Answering Questions: Responding to a recent comment…

I received the below comment on Friday afternoon from a blog site visitor. Over the lifetime of Feed Yard Foodie, many people have issued advice/comments similar to this so I decided that perhaps it provided a good blog post topic. When I receive notes like this, all that I have to go on are the words written because most people do not chose to introduce themselves or give me much, if any, personal information in addition to their advice.

“i understand this is your way of farming, and that’s your prerogative. but consider this:
if you have 3000 acres, why not put the cattle out on grass instead? you could even do rotational grazing (which makes the forage super nutritious in a very short time) with half or 1/10th of labor costs compared to labor in a feedlot operation, no feed farming labor and seed costs, fertilizer automatically goes back into the ground while grazing, no medicines, or very little medicine necessary in a pasture operation; no overwhelming manure smell either! it just seems healthier, simpler, better for the environment, cows do and eat more what they would naturally do and eat outside: graze on grass and forbs; and healthier meat is produced which equals healthier humans. win-win all around.”
– JG, DVM

annemattsummer.jpg

Dear JG,

I believe that part of a farmer’s job is to consider all angles relative to natural resource availability. My favorite farmer and I have routine “brainstorming sessions” as we plan for the long term sustainability of our farm. While we have never chosen to go down the road that you suggest, it is not because of lack of consideration.

There are two main reasons that our farm remains diversified (with the production/growth of a variety of products instead of one grass/cattle product):

1. Farm use of natural resources is maximized under a diversified system, thereby allowing us to lower our total environmental footprint.

2. The long term economic sustainability of our farm is better protected under a marketing program that has a blend of products to be sold “off farm”.

The unique blend of traditional and organic alfalfa and corn production combined with a cattle feed yard allows a sustainable cycle of growth across the farm. The Platte River Valley provides us with a fertile silty loam soil that allows the growth of high quality feedstuffs that can be either used “on farm” or exported off the farm to feed a variety of animals.  The animals in our feed yard produce both beef/beef products to be exported, and also manure which can be agronomically applied to our farm ground to ensure healthy soil maintenance. The bottom line is that we can grow more animal feed and human-use products in this manner than simply growing grass.

The sustainability of rural America is rooted in both social and economic factors. Matt and I are proud to employ local members of our town, and do our part to stimulate the economy of rural Nebraska.  We also work hard to sustain the heart of our town by working as volunteers in the community. I encourage you to get to know us better by reading additional blog posts that detail our role as community members and mentors.

The diversity of our farm plays a key role in economic sustainability as it allows us to both use and produce more products that stimulate our local economy. As farmers and business owners, our primary job is to ensure that our farm can continue on into the future. When our farm sustains, then our community sustains — they are intrinsically blended.

Let’s look at a little bit of “cowboy” math to delve further into this…

Following your suggested model: Our farm currently consists of approximately 4000 acres. If our land was all planted to grass pastures, it would provide for approximately 800 head of cattle (in a year of average rainfall) in a 12 month cycle. Mother Nature only “provides” in Nebraska for about 5 months out of the year, so grazing nutrient dense grass pastures year round is impossible even using a rotational grazing plan. The winter in Nebraska requires feeding animals – whether they are fed a forage diet or a combination of forage/starch diet – they must receive supplemental feed in order to remain healthy.

Our diversified model produces 15,000 Tons of dehydrated alfalfa feed pellets, 600 tons of baled alfalfa, 120,000 bushels of corn, 400 tons of baled corn stalks, and grows 5500 animals for harvest each 12 month cycle. While we do purchase a portion of our cattle feedstuffs “off farm” from neighbors, and perhaps our method requires more labor, the output numbers still paint a very clear picture. Matt’s and my additional devotion to environmental protection allows us to produce this much animal feed and human protein while also being good stewards to the land.

Many thanks to Miranda Reiman for taking this picture...

