Category Archives: CAFO

All Before a Cup Of Coffee…

It’s a family joke that I don’t drink coffee because it exacerbates my inability to sit still. The “rest of the story” is that I don’t drink a morning cup of coffee because my alarm goes off at 5:35 am and I am out the door 10 minutes later. My morning “home” routine is short and for the vast majority of the year it is performed in the predawn darkness. Matt has always taken care of the girls in the morning hours before school because the feed yard day starts by 6:00 am.

Actually, my oldest daughter would claim that she is in charge in the morning rather than her dad --- I figure teamwork is what it is all about!

Actually, my oldest daughter would claim that she is in charge in the morning rather than her dad — I figure teamwork is what it is all about!

With a feed yard to manage and three active daughters, my days tend to waffle between busy and just short of frantic. This week has tended toward the latter. Just to share a glimpse, I figured that I would run through my day Tuesday.

You’ll have to let me know if I have labeled it correctly by calling it just short of frantic…

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5:35 Leave home to go to the office to print out animal withdrawal reports for the two pens of steers that we were scheduled to ship to Tyson – We have a multi-tier system set up at the feed yard to ensure that every animal is healthy and antibiotic free heading to the packing plant. I am in charge of that system and printing withdrawal reports is one of the tiers.

6:00 Arrive at the feed yard and read bunks: this is where I look at all of the feed bunks at the feed yard (there are 24 of them—one for each pen) to see how much feed from yesterday is left over to help make a good choice of what the animals in each pen should be fed today.

6:20 Enter bunk reading calls into the computer and slate the appropriate amount of feed for the day for each pen.

6:35 Start weighing semi-trucks to ship cattle to Tyson.

6:45 Pick up my cowboy and go out into the first pen that was slated to ship – ask the cattle to leave the pen and travel down to the corral area, then load them on the three designated trucks.

7:10 Go back out and gather the second pen of cattle to ship – trailing them down to the corral area and load them on the other three designated trucks.

7:50 Weigh the trucks “full” for a sale weight on the cattle and give all paperwork and instructions to the truck drivers as they leave the feed yard to travel 20 miles to the Tyson packing plant.

8:00 Complete the rest of the paperwork on the cattle that shipped.

9:00 Take part in a Tyson Farm Check Conference Call.

9:45 Field a phone call from my primary wet distillers grain supplier (Cornhusker Energy) to learn that the plant was broken down and I would not receive my daily loads of cattle feed this week.

9:50 Scramble on the phone to procure wet distillers feed from a different ethanol plant so that my cattle could continue to receive their normal, healthy ration (casserole).

10:00 Meet the field agent for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality for my yearly CAFO inspection.

11:30 Travel from the feed yard to our main office to complete daily office / computer tasks which included purchasing and setting up logistics for ranch cattle that will travel to the feed yard today.

I went home briefly to eat lunch, but I can’t remember what leftovers I found in the refrigerator to heat up.

1:00 Traveled back to the office to work on more paperwork including preparing carcass and feed yard performance data to share with the rancher whose cattle I shipped to Tyson the week prior.

3:20 Pick up my favorite blonde 4th grader from school. Go home briefly to do chores (chickens, horses, dog, and cats).

4:00 Cheer for my favorite blonde cowgirl in her Junior High Track Meet (she took first place in the Pole Vault, first place in the long hurdles, and second place in the short hurdles)!

7:45 Travel home to make dinner (beef tacos).

9:30 Fall into bed so that I can do it all over again tomorrow!

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Go Meg!

Do you ever have days like this?!

It’s amazing what we can get done all before a cup of coffee when our responsibilities are vast…

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Trust but Verify…

I did an interview last week with a reporter who asked,Why does your farm participate in 3rd party animal welfare audits?”

My answer: I ask that my customers trust me to be a good farmer, but I open my farm to auditing so that they can verify that I practice what I preach.

No matter how good a job you do on your farm, an audit is a stressful time.

