Rumen Nation: Cattle and Sustainability in the United States

Nicole Welk-Joerger

Nicole Welk-Joerger is the 2021-2022 Consortium Albert M. Greenfield Research Fellow.

My book project, Rumen Nation: Cattle and Sustainability in the United States, focuses on the place of the bovine body in debates about sustainability; its many historical facets and definitions in science, environment, and health. In the context of both environmental and public health crises, industrial agricultural practices have been at the forefront of debates in the ever-challenging balance to feed humans in the most economical, ethical, and ecologically careful ways possible. Bovines further aggravate these discussions given their historical entanglement with U.S. culture and the food that comes to represent it. Both beef and dairy cattle symbolize ideal protein consumption and socioeconomic wealth attached to the nutritional, commercial, and interpersonal relationships humans can have with cattle. It is a story that continues to be told locally and shared internationally, with agricultural development campaigns often citing growth in beef-eating and in cattle farming operations as “natural progressions” that signal prosperity in human society. 

Many studies on the history and U.S. significance of the cattle industry have argued for more attention to bovines as actors in processes of colonialism, capitalism, labor relations, and environmental degradation. Rumen Nation adds to these stories with its focus on the history of the science of ruminology, with the study of the rumen - the four-chambered stomach of cattle - setting the infrastructures built for bovines apart from other kinds of livestock operations. Beginning in the late 19th century, the rumen was the site of much promise in early studies of metabolism and investigations into the “transformation” of undesirable materials into desirable food. The book details why researchers focused on the rumen through the 20th century, how they studied this organ, how agribusinesses and their language changed with these studies, and, in the wake of these developments, how farmers went on to understand their animals differently.

I argue that this focus on the rumen in research at agricultural colleges and in R&D laboratories of agribusinesses went on to inform larger national debates about sustainable food and food production, which continue to inform our discussions of sustainability today – in the 21st century. We might even want to think of these sustainability debates– their tenor and cyclical nature – as ruminations: regurgitations of past data in longer-standing efforts to find fast solutions to emerging problems in order to maintain a fragile food infrastructure that has come to define the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (and millions of cattle) in the United States. I tell this story carefully, highlighting the experimental animals, everyday herds, and diverse range of farmers who contributed to these conversations with both ethnographic stories and archival findings. With the Greenfield Fellowship at the Consortium, I was able to explore rich historical primary source material that builds on my previous dissertation research in the creation of new sections of the book manuscript to better tell this intricate story.  

Science History Institute

In December 2021, I visited the Science History Institute (SHI) to investigate a series of collections and manuscripts related to national and international studies into ruminant nutrition. The collections at SHI include references to antibiotic products from Pfizer and Eli Lilly that were made specifically for livestock use. The James E. Cochran Archives have a spectacular collection of chemical trade literature, including a series of internal newsletters and magazines from Eli Lilly and Company. In spending time with this collection, I found new evidence focused on the R&D interests of Lilly in Rumensin – an antibiotic ionophore developed in the 1970s that was an important site for sustainability and health debates in the latter half of the 20th century. Rumensin was named for the special work it does in the bovine gut, and the early references to this additive alongside Stilbestrol (a livestock product later revealed to be an endocrine disruptor) proved to be an exciting finding during the fellowship period.

Coupling the Cochran Archives with the Lloyd H. Conover Papers at SHI helped me see ways to balance the antibiotic history narrative arc of my book project. Conover’s experience at Pfizer and the papers related to Tetracycline granted me clearer understanding of the connections between agricultural colleges, pharmaceutical companies, and feed industry associations in the building of a new language around antibiotics in the 1980s.

SHI also has a collection of scientific meeting proceedings from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. My reading of these proceedings will aid in my narrative distinction of the U.S. cases of sustainability from larger, contemporaneous global discussions.

Hagley Museum and Library

The time spent at the Hagley Museum and Library in 2022 and 2023 was invaluable for further development of the third chapter of the book, focused on nitrogen fixation and the transformation of materials produced from it into marketable livestock material. The Du Pont Executive Committee Minutes proved to be incredible sources to further trace the timeline and financial investment the chemical company placed on agricultural R&D. Photographs from the Du Pont Company exhibitions also demonstrated how cattle bodies were illustrated and depicted by different artists for agricultural marketing material.

The Raskob Papers – holding detailed reports from the Delaware-based Pioneer Point Farms – and the William du Pont, Jr. Papers – carrying the Foxcatcher Livestock Company records – continue to be sources I return to again and again, when I can, to get a sense of the changes in farming operations. The files are a treasure trove of the workings of two different approaches to cattle rearing, and include the costs associated with beef and dairying operations through the 20th century. My visit as a Greenfield Fellow granted me the chance to revisit these boxes with fresh eyes after taking much time with them in my tenure as an NEH-Hagley Fellow.


The Consortium’s Greenfield Fellowship allowed me the financial resources to complete archival research that has been crucial to the revisions and reframing I am working through in the completion of my book project. In my original proposal, I had hoped to also visit with some collections at the National Museum of American History and the Linda Hall Library – which I aim to potentially visit in the summer of 2023 due to earlier travel delays related to the pandemic. The Greenfield Fellowship has been invaluable in ensuring the improvement and completion of this book project.

Nicole Welk-Joerger