This paper will focus on a shift in scholarly focus in
the cattle industry. A shift has taken place from profitability, to a focus on improved production
for disease prevention purposes. Early in the period of cattle herding, diseases were not given much
attention, other than their having an effect on profitability. More recently, a shift has occurred to focus
on how the diseases can be controlled. The shift has taken place because many are now concerned
with the threat of human illness through diseased beef contact. In the early 1900s scholars,
authors and ranchers would see that their cattle would die because of disease and this would lead
to a reduction in their profits. They began to look for economic solutions and not worry about the
disease. Not until recently was a connection made between diseases in the beef and human illnesses,
and efforts to control the diseases were made. Restrictions have been put in place and new
scientific production methods have been developed to control the disease, although not solely for
profit purpose, but rather public health. As George Gray, scholar and author, points out that
"vigorous enforcement of rules keeps risks to a minimum, but the possibility of an outbreak cannot
be completely eliminated" (14). The public wants to keep the diseases under control and not spread
to food, and so the regulations have been more strictly enforced and production methods have been
adjusted accordingly. To better understand the cattle industry, a look into the history is helpful
to recognize the relation of disease and production. The link has always been in place, but efforts
to improve based on spread and not profit have only been occurring recently.
An Overview: The Cattle Industry
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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The cattle industry has a long history in the Great Plains region. Native American tribes had
actually begun herding cattle before the civil war. The tribes would export the cattle to many
different places and actually created the process of herding for profit. Michael Doran points
out that "the qualities of the Indian cattle were such that in the following year a missionary
observer enthusiastically predicted that soon much of the market demand of the South would be
supplied from the Territory" (54). This demand for the cattle would have come from the
appearance alone, and not from the health of the cattle. This supply of the beef to the
market in the South never took place because of the looming Civil War. The industry that the
tribes had created was destroyed during the civil war, when both the North and South forces
killed or stole the cattle, and the tribes had to give up the industry. The tribes could not
return to the same herding practices after being nearly wiped out from the Civil War. Historians
now credit the creation of the industry to the culture of the Texas ranchers (48). To better
understand this information is difficult because "the only census data available for antebellum
cattle are from the Chickasaw Nation, where 14,788 animals were counted in an enumeration that
also listed 4,715 citizens" (53).
Much has been done to better understand the history. The history of the industry can help the
current producers in their operations. For example, the Chisholm Trail, a major part of the
cattle trade in the mid 1800s, ended abruptly in one year's time. The author David Galenson
explores the cost issues as the reason for the trail ending, but another scholar Taylor Dennen
disagrees with this view. Galenson says that cattle ranchers in Texas were pushed out by more
economic means like the railroad. When the railroad industry began shipping the cattle from
various regions to one destination with a mass processing facility, the cost of driving the
cattle along the land was not economically ideal (353). Galenson also says that the age of
the cattle in production encouraged some Texas ranchers to keep their cattle and wait to get
a higher profit for the more mature cattle. On the other hand, Taylor Dennen examines the
possibility of diseased cattle from Texas prompting the surrounding states to adopt quarantine
laws, thus causing the trail to end so quickly. When a disease that had origins in Texas, known
as Texas fever, was expressed in the cattle being driven along the trail to the main
destination in Kansas and surrounding states, those states enacted the laws to protect their
cattle (458). This was done out of concern for profit and not for concern about the spread of
the disease. When they could no longer drive their cattle because of the laws, profit was
decreased and the ranchers then began to look for alternate markets and modes of transportation.
Dennen also shows the economic impact on the Texas ranchers since, "about that same time,
Colorado and New Mexico adopted quarantine laws; although these laws were less severe than
the Kansas one, they still raised the costs of cattle drovers substantially" (459). The
concern about profit was the major concern because many of the cattle would die before they
To examine how these diseases can widely effect
the industry, the diseases are studied to better understand them. Cattle Today Inc., an
information source for some in the industry, looks at the diseases and provides information
on many, such as anaplasmosis, anthrax, and brucellosis. This information source tells its
readers "in order to profitably operate a cattle operation it is important to know about these
diseases and how to control and treat them" (Diseases of Cattle). The Mad Cow disease, for
example, is described as, "extremely contagious and spreads rapidly unless it is contained,
"to control it, "usually requires quarantining infected farms, followed by slaughtering and
burning all susceptible animals" (Diseases of Cattle). Understanding the diseases prompted
some to try and control them to improve the industry. A connection between the diet of the
cattle and the growth and spread of diseases, such as e coli, has been made along with an
effort to improve the diets. Jennifer Couzin, scholar on the topic tells:
The digestive tracts of cattle nurture some of the most virulent strains of E. coli, which can
later find their way into beef and also into other foods that come in contact with infected manure.