  • Hundreds of pages of documents are checked to make sure that records accurately demonstrate daily animal care practices.
  • Hours are spent checking the farm’s facilities (feed and feed mixing areas, cattle pens, water tanks, and corrals) to ensure that animals have good living conditions.
  • Cattle handling is observed to ensure that good welfare exists while animals are interacting with their human caregivers.
  • Caregivers are asked questions about farm protocols on many different issues relative to animal care to ensure that those folks who provide daily care for the animals are well trained and educated.
They gather closely around me because they are thoughtful and curious.  They choose to do this despite the large amount of space in the pen that they call home...

They gather around me because they are comfortable, confident, and curious. They choose to come close to me despite the large amount of space in the pen that they call home…

I wear several “hats” at my feed yard. I am the owner and boss lady in addition to being one of the laborers who provide daily cattle care. I tend to greet audit day with mixed feelings. The boss lady realizes how important the audit is, but the farm hand struggles to accept outsiders interfering in the daily workings of life on the farm.

It is hard to have someone from the outside critique everything that you do – there is also no way to have an audit without disrupting the daily schedule of the farm. The combination of these things makes audit day on the farm long and stressful. Additionally, because I love my farm so much, opening it up to the judgement of an auditor creates a feeling of personal vulnerability. I feel it in my heart, and I know that my crew does as well.

Their care is important to me.

Their care is important to me.

Two weeks ago the feed yard had its first 2015 audit. I came home that night with a myriad of emotions fluttering through my head, the greatest being anger. Not anger toward the audit itself, but anger toward an ever growing vocal subset of the population who distrusts and dislikes American farmers like me. Tired from the long day, all I could think about was Why do I bother to go to the extra work of an audit to verify my farm care when nobody trusts me anyway”.

As an active advocate for agriculture, I am painfully aware of the distrust that exists toward modern farmers. An ever growing group of elitist philosophers breed this cynicism by employing an effective blend of zealotry and scare tactics. No matter how much I care or how hard I work to responsibly grow beef – these people ensure that I carry the label of the evil factory farmer. I open the newspaper or bring up the internet and find dozens of derogatory statements about how farms like mine abuse our animals, the environment and ultimately the people that we feed.

I honestly don't understand how this is evil and abusive...

I honestly don’t understand how this is evil and abusive…

Put yourself in my boots for a moment.

  • I work long hours on the farm.
  • I come home at night to write blog posts and share pictures of how I grow beef.
  • I patiently answer questions from reporters and customers.
  • I open my farm to both audits and tours.

And, at the end of the day, I am still belittled by the people that I have dedicated my life to feed.

So, I ask the important question:

What is it going to take for Americans to trust farmers and the practices that they use to grow food?

I believe in Trust but Verify, but verification is simply a burdensome chore if trust is unattainable.

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Biosecurity – And a Bout Of Influenza…

A longstanding definition of biosecurity reads “a set of preventive measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases”.  As a caregiver for thousands of animals, the term is never far from my mind.

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This past week, my concern with biosecurity reached past the feed yard gate and into my home. Influenza A plagued my favorite basketball playing teenager and left her very ill for several days. During this time, I felt compelled to lecture my girls multiple times on the basics of controlling the spread of disease.

  • Proactive vaccination against disease wherever possible
  • Dedication to good sanitation
  • Isolation of the affected individual during the contagious period of the disease

Looking back over the events that led to the flu episode of last week, the only one of the three listed above that Ashley Grace abided by was the first one. Our family had quality time getting flu shots last October as we do every year. I started the tradition when the girls were little — we go “oldest to youngest” with the rule that if the person before you doesn’t cry, then you can’t cry when it is your turn for inoculation 🙂

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My favorite teenager has a tendency to drink straight from the milk jug (viewing glasses as superfluous). She spends her winter in the classroom, on the basketball court and traveling on a bus to games — relatively tight confinement in settings that sometimes share her lack of dedication to good hygiene.

