These guys get around on horses.
MURPHY: We've come up with all kinds of creative names that sound a lot better than cowboy, but none of them have stuck - you know, cow care technician.
LOWE: This is where the bottle-shaped beef industry starts to narrow towards the neck. Remember those 750,000 ranchers? Their cattle are run through the 2,100 feedlots in the U.S. that handle a thousand or more head of cattle - the first big concentration. The cattle are now on a high-calorie diet to literally become the fattened calves. Then when they are just over a year old and weigh about 1,300 pounds - well, let's hear it from the veterinarian, Dan Thomson.
THOMSON: You know, I hear a lot of people say, you know, this is not a slaughter facility, it's a harvest facility. And I think we just say what it is. Once they reach a point of desired fat thickness or desired finishing point, that is when the animal goes to slaughter.
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LOWE: At today's prices, each of these animals is worth about $2,000. The cattle here are all sold to Tyson, one of only four meat-packing companies that process 82 percent of the beef on the market. So from the 750,000 ranchers to the 2,100 large feedlots, the cattle are then processed by just four companies controlling the majority of the market. This is the neck of the bottle-shaped industry. So does this market concentration at the top mean the cattle industry will go the way of the chicken and pork businesses where the entire process is controlled by just a few companies? That hasn't happened yet, but many ranchers fear it. The cattle here at this Kansas feedlot will end up as a cut of beef or other product that Tyson sells to large chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger and found in your grocery store - bright red meat sealed in plastic. For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.
WERTHEIMER: That piece comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media stations in the Midwest, based at KCUR in Kansas City. This summer the project is collecting stories about life on the farm.