Category Archives: Animal Welfare

It makes me human…

My daughters laugh and ask, “So Mom, when are you going to build your hermitage out in the hills?” The question resurfaces as a family joke with each award that I receive for my blogging and “outreach” efforts.

Since they live with me, my girls are very much aware that I am an introvert. That tendency seems to grow stronger as I get older. Being social is difficult for me because I lack the innate confidence that many people naturally enjoy. At this point, I have not allowed myself the liberty of being a recluse but at times I find myself yearning for it.

I think that it amazes my kids that I can rally and open myself up on a daily basis — honestly, sometimes it amazes me. I am a bit of an enigma, but the short answer to the “how” question is that the war between Anne the introvert and Anne the teammate is currently being won by the latter. I keep trucking along because I recognize that in order to do my part to help make the world a better place, I have to dig deep and take one for the team.

During my adult life, I have learned to pull strength from my relationships with animals. As an introvert, I find it relatively easy to use perception and focus to understand my non-verbal four legged friends. When they teach me what they need, it helps to refuel my desire to get out of my comfort zone in order to make their lives better. On a very basic level, I am inspired by their need.

It was hard for me to close down my feed yard. It was harder still to consider walking away from my steadfast and determined effort to improve bovine animal welfare. It was this motivation that led me to start a new venture in February with the Beef Marketing Group. On a personal level, I struggled to find the confidence to take on a new role with a new team; but I found myself forging forward because I wasn’t ready to give up on the dream of getting better for them.

It’s interesting that I seem to receive the majority of my awards for social media outreach; yet what really drives me forward is the ability to improve the lives of the animals that depend on me.

I believe in raising cattle as food animals.

But this belief is strongly coupled with another one that consistently tips the winning scale for Anne the teammate. I believe that it is my duty to honor the sacrifice that my animals make by offering them the best life possible as they work to turn our resources into products that will nourish our bodies and enrich our lives.

Perhaps one day, I will feel as if my mission is complete. Until then, I am finding my way on the continual journey of improvement which enables the animals under my care to reach their God-given potential. I know that they enrich my life; so it is my duty to work to enrich their’s. Interestingly enough, my new job requires much more “people time” than my old one as I now work to inspire others to drink the kool-aid and join the crusade.

I guess that it’s going to be a while before I give in to that yearning to build a hermitage in the hills and take up the life of a recluse…While that yearning makes me human, the ability to move past it and engage despite my insecurities makes me Anne.

 

 

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Macro vs. Micro…

I became familiar with the words “macro” and “micro” when I took my first college economics class.  I signed up for two economics courses during my tenure at Dartmouth, not because I was really very interested in the subject, but because understanding basic economics fell under the “Anne’s necessary life skills” category.

I never developed a love for economics, but the psychologist in me became fascinated with all of the ways that I could interpret the world under the concept of macro vs micro.  It fascinated me to see how the big picture (macro) relied on the small details (micros) in order to be effective. familypicturefall2016

Last week I talked about my 5 Nuggets of Wisdom from a feed yard Boss Lady.  The first nugget, Be prepared to develop yourself and learn how to problem solve, holds the key to living a focused life. I am a believer in setting goals and creating a personal system of accountability.  This ensures both loyalty to personal core values and a purposeful life journey.  While I always pack my faith, I remember that LIFE is a verb.  As such, I set myself up for success by constantly developing plans to help me attain my goals.

A goal without a plan is simply a wish…

Let me offer an example.

One of my career goals is to improve animal welfare for cattle.  I made this commitment the day that I began my journey as a cowgirl, and twenty years later it still remains my passion.  This goal provides the macro. I recognized in June of 1997 that I needed to learn many things in order to improve welfare in a meaningful way. So, I developed a plan that allowed me to create the micros to help accomplish the goal.

  1. Learn bovine psychology and build an understanding of a prey animal’s brain.
  2. Develop the ability to *think like a bovine* thereby gaining insight into what is important to a calf.
  3. Understand the beef industry life cycle and the resources that drive that system.

After I accomplished these three necessary prerequisites, I could then begin to figure out ways to improve the system of raising cattle in order to make meaningful improvement in welfare. I recognized that long-lasting and meaningful change came from within, so I began the process on my farm.