Influenza A passed through our town with a vengeance over the past couple of weeks. Given the facts listed above, it really did not surprise me when chills racked her body and left her in bed for three and a half days despite getting tamiflu on board early in the illness. If asked, she would likely report that I became a bit paranoid during her illness – banning her to her room and isolating her from her younger sisters; in addition to following along behind her with Clorox wipes.

I believe at one point I threatened to kick her out of the house if I caught her drinking straight from the milk jug…

An after school excursion last week designed to keep them away from the sick girl...

An after school excursion last week designed to keep them away from the sick girl…

I am glad to report that Ashley Grace returned to school yesterday the same sassy girl that we all know and love. I am also glad to report that (at this point), the rest of our family has remained unscathed from the nasty bug. My favorite blonde cowgirl spent last week moonlighting on crutches due to a pole vaulting accident but THAT is a story for another day…

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Filed under CAFO, Family, General

When Your Husband Needs You For Your Manure…

Matt and I have a unique relationship. In addition to being soul mates and the parents of our three girls, we also partner together to manage our farm.

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We live together, we love together, we work together.

After almost 20 years of this, I can look back with tremendous pride over the gift of togetherness on which we have built our lives.

Our farm is diversified – we grow both crops and cattle – with my favorite farmer manning the helm of the crop farm and me working as the boss lady at the feed yard. We run the two facets of the farm independently, but collaborate and partner on a daily basis. I need Matt to provide feed for my cattle, and he needs me for manure to replenish the nutrients in his soil.

It isn’t often that a woman can claim that one of the reasons that her husband needs her is her manure…

But manure provides common ground when you are managing a diversified farm. I need to manage it responsibly so that it is harvested and used in a positive way, and Matt needs it in order to maintain sustainable soil health.

The tractor and scraper which pulls the manure off of the top of the pen dirt surface and piles it so that Matt can transport it to a crop field to use as fertilizer...

The tractor and scraper which pulls the solid manure off of the top of the pen dirt surface and piles it so that Matt can transport it to a crop field to use as fertilizer…

Because I manage a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), I have a more highly populated density of animals than other types of farms. While I view my feed yard as a positive way to raise beef, I recognize that I need to be dedicated to environmental protection in order to safeguard the land and water on our farm. I use a Nutrient Management Plan, created by a professional environmental engineering firm, which includes best management practices for collecting and properly using both the solid and liquid manure that is produced at the feed yard.

Loading the manure from the cattle pen to the manure truck for transportation to a crop field for application...

Loading the solid manure from the cattle pen to the manure truck for transportation to a crop field for application…

My favorite farmer tests his crop fields prior to manure application to determine the level of nutrients needed to replenish the soil. I test the manure so that the nutrient levels in the natural fertilizer can be entered into an equation (along with the soil test information) to ensure that the manure is applied at an agronomic (healthy) rate. The goal is overall sustainability for the farm with the crops and cattle working together as a team to produce needed resources in a balanced cycle.

We spread manure on each of our crop fields approximately every 7 years.  Here is manure from the feed yard being applied to an old alfalfa field that will be torn up and planted to corn for a one year rotation before being planted back to alfalfa...

We spread manure on each of our crop fields approximately once every 7 years. Here is manure from the feed yard being applied to an old alfalfa field that will be torn up and planted to corn for a one year rotation before being planted back to alfalfa…

The crop yields and cattle performance/beef quality give us reliable report cards on our management execution, and extra safeguards such as ground water monitoring and crop land set-backs ensure that the nutrients applied remain on our farm being used for their positive and intended purpose.

All of these things together reduce the environmental footprint of our farm, which is an ongoing goal that Matt and I share.

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Our Farm and New York City

Over the years, I have made a couple of trips to New York City to visit college friends as well as to do some volunteer promotion work for the Beef Check Off.  My perspective of the world broadens a bit every time that I venture into the Big Apple as it is incredibly different from my family’s farm in Nebraska.