Many thanks to Miranda Reiman for taking this picture…

Relative to animal welfare/ wellbeing: Our feed yard allows for the 5 Freedoms of Cattle just like a pasture operation. We offer large outdoor pens and consistent feed, water, and daily care. The established 5 Freedoms of Cattle are as follows:

  • Freedom from thirst, hunger, and malnutrition – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  • Freedom from discomfort – by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to express normal bovine behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind (herd mates)
  • Freedom from fear and distress — by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering

Additionally, I believe that my healthy farm produces high quality healthy meat, all while being a positive contributor to a healthy rural economy for my community. A win/win deal for all!

Thanks for reaching out to me.

Best,

Anne

37 Comments

Filed under CAFO, Farming, General

37 responses to “Answering Questions: Responding to a recent comment…

  1. Larry DeShon

    Your reply is excellent! I may be smaller than your operation but I so agree. I guess I use the 5 Freedoms and didn’t know it!!

    • Thank you, Larry. I appreciate it. I became aware of the 5 Freedoms about 12 years ago from a Nebraska veterinarian named Tom Noffsinger. Dr. Tom is an amazing animal caregiver and has been a mentor to me in the years that have followed.

      I appreciate your kind words.
      Best,
      Anne

  2. Kathy Bottrell

    The one thing you didn’t touch on, and this may just be personal preference, but I think cattle finished out on grain make for better tasting beef.

    • Thanks Kathy — I happen to agree with you! I love all beef, but my tendency is toward grain fed because I, like you, prefer the taste. I figure that I am probably a bit biased on that topic since I really like to eat my own beef and it is grain fed🙂

      I guess that perhaps it is where I come from (roots in urban America), but it brings me an enormous sense of pride to take one of my animals to a local slaughter facility and then be able to bring the meat from that animal home to my freezer to feed to my family. I love food — I love beef — but I also truly love being a farmer and being able to grow it myself!

      Best,
      Anne

  3. Perfect response! Unfortunately what “makes sense” to the uneducated about meat animal protein production and production agriculture in general, is a ‘fer piece from reality. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment and support Deb. Responding to comments like this one are a struggle for me. The “human” in me gets angry that my chosen type of farming is somehow perceived as “wrong”, but the farmer in me realizes that my customers want me to explain why I do the things that I do. Hopefully I do justice to both sides…

      Best,
      Anne

  4. I really love this response!! I have always grown up in agriculture and have been posed this question many times. Thank you for providing a good quality answer that I can share to help Agvoate even better!

  5. John Butler

    Good Very good Ok ……. This time I have a favor To ask you……

    I want u to teach me how to blogg

    Not sure I have time but think I probably need to make time

    John Butler Sent from my iPhone

    • Thanks John. It is an interesting journey — one that I think is worth the effort. We’ll have to visit about it sometime soon!

      Best,
      Anne

  6. Sue Ferguson

    Anne, your response is intelligent and nonjudgmental. I love the 5 Freedoms! I’m sure you’ve talked about it before but I must have missed it. If more people who are concerned about eating humane become aware of the 5 Freedoms, I think they might feel better about it. Good job!

    • Hello Sue Fan! Yes, I too love the 5 Freedoms — I learned about them about 12 years ago from a veterinarian who has become a mentor for me. They are important to the calf — they are important to me — they are likely important to many people who eat animal based protein. It is putting the basic core of good bovine welfare into a list of freedoms that farmers provide to their animals.

      Glad that you enjoyed the post. I struggle a bit to be “intelligent and nonjudgmental” so I am glad that you perceived it that way!

      Great to hear from you. Hope that your family is all well!
      Love,
      Anne

  7. Jim Cooper, Grant NE

    Very good blog. It is hard to explain the combination of resources available in Nebraska that make it a very good place to raise and feed cattle and conduct agricultural operations in general. A 2000 mile roadtrip crisscrossing the state in each season would do wonders for educating urban America on what we do and why but that is not going to happen but blogs like yours, one story at a time go a long way.

    • Yes, Jim — we live in the midst of one of the most amazingly diverse ecosystems. I am frequently in awe of all of the resources that Nebraska offers to its farmers. It is a truly special place, and I think that we (farmers/ranchers) have a very special job figuring out how to use those resources judiciously.