  1. I became my own cattle buyer so that I could develop relationships with my ranchers and follow the animals all of the way through the production system. Once those relationships became developed, we worked on improved nutrition, vaccination, and cattle handling to create a lower stress environment over the lifetime of the animals. This enabled them to thrive and reach their God-given potential.
  2. I forged a bridge with a packing plant (I actually did with two different packing plants during my twenty-year tenure) so that my ranchers and I could trace the quality of our beef and make management decisions on our farms to continuously improve it.
  3. I adopted a management system at the feed yard to hold my crew and I accountable for animal care on a daily basis. We began with the Beef Quality Assurance Program and eventually raised the bar to begin using the Progressive Beef Quality Management System.  At that time, we began allowing outside auditors onto the farm to verify our care.

denke3april-jpgToday, the animal care at my feed yard looks a lot different than it did that inaugural day in the summer of 1997.  Incremental but significant change occurred over time as the focus on appropriate micros ensured an improvement for a macro concept. The dedication to the goal of improved welfare quite literally drove my career as a feed yard boss lady.

Because of it:

  • I was willing to work harder than my peers in order to prove myself.
  • I weathered awkward moments with grace and class.
  • I recognized that not everyone viewed the world as I did, and worked to build bridges in order to further the cause.

As I simultaneously raised my family, I shared my work with my three girls always reminding them to lead with your heart, but always take your brain along for the journey 🙂

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Accountability…

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the concept of accountability.  Many of the tasks that we do at the feed yard have to be completed regardless of weather or other extenuating circumstances.  Our animals and our farm hold us accountable on a daily basis.

I also live in a house full of teenagers.  My parenting style remains stubbornly loyal to a high level of accountability.  Over the years, I have found that children rise to meet expectations, and that learning accountability at a young age plays a huge role in creating a young adult who strives to be a positive contributor.

Last week, we shipped cattle on a bitterly cold -20 degree morning.  Yesterday, we traded below zero temperatures for a blustery 30 mile an hour north wind.  A weather front passed through as we were loading trucks dropping the temperature from 30 degrees to 13 degrees in a matter of twenty minutes.

horseswinterThe cold north wind is a real bugger when you are working outside.  It tends to make your eyes tear up and cry which wreaks havoc on visibility.  If you are really lucky, the tears freeze on your face before they have a chance to run off 😉  On days like this, I take the advice of my horses and (as much as possible) put my butt to the wind in order to shield my face.

Regardless of the challenges, we complete the task. The cattle must be loaded and shipped at the correct time so that the packing plant can remain on schedule.  Many things hinge on us doing our job in an appropriate and timely manner.  Most importantly, being organized and competent allows for better animal welfare due to less time in transit and waiting at the packing plant.

wintercattle3Our animals are very cold tolerant.  Bred to winter in Nebraska, they remain much more comfortable out in the cold than I do.  This time of year, they grow very thick hair coats and their unique prey animal eyes allow them to function well despite the cold north wind.  The short 20 mile trip from my farm to the packing plant allows for a relatively seamless last life experience.

I know that my animals make the ultimate sacrifice when they go to the packing plant.  Their gift drives me to an extremely high level of accountability.  There is honor in that gift, and I owe it to them to try and make the process as easy as possible.  This is why we ship cattle in the early morning – It allows for the least amount of disruption for them as they move through the final part of the beef life cycle.

My cattle taught me many things over the past two decades.  The importance of accountability and dependability rise quickly to the top of the list.  Cattle have very basic needs – they are simple creatures.  The key to providing good animal welfare lies in the caregiver’s ability to provide for those needs on a reliable basis.

annewintercattle1I remember as a child my mom describing me as a dependable and hard working kid. Over my adult life, I have taken those traits and put them to work in a positive way.  I would describe all three of my own girls as dependable and hard working.

Part of that is a genetic gift from God, and part of it is growing up on a farm and seeing first hand the high level of accountability that is required to humanely care for food animals.

Accountability, dependability, compassion, and grit…

These are the traits that I am most proud of – These are the traits that make me a good farmer.

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Tis the Season: For a Beard and a Basketball…

Each fall, when the temperatures hoover around O degrees for the first time, I mutter to myself that I need to figure out how to grow a beard. Last week our temperatures hit the zero degree level on the morning that we shipped cattle to Tyson.

annedougcattle-ship1ment

My foreman and I put on a bunch of layers of clothes, and I got out my fake beard for the first time since February.