This week, as I traversed the Cornhusker State attending my oldest daughter’s basketball games, I did some math calculations with my favorite blonde cowgirl exploring population density using both census data and information from our farm.

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Meg and I in the field that makes up our “back yard”…

Here is what we found…

New York City, NY spans 302.64 square miles and is home to 8,405,837 people (2013 census) = 27,775 people per square mile

Manhattan, New York spans 22.96 square miles and is home to 1,626,159 people (2013 census) = 70,825 people per square mile

Our total farm spans 8.17 square miles where we grow alfalfa, corn, prairie hay (grass), soybeans, and cattle.

The Feed Yard (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) part of our farm spans 0.156 of those 8.17 square miles and is home to 2772 bovines = 17,769 cattle per square mile on the feed yard property.

An aerial view of the feed yard...

An aerial view of the feed yard…

The population numbers per square mile paint an interesting picture. 

The vast majority of the New Yorkers that I know are intensely loyal to their home city, and feel completely comfortable in the relatively crowded environment that makes up the Big Apple.  In fact, New Yorkers are often quick to brag about the unique blend that their city has to offer.  I have a similarly intense loyalty to my farm  — the crops, the cattle, the CAFO that houses my cattle, and the diverse harmony that they all create together. All of the different pieces of my farm come together to make a unique and sustainable whole.

I spend my days watching my cattle thrive — playing, resting, eating and living what I believe to be a humane life.  It is certainly true that they are more confined in a feed yard pen than they would be on a pasture, but I would argue that it is still possible to offer a decent life to an animal within a more crowded environment.

All living creatures adapt to their home environments, whether it is a loyal New Yorker living the city life or a calf living in a feed yard pen.

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We all have the unique ability to acclimate to our surrounding environment in order to live in harmony.

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Freezing in the New Year…

Central Nebraska is ringing in the New Year with frigid temperatures.  Yesterday, the thermometer reported -18 degrees when I read bunks at just after 6:00am.  This time of year, I tend to reflect back to my high school days — sitting in a warm Florida classroom and reading Jack London’s To Build a Fire.  Since learning how to winter on our farm in Nebraska, the words of the story take on a much fuller meaning…

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When it turns this cold, we rely on technology — common sense — instinct — and basic care standards to protect both ourselves and our animals.  In times of harsh winter weather, survival becomes intrinsically tied to the above things, as depicted eloquently by London’s story.

  • Any vital equipment (feed trucks, tractors, pay loaders) is parked inside the heated shop or next to a building where we can plug in an engine heater to better ensure its likelihood of working when it is needed.
  • Special fuel is used to run the equipment that makes it less likely to “gel up” and quit working.
  • Crew priorities focus on the basics: feeding the cattle a special storm ration during both daily feedings that helps them to generate heat from within, frequently checking all water tanks to make sure that a constant supply of water is not disrupted by a tank freezing over, checking cattle health, and preparation for the next day to ensure that morning feed delivery (breakfast) occurs on schedule.
  • Any extra time is spent working on inside paperwork/chores.

Crew members working outdoors are fully covered with multiple layers of clothing, and take frequent breaks either in the shop or in a warm pick up truck to protect against frost bite.  My guys all tend to grow beards for the winter, I get out my ski mask and do my best bank robber impersonation.

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London’s protagonist perishes in To Build A Fire due to his lack of common sense and employment of poor survival skills.  Conversely, his dog companion depends on instinct and survives.

I think that it is fair to say that good farmers use a combination of modern technology and instinct to ensure survival and productivity during times of winter challenge.  After all, it is our job to care for the animal, not be bested by him!

 

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Jury Duty…

My feedyard crew consists of three guys and myself. Together we care for close to 3000 animals as well as the business part of the farm. During the busy fall run, the amount of work comes close to overwhelming us. By Thanksgiving, there is a light at the end of the tunnel but our days are still very busy.

This week we have an additional challenge because my cowboy was called to Jury Duty. This is actually the second time this fall he has been called. He still comes to work at 6:00 to help us start the day, but by 8:00 he is on his way to the courthouse.