      I appreciate your kind words. As always, thanks for reading.
      Best,
      Anne

  8. Adele Hite, MPH RD

    Great post! I would add that there’s very little evidence that entirely “grass-fed” (really forage/grass, I think) beef is any better for humans than beef from animals fed a mixture of forage & grain. There’s some talk about “improved” omega-3/omega-6 ratios but the difference between grass-fed and mixed feed beef are quite small compared to, say, the o-3/o-6 ratio from chicken or soybean oil.

    • Adele,

      You are the perfect person to bring that up — Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!

      Wonderful addition to the conversation.
      Best,
      Anne

  9. davebrown9

    Could you do a little more cowboy math for me? I was wondering, how many acres would be required to furnish the feed you purchase from neighbors? Also, do you irrigate some of your crops? Thanks.

    • Hi Dave,

      I’m happy to add to the math. The corn is pretty much a swap for us relative to acres. The math gets fuzzy relative to WDG because the corn that makes WDG is used for both animal feed and to produce ethanol. It gets complicated so I left it out. We started growing some organic corn to export “off farm” about the time that the ethanol plants started providing us with Wet Distillers Grains for feed. We do irrigate the corn that we grow on the farm.

      We have always exported alfalfa dehy pellets “off farm”. In fact, my husband’s family were alfalfa farmers dating back many generations to Mennonite farms in Ohio. Matt’s grandfather moved his family to the Platte River Valley about 70 years ago bringing the alfalfa farming heritage with him. Our family’s cattle feed yard was not started until the late 1960’s (close to twenty years after they settled in NE). The baled alfalfa and cornstalks that come off of the farm go to provide the forage that my animals need, the dehy pellets are sold “off farm” into a variety of markets. We do not irrigate the alfalfa.

      Hope this helps.
      Best,
      Anne

      • davebrown9

        Thanks, I was curious as to how many acres of your own land would be required to nourish one cow year round without external feed inputs. You said, “Our farm currently consists of approximately 4000 acres. If our land was all planted to grass pastures, it would provide for approximately 800 head of cattle (in a year of average rainfall) in a 12 month cycle.” Is that 800 animals for harvest?

      • Dave,

        It would take more like 24 months to get the grass fed cattle to harvest weight.

        Anne

  10. I love this carefully written, conscientious response. It’s easy for people without true hands-on experience, who have done a little bit of reading, to offer insight. The view of farming and ranching from an office or a couch is very limited compared to the real-life, day-to-day decision-making that has to occur. And the science and education that goes into it is very rarely communicated properly to the general public. You’ve touched on all of these things in this post beautifully and informatively. As someone living in a large city, I’d be proud to eat your beef!

    • Thank you, Kelly! I really appreciate your kind words — they mean a lot to me. It always brings a smile to my face when someone tells me that they would be proud to eat my beef. You said it just right, and made my day.

      Best,
      Anne

  11. Bobbi

    Anne – great response. The major set back and what I consider the main deciding factor in implimenting a rotational grazing system especially an intense rotatational system is the amount of labor required to keep up with moving cattle and moving electric fences. In my mind on your 4000 acres if you grazed for 5 months you would likely still employ most if not all of your current feedlot employees for just the spring and summer time. So what do you do with the employees in the winter? Even if you could graze year round you would still have a large work force to keep up with haying, fencing, chopping ice on tanks, delivering feed supplements to cattle along with the cattle and fence rotations. I have friends who do a intensive rotational grazing system and it is a full time job for 2-3 people to keep up with 500 momma cows. Between moving cows and electric fence, hauling supplement and extra hay in the winter, haying in the summer, and all the “normal” work that comes with operation a cow/calf ranch.

    • Thank you, Bobbi — I was really hoping that a reader would add context to the rotational grazing part of the conversation. I appreciate you doing that so eloquently! You bring up some really great points — things that I talked to my girls about this weekend when we were discussing the comment referenced above. I think that it sends a powerful message to have different folks bring up different perspectives on the topic — so glad to have a rancher’s perspective shared here relative to grazing.

      I really appreciate you adding to the conversation.