Winter in Nebraska takes some getting used to.  While figuring out the role of a hood on a sweatshirt came instantaneously to me, learning how to layer correctly to work safely outside in the cold took a little bit longer. I have a few toes with frostbite damage to remind me of the learning curve…

To this day, I vastly prefer the summer and fall months to December and January, but farm chores continue in the winter-time despite the drop in temperature.  This time of year, Mother Nature offers challenges instead of resources so we have to provide care when the cattle need us — every single day.

9mccook9

 My favorite blonde cowgirl wisely trades her boots for basketball shoes for the winter.  She made the transition this year to high school basketball and brings the same winning attitude to her team as she brings to the feed yard crew.

Her hard work and focus earn her success and she proudly represents the Lady Haymakers this season on three levels:  9th and 10th grade, Junior Varsity, and the Varsity.  She’s playing in games four nights a week and packing her FAITH along the journey.

  • F ortitude
  • A ttitude
  • I ntegrity
  • T rust
  • H umility

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I love to watch her love basketball almost as much as I love to see her awesome work ethic make a positive difference.

When I think of all of the great things that being a farmer has brought to my life, raising my kids on the farm tops the list.  Megan runs a scoop shovel with the best of them.  She became a member of the farm crew at an early age, and learned the art of teamwork working cattle and dealing with weather challenges at the feed yard.

She understands that no necessary action is unimportant — no matter how physically demanding or mentally menial.

The girl has grit.

Last summer, I watched Megan practice basketball in our farm shop — Shooting more than 10,000 baskets during the hours outside of working at the feed yard and training for swim team. Inspired by the awesome set of Lady Haymaker basketball coaches, she combined her farm work ethic with a fledgling love for the game and began building the necessary set of ball handling skills.

ibb5

megbbalblizzard

I look at my favorite blonde cowgirl and I see my work-a-hol-ic nature combined with a unique zest for life. This combination packs a powerful punch that we fondly refer to as the art of Meganizing.

I recognize that personal need to make a difference that she wears on her face.  It gleams in her eyes both on the basketball court and on the farm — even when the rest of her face is covered with a matching cold weather mask while she scoops snow out of feed bunks in a blizzard 😉

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The Moment of Truth…

I am often described as an intense person.  Part of it stems from my natural personality, but a portion of it also comes from my life experiences.  I spent my formative years as a serious competitive athlete — trading Prom for national swimming championships and learning from a young age that success comes to those who work the hardest.  Although I retired from competitive swimming before I started my life on the farm, many of the chores that I do at the feed yard often inspire that same intense Anne.

BovinePhotoBomb.jpgI remember feeling raw fear the first time that I walked among a large group of cattle on the farm.  Commingling with 1500# animals was not something that I learned how to do at Dartmouth College 🙂

Our retired feed yard manager taught me how to herd, sort, and cowboy.  While it took a while to desensitize myself to the LARGENESS of the animals, the bovine mind intrigued me enough to take me past that initial fear.

Working with prey animals requires an intense concentration. Getting distracted not only erodes your effectiveness as the herd leader, but it can also be very dangerous.  Not too long after I started working at the feed yard, I began participating on the ship out crew.  This provided one of my greatest moments of truth.

The amount of power that a herd of 1500# animals exudes is nothing short of awesome. A savvy and seasoned cowboy works effectively to ensure that all that powerful animal energy moves harmoniously in the correct direction.  Moving those giant animals through the corral for the last time always offers me a moment of humility.

An older Karlberg steer that shipped to Tyson today -- more to come on "Benny" in the next post...My foreman and I greeted last Friday morning early to ship cattle to Tyson. Although the sky was clear, the crescent moon provided little light as we moved through the darkness to herd the animals from the home pen down to the corral.  The 18 degree temperature provided for both a cool experience and poor visibility with steam rising off the animals as well as from our own breaths.  The ground was frozen unevenly due to a recent rain storm and the cold temperatures.

I felt both intensely human as well as intensely vulnerable as the animals moved through the corral and up onto the semi-truck.  Each time that we ship cattle, I accept the personal risk that exists when working with animals almost 15X your size.  I can control my own actions and use my skills to create positive herd movement. However, there are no guarantees.  In a purely physical match, I would lose every time.  This creates a moment of truth.

