Monday, May 2, 2011

Cows at the Stanford Dish

One of my favorite local hikes is the Stanford Dish, a scenic and invigorating loop in the Stanford hills between the campus and 280 freeway. Its nickname comes from the two large radiotelescope satellite dishes that sit near the apex. The main loop is about 3 miles around, while an extra length from the Alpine Road entrance makes a longer path of about 5 miles. For locals, it's an easy and sure-fire way to get in fresh air, exercise, and great views. On a clear day I can see south to San Jose, north to downtown San Francisco, and east over the Dumbarton Bridge to Fremont.

For about half of the year from November to May, a couple hundred cows make their home at the Dish.  They're young cattle recently weaned from their mothers and purchased from breeders. For seven bucolic months they graze on the Dish's green grass before they eventually move on to a feedlot until they're large enough for slaughter (sniff). Some are not shy at all, get very close to hikers, and seem just as curious about us as we are with them. It's wonderful to see these bovine beings grazing, meandering, and lazing in the sun.

By now many have learned that grass-feed cows produce healthier meat than corn-fed cows. Corn-fed beef has more saturated fat and less of the good omega-3 fatty acids. In the book Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes how cows have evolved over millions of years to eat grass, while grasses likewise have evolved to be eaten by cows. Cows help grasses by keeping them trimmed, eating other plants that might compete, spreading grass seed, and fertilizing. It's a natural, healthy, co-dependent cycle.

There's some debate about how good grass-fed beef tastes compared to corn-fed. Many eat grass-fed beef because of the better quality of life for the cows. Some believe beef tastes better when combining grass fed and grains, which may be a good balance between the two. A growing awareness of the morality of eating meat brings both more knowledge and confusion, but becoming more informed of the larger context of our food choices makes us better consumers. The intertwined life cycles of grasses, cows, and humans can be sustainably balanced--if we try.

For me, the main benefit of seeing cows at the Dish is that they make me smile. While the cows chew their cud, stare back, and moo, I appreciate them most for being part of the pastoral landscape and enhancing my Dish experience. If you haven't hiked the Dish loop in a while or ever, go soon and say hi to the cows while you're there.

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