      Thanks!
      Anne

  12. Carol Ingram

    Jim and I loved your blog post and I also loved reading all of the great responses you’ve gotten so far as well. As usual, you’ve done a fantastic job of educating without criticizing the individual with the question. As Bobbi just pointed out, rotational grazing isn’t that easy. We’re finding that out very quickly with just trying to keep 2 horses from overgrazing our 40 acres of Wyoming desert. Here we have to feed year around in addition to whatever they can get from the pastures and they can overgraze an area in a very short time.

    • Thank you, Carol! I am hoping to get out to visit you this July when I take my girls to see my mom🙂

      Hope that spring is coming to your mountain desert country!
      Anne

  13. Megan S

    Another great blog post! I appreciate you well thought out, educational responses. Keep it up!

    • Thank you, Megan. I appreciate your kind words. When you have to consistently defend what you do, it makes for a well thought out plan🙂

      Best,
      Anne

  14. Anne your response is a work of a thoroughly knowledgeable person. You addressed specific issues raised by JG. very resouyceful

  15. Rex

    Great post Anne,
    At first I was going to observe that many grass fat operations are in areas with very long growing seasons, and then I remembered that there is an association or cooperative of grass fat farmers in North Dakota. They get the cattle to their harvest weight by swath, bale grazing or feeding forage during the winter and then harvesting at the end of the following summer. Some may run the cattle on sorghum mixtures or standing corn into December. If they need temporary fences they either set the posts in the fall or drill them into the frost. They expect to harvest much lighter cattle and a much lower rate of gain. They rely on lower input costs and a premium for a particular market.
    However, I believe the efficiencies of feeding casseroles to cattle in a feedyard more than makes up for the added challenges and that you have done a great job of meeting them.

  16. Feedlots are not my idea of good stewardship, nor healthy meat production. In fact, it is meat like yours that made me ill–the reason I have become a vegetarian. Science has shown that meat raised on grass is much higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3’s, while grain fed meat contributes inflammatory fatty acids that predispose people to heart disease. I understand resistance to change…it is human nature, and realize that change can be very difficult. But while you wrote a good PR piece, I’d prefer your response showed flexibility and recognition that better livestock husbandry models exist to feeding the world (the meat part of it) AND healing the land, at the same time. Please watch this:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6HGKSvjk5Q&feature=youtu.be&list=PLAJUAkTv8c00GWAmVp2rGnLsrNg7h1tPx

    Thanks!

    • Hi Ena,

      Thanks for stopping by. I am sorry that you had a bad experience eating meat, but I can assure you that I feed my family beef that I grow every day and feel that it helps them to achieve balanced health. I believe that Americans can be healthy using a variety of diets, and do not believe that a “one size fits all model” approach to either eating or farming is appropriate. In fact, the purpose behind my rather long-winded response in the above blog post was to demonstrate the importance of diversity in farming. It was not meant as “PR piece” at all — it was a heart felt explanation of why our farm operates the way that it does. I am sorry that you were unable to glean that message from my words.

      If you look above, you will see a comment from a registered dietician who follows my blog — she notes that the difference in omega-3 levels between grass fed and grain fed beef are very small. I recognize that people have the right to choose what they purchase and eat — I support both grass fed and grain fed beef farmers. But, as my blog post states, there are good reasons why I choose to grow grain fed beef on my farm.

      Thanks,
      Anne

    • davebrown9

      Thanks for the link to the Greg Judy lecture, Ena. That was an amazing presentation.

      You are correct about grain fed meat contributing fatty acids that promote inflammation. But that holds true only for chickens, turkeys, and pigs. In cattle, biohydrogenation converts the linoleic acid in feed to more benign fatty acids so the flesh of grass fed and grain fed animals, as Anne noted, differs little. http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2180/10/52

      Vegetarian or omnivore, it’s important to minimize linoleic acid intake. http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7255/rapid-responses I learned the hard way that consuming too much peanut butter can, over time, ruin a person’s health. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2014-10-03/article/42529?headline=Perils-of-Peanuts–David-Brown-Kalispell

      Thankfully, the edible oils industry has taken steps to reduce the linoleic acid content of its products. They are doing so because of the toxic elements that are given off when high linoleic acid oils are used in high temperature food preparation applications. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/the-big-fat-surprise-toxic-heated-oils/

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