We ship our cattle without the use of any large equipment: simply a cowboy on foot or on horseback. The art of moving the large animals safely from the home pen up into the semi-truck lies in the hands of a small cowboy crew.  Success requires a blend of intuition and skill, and putting the big ones on the bus provides the most challenging task performed at the feed yard.

In just over two months, I will ship my last pen of cattle to slaughter.  Even though I close that chapter of my life, I will forever carry with me a deep appreciation for all of the cowboys that continue to perform this task on farms all across the Midwest.

The blend of vulnerability and intense strength in the action creates a memory that lasts a lifetime.

 

 

 

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An Appropriate Sense of Urgency…

A few years ago, I heard another feed yard manager talk about the importance of the feed yard crew employing an appropriate sense of urgency to individual situations on the farm.  I’ve held onto that phrase in my head because I think that it holds the crux of successful animal care.  Personal reactions to farm events determine the effectiveness of their control — whether you are the boss/ foreman or the water tank cleaning crew.

We run a “short crew” on Sundays at the feed yard.  My three guys take turns feeding on Sundays having to work every third weekend.  It is a nice way to ensure that the crew gets some family time despite the long hours of work on the farm.  We really can’t get the work load finished on Sunday mornings with just one person, so I am a permanent Sunday morning crew member.  I read bunks, check water tanks, observe cattle health, and generally do whatever needs done while my other crew member drives the feed truck delivering breakfast.

Most Sundays, it works like a charm.

dsc_0580-1This week, I arrived at the feed yard just before 6:00 to start chores.  My cowboy met me at the front gate with the unfortunate news that our main well had gone down and all of our water tanks were empty.

 

This is significant for two reasons:

  1. Water is critical — our animals have to have it —  having a well problem on a Sunday morning is a BIG DEAL.
  2. This Sunday was not my “cowboy’s weekend” — it was his day off.  However, he had stopped by the feed yard on his way to town for breakfast just to make sure that everything was okay.

The feed yard has a back up well, so we fiddled around in the dark and got it started.  The problem with the back up well is that it is not as powerful — it’s primary job is to supply extra water to cattle in the summer, not to provide the total water supply.  We’ve never had this problem before (showing up on Sunday morning to find water tanks dry), so Rich and I debated how long we thought it would take for the back up well to refill the water tanks.

Megsunrise2.jpgI really hate to bother my foreman on the Sunday morning that is supposed to be his day off.  However, it seemed an appropriate sense of urgency to call him as I was unsure if the secondary well would provide enough water.  I am sure that he was really excited to hear my friendly voice on his cell phone at 6:30am on his “off” Sunday; but he’s a dedicated animal caregiver and was out at the feed yard within 20 minutes.

The story ends well…

The secondary well did an awesome job and had water tanks refilled in about an hour and a half.  Our local well repair company came out Monday to install a new pressure switch on the main well — and the 1700 bovines on the farm remained well cared for throughout the entire episode.

Times like this remind me of the importance of the loyalty, integrity, and compassion of my crew.  My cowboy and my foreman are a rare breed of men — always putting responsibility to the animals ahead of personal agendas.  I have been blessed to have them on the feed yard crew for my entire tenure on the farm and I am very proud of our high level of teammanship.

As we transition the farm, they will both begin to play a new role but Matt and I are very thankful that they will remain members of our farm team.

 

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Benny Had a Good Life…

Likely the most often asked question by my non-farming friends is “How can you care for animals for long periods of time and then send them to their death?”

I love animals.  I love spending time around them, and I enjoy the daily interactions that go along with their care.  To be a caregiver is both a responsibility and an honor, and I am thankful to play that role. The answer to the above question exists amidst my own philosophical belief that different types of animals hold different types of purposes…

  • The stray dog that showed up one day at the feed yard lives in my house and falls under the category of “pet”.
  • The horses that live in my back yard are supposed to fall under the category of “work animal” (but likely trend closer to ‘pet status’).
  • The cattle that live at my feed yard are “food animals”.

I care for all of them with the same set of values as that is my God-given duty, but the actions of care that I provide differ depending on the animal’s purpose.   