Since the Second World War, cattle diets have shifted from hay to starchy grain feed. And the
Cornel team, …, now shows that the digestive systems of cows fed have generate less than 1% of
the E. coli found in the feces of grain-fed animals. (1578)
In efforts to improve the industry, scientific methods are being used in ranching and herding.
Scientific teams study the diets, like the team from Cornel in the Couzin article, as sources of
disease as well as means to spread the disease.
Disease effecting cattle trade has been a problem for a long time. Mad Cow disease is the
disease causing many regulations today. The trade with Great Britain, the area most affected
with the disease, has been restricted because of the threat of the spread of the disease. No
forms of the meat can be imported to the US, as George Gray explains, "the systems in place
break the cycles by which the disease spreads." (14) This stoppage of the trade and sanctions
within Great Britain are in efforts to put a stop to the disease. The trade has been effected
by disease before, but Great Britain imposed regulations on the trade with American beef around
1900. These regulations came from problems with packing and shipping of the meat, thus causing
the spread of disease. Richard Perren describes the problems with the earlier shipping methods,
because the meat can take, "longer to pass through the critical range of temperature where the
large ice crystals are formed and the damage is done" (431). More advanced shipping methods have
been developed, causing the trade to increase, because the threat of the spread of the disease
is now minimalized. The advanced methods showed that:
The problem of the ice crystals can be overcome by rapid freezing, but this is a twentieth-century
innovation which was not available to nineteenth-century refrigeration engineers. From this point
of view, it follows that the frozen beef brought from South America in the nineteenth century was
less palatable than the chilled beef which cam from the United States, and this is was partly
accounted for its lower price. (431)
This shows that early in the cattle industry the focus was still on profit and not on the spread
of disease. The price of the beef with the better shipping methods would be sold for more money,
and the beef that had lesser shipping methods would not be sold for as much. Inadvertently, the
disease problem with ice crystals was solved, but the beef was restricted in order to increase
profit and not for the chance that the public would become sick through the contaminated meat.
Perren also illustrates that:
In the early years of the trade conditions were very bad…, but in response to public misgivings
and government inquiries and inspection, the shippers were forced to improve such conditions.
Also, from their point of view, with insurance and freight cost to be paid, it was ultimately
in their best interests that the cattle arrived in Liverpool or London in a fresh condition with
unbruised flesh and having lost as little weight as possible on the voyage. (436)
The shippers has to improve their methods for economic purposes. The bruised flesh and weight
loss could have been an early sign of disease and the shippers could not afford to loose their
profit by the cattle being turned away.
C.J. Phillips, author and scholar on the topic, describes in his book, Principles of Cattle
Production, that, "in the long term, antibiotics will probably have restricted use as the
ability of pathogenic bacteria may be greater than our ability to find new antibiotics.
Farmers must therefore be prepared to use more prophylactic measures, such as reducing the
stock density of cattle and keeping them cleaner, to prevent disease transfer" (444). The
modern book on the cattle industry illustrates a shift in focus that is now widely held.
The focus in the cattle industry has shifted from a focus on production to a link with
diseases and production methods. Early authors debated on how to improve production, as
to increase numbers and profit, such as Galenson describes. Now, more recently, a focus
shift has occurred to examine disease and production together, such as Phillips explains.
The scholars now worry about disease effects on humans, which is given much attention in
main stream thought and media. The authors and scholars before main debate was to increase
profit through production at any means. The threat of Mad Cow disease spreading to humans
has been in wide news coverage for some time, prompting many of the changes in the industry
today. The shift in focus comes from the better understanding of the disease and improving
the production methods with the threat of a possible spread to humans. A link with profitability
has always been in place but in order to keep the industry together, the threat of spreading
the disease to humans has become the major concern for many.
Couzin, Jennifer. "Cattle Diet Linked to Bacterial Growth." Science 281.5383 (Sept., 1998): 1578.
Dennen, R. Taylor. "Cattle Trailing in the Nineteenth Century." The Journal of Economic History
35.2 (Jun., 1975): 458-60.
Diseases of Cattle. Cattle Today Inc. 21 Feb. 2003. http://www.cattletoday.info/.
Doran, Michael F. "Antebellum Cattle Herding in the Indian Territory." Geographical Review 66.1
(Jan., 1976): 48-58.
Galenson, David. "The End of the Chisholm Trail." The Journal of Economic History 34.2
(Jun., 1974): 350-64.
Gray PhD, George, Silvia Kreindel and David Ropeik. "Made Cow Disease Risk in the United States;
Does Perceived Threat Overshadow True Likelihood of Occurrence?" Postgraduate Medicine 111.2
(Feb., 2002): 13.
Perren, Richard. "The North American Beef and Cattle Trade with Great Britain, 1897-1914."
The Economic History Review 24.3 (Aug., 1971): 430-44.
Phillips, C. J. C. Principles of Cattle Production. New York, New York: CBI Publishing, 2001.
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