Michael Pollan decided to raise his own steer and bring it to slaughter so he could observe the entire process. He refers to the steer as 534. It’s hard to read the “Fresh Air” transcript of Michael Pollan telling Terry Gross about his acquisition of Steer 534 without thinking of those eharmony TV ads.
Michael Pollan: Well, I didn’t know the first thing about picking animals … So I asked the ranchers, you know, How do you find a good one?
Steer 534: Most of the cattle around here grow up assuming they’ll get picked by a buyer from McDonald’s, places like that. I always held out for something better. I wanted someone who cared about me before he slaughtered me.
Michael Pollan: And the ranchers said, when you’re buying beef flesh, you’re looking for a straight back, really even line without any kind of sway, and wide hips, or hindquarters, as they call them, and broad shoulders. And basically you’re looking for a really strong, level and plump frame on which to hang a lot of meat.
Steer 534: When I saw Michael walk into the field with the rancher, I held my breath. I mean, Michael Pollan. The author who wrote so eloquently about letting us romp around in the fields before it’s time for the slaughterhouse. Some cattle want ranchers that treat them bad before they slit their necks. It’s a self-esteem issue.
Michael Pollan: So I spotted this one … a nice stout animal. But he also had these three white blazes on his face. It was very distinctive … so that’s the one I picked.
Steer 534: Michael was stooped over, shaved head. Kind of an effete intellecutual looking guy. Not the hard muscled farm people I’m used to at all. He had this way about him. He wouldn’t look you directly in the eye. Like he felt guilty or something. It was so endearing. I mean he was after the same thing as all the others, but you know...
Michael Pollan: 534 was born on the Blair brothers’ ranch, which is a beautiful spread of 11,000 acres outside Sturgis, South Dakota.
Steer 534: just a small steer from South Dakota. Never in my wildest dreams did I think … I mean, come on, he’s Michael Pollan.
Michael Pollan: And as soon as he could stand up and begin nursing from his mother … he’s number 534, she’s number 9534 … they send him out to pastures … you know, incredible salad bar of gorgeous native grass that kind of form a pelt in this ranch. It’s an idyllic setting. And, you know, these are the best months of his life, I dare say.
Steer 534: Best month of my life? That would be November. The first week. I’ll never forget it.
Michael Pollan: I met 534 the first week of November and chose him so he was already living the confined life…
Steer 534: I mean you don’t want to be killed by just anyone. It’s a once in a lifetime event, so you want to find the right person. Most of my friends end up in a can of Dinty Moore stew or maybe a quarter pounder with cheese. I’m like, no thank you, I’m holding out for someone who eats me with consciousness, ceremony and respect.
Michael Pollan: And, you know, my big question, as I look ahead to what’s going to happen to number 534 is, will he know when he’s traveling up that ramp at the National Beef plant … this is his destiny right now in June … will he know what’s about to happen to him?
Steer 534: Michael is so considerate. How many people are compassionate enough to care what we’re thinking when we’re about to be slaughtered?
Michael Pollan: And I asked Temple Grandin this. And she is the best student of the animal point of view I think we have. And she said she very carefully observed animals going through the chutes … that take them to their death. And she detected no difference in their reaction. And she claims there would be a whole lot more agitation on the part of the animal if they were getting any kind of inkling what lay ahead down the end of this ramp.
Steer 534: can you believe it? He cared enough about me to actually ask Temple Grandin. I mean she’s a busy woman, what with her consulting gig at McDonald’s and her slaughterhouse designing and all .. yet Michael thought enough about me to ask her if we know we’re about to die. It was so incredibly thoughtful of him. I didn't have the heart to tell him of course we know we're about to die. His sense of self-righteousness is so adorable. I didn't want to change it in any way.
Michael Pollan: The slaughterhouse has promised me a box of steaks from 534, and I feel obliged to eat them.
Steer 534: That’s the kind of guy my Michael is. I know how much he prefers grass-fed beef and other forms of beef that are better for him and more defensible from an environmental perspective. But he’s going to accept the box of steaks carved from my carcass after I’m slaughtered because of his affection for me. I count my blessings every day that with a world of cattle out there, a guy who could have the steer of his choice picked little old me.