Cattle exist to turn non-edible resources (like grass) into products that people need: a nutrient dense protein source, leather, soap/cosmetics, and human pharmaceuticals to name just a few.  They deserve a good life, but the end of life for a bovine holds a link to sacrifice as that is his express purpose.

Kurt and Jessa Karlberg

Kurt and Jessa Karlberg

I’d like to take a moment to share “Benny’s story” as I think that it illustrates my answer to the above important question.

Benny was born on the Karlberg Ranch and lived briefly with his natural mother.  Sometimes Mother Nature acts harshly, and Benny was orphaned not long after birth.  He got a new “mama” by the name of Jessa Karlberg.  Jessa bottle fed Benny until he was big enough to eat grass and grow on his own.  He ate, slept, and played with herd mates.

bennyjessaJessa cared and he thrived.

Benny had a good life.

When Benny weighed about 940# (14 months of age), he left the Karlberg Ranch and traveled to Will Feed.  He traded grass for a feed yard casserole, and Jessa for me as a primary caregiver.  He ate, slept, and played with herd mates.  In just over 3 months, he gained 530#.

I cared and he thrived.

Benny had a good life.

benny2-jpgLast Sunday, Jessa came to visit Benny.  A couple of days later, I “put him on the bus” to head 20 miles down the road to the Tyson packing plant.  Benny fulfilled his purpose, and offered 1450# of products to nourish and provide for all of us.  By fulfilling his purpose, Benny returned all of the care that Jessa and I offered to him during his lifetime.

Benny had a good life.

Benny’s life resulted in products that, in turn, ensure that each of us has a good life. There is honor in that story. There is honor in Benny’s gift.

I think that it is time for all of us to celebrate the reality of food production — To have faith in the farmers and ranchers that dedicate their lives to raise animals like Benny. When we are thankful for the gift, we ultimately respect the sacrifice.

It’s okay to think of Benny, Jessa, and I when you eat a steak.  Benny had a good life; and Jessa and I worked hard so that you could reap the benefit 🙂

 

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Pick Your Battles…

Last week while I was moving cattle, I had a calf try to crawl through the feed bunk into a neighboring pen.  I adjusted my angle to the calf and encouraged him back to the rest of his herd mates.  Part way through the interaction, my cowboy became aware of the situation and starting barking orders at me and “loving Pete”.  I chose to ignore him as I had the situation completely under control.

AnneMeg.jpgMy favorite blonde cowgirl happened to be along that day and later asked me why I just quietly continued to move the calf instead of responding to my cowboy’s criticism.  I summed it up in three words, “Pick your battles”.

She looked pretty perplexed with my response so I decided that it was a good time to share a well learned life lesson.  I asked her, “Megan, did the calf respond appropriately and do what I asked him to do?”  As she nodded her head affirmatively, I pointed out that the goal was accomplished so there was no point in creating drama with my crew.

There are many kinds of leadership – passive, active, verbal, and non-verbal.  In regards to cattle handling, I choose to lead by example.  Cattle move best in situations where the handler maintains mental composure.  As the lead handler in this situation, it was in the calf’s best interest for me to continue to interact calmly.  I know my cowboy well (we have worked closely together for 20 years), so I also recognized that ignoring him while completing the task correctly was the best choice.

Sometimes it isn’t about who is right –

It is about completing the job well and doing the best thing for the animal.    

Over the last two decades, the words pick your battles have circled through my head tens of thousands of times.  Whether it is interacting with my own crew or sitting in a meeting with other folks involved in raising beef, I think that one of the most important lessons is learning when to speak up and when to bite my tongue.    I discovered a long time ago that life isn’t about pride and personal affirmation; it’s about doing the right thing to create positive improvement.

  • I am anal about cattle care.
  • I am passionate about always trying to be better tomorrow than I am today.
  • I stubbornly stick to my values even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing.

But, I have come to understand that meaningful change occurs when my idea becomes someone else’s idea.  Sometimes the best way to make that happen is to let my actions speak and keep my words where they belong – inside of my mouth…

Megan got awfully quiet at the end of our conversation, and I could tell that she was looking at the situation with my cowboy from a different perspective.  Perhaps the next time someone “yanks her chain” and she starts to fight back, she will stop and remember the art of picking your battles 🙂

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