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His list of responsibilities at the yard consists of: daily checking of cattle health, shipping cattle to the packing plant, being a member of the cattle vaccinating/processing crew, cleaning water tanks and an array of other things. When he is gone, the rest of us fill in the gaps.

My crew is a cross between a family and a well-oiled machine. We make an awesome team. It is hard when one of us is gone – especially on a holiday week in the fall…

Fortunately my favorite blonde cowgirl starts her Thanksgiving vacation from school today. She will be spending her time at the feed yard helping me to check cattle health and working cattle. Her sunny disposition will keep us all smiling, and her cattle savvy will lessen the work load.

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To say that she is a blessing would be an understatement. She may well be quickly approaching angel status 🙂

This week our family wishes each of you a Happy Thanksgiving — Take a moment to appreciate your life’s blessings and say a special word of thanks for all of the farm kids in our country who give of themselves to help bring food to your dinner table.

We are indeed all blessed.

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Carnivore’s Dilemma…

When I was back in Florida a couple of weeks ago for my grandmother’s funeral, my Godmother asked me if I had read the November issue of National Geographic.  In it is a lengthy article entitled, “Carnivore’s Dilemma” written by scientific journalist Robert Kunzig.  Following her advice, I tracked down a copy of the issue and spent some time last weekend reading it.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that an environmental journalist had written an article in National Geographic magazine highlighting cattle feedyards, I envisioned a pejorative rhetoric belittling the method that my farm uses to complete the final step of traditional beef production.

That is not at all what I found…I found a very balanced article that discusses the complex issue of responsible food production. 

I commend Mr. Kunzig for his detailed personal research as well as bringing an open mind to an often heated debate.  You can read the article by clicking here.  The precursor to the commentary is the author’s fundamental question:

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“Is it all right for an American to eat beef?

In an effort to find an accurate answer, Mr. Kunzig spent a week at Wrangler Feedyard near Tulia, Texas. Wrangler Feedyard is one of nine feedlots operated by Cactus Feeders.  This fact immediately caught my attention because I have the privilege of knowing both the co-founder of Cactus Feeders — an older gentleman who hails from Nebraska, Paul Engler, and his son Mike, who now serves as CEO of the company.

Paul Engler reminds me of my grandfather.  Incredibly intelligent, fiercely independent, entrepreneurial  in nature, all enhanced by an incredibly personable and gentlemanly personality.  Although it has been more than a year since I last visited with Paul, a smile comes to my face whenever something makes me think of him.  As my grandfather would say, “he is good people”.  His son, Mike, holds a PhD in biochemistry from Johns Hopkins University, and spent twenty years doing research at Harvard and the University of Texas before coming back home to help run the cattle feeding enterprise.

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The author combines his personal experience visiting one of the Engler feedyards with the intellectual and philosophical exercise of exploring modern food production.  He does this by raising many pertinent questions…

  • Is the goal of using technology to produce affordable food admirable or evil?
  • What kind of people are farmers?
  • How can farmers care for animals and then send them to their death?
  • Is it humane for cattle to live in a feedyard setting for the last few months of their lives?
  • Is pharmaceutical use in food animals acceptable?
  • Are feedyards sustainable?
  • How do we meet demand for meat while protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change?

While it is clear that these topics will continue to be debated, Mr. Kunzig leaves his readers with this thought:

“What my reporting had really left me wanting to say no to was antibeef zealotry.  That, and the immoderate penchant we Americans have for reducing complex social problems — diet, public health, climate change, food security — to morality issues populated by heroes and villains.”

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I would like to take this opportunity to thank National Geographic, Mr. Kunzig, and all those at Cactus Feeders for coming together to have a respectful, honest discussion. 

I encourage everyone to read Mr. Kunzig’s article as it was intended — with an open mind.  Please feel free to leave questions relative to beef production and feedyards below in the comment section as I am happy to be an additional resource in this discussion.

 

 

 

 

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