Category Archives: Environmental Stewardship

Food Waste — We All Play a Role…

A study performed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2011 found that in the United States approximately 40% of all food grown for human consumption is wasted. While beef “food waste” is lower than that average, its’ 20% figure still staggers me.

Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson with my favorite blonde cowgirl...

Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson with my favorite blonde cowgirl (a couple of years ago)…

Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, through her work developing a lifecycle assessment for beef (NSF certified 2013), identified that cutting consumer waste of beef in half would improve the overall sustainability of beef farming by a whopping 10%. As a cattlewoman who cares about environmental responsibility, this statistic caught my attention.

Because I am both a farmer and a consumer, I recently spent some time thinking about things that I do, both at the feed yard and in my kitchen, to reduce waste.

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As a Cattle Farmer:

  1. The majority of my cattle are born and raised in the Sandhills of Nebraska. This unique grassland ecosystem allows for cattle to turn land not suitable for crop production into meat all while improving wildlife habitat and protecting the natural beauty of the land.
  2. After the cattle move from the ranch to my feed yard in preparation for harvest, more than half of what they eat is “by products”. In other words, during the final phase of beef production, cattle are *recyclers* and eat the part of the plant that is leftover after its’ primary use is complete.
  3. The majority of my cattle live their entire lives within a two hour radius of my farm which reduces both animal stress and transportation costs. Both of these components lesson the environmental footprint of my beef.
  4. The waste material (manure) that my cattle produce is recycled by my favorite farmer and used to maintain soil health on our crop farm.
Homemade meatloaf with home grown tomatoes is one of my summer favorites!

Homemade meatloaf with garden fresh tomatoes is one of my summer favorites!

As a Mom and a “food consumer”:

  1. My favorite farmer and I eat dinner leftovers (reheated for lunch)
  2. Food not eaten by our family is fed to my favorite teenager’s Rhode Island Red Laying Chickens, and thereby *Recycled* into eggs for our family.
  3. We make frequent trips to the grocery story (mostly because as a working mom I struggle on organized planning for meal preparation, but on the positive side this decreases the amount of food purchased that deteriorates in the refrigerator before being eaten.)
  4. Any portion of food individually taken at the dinner table is expected to be eaten. Our girls are good about cleaning their plates and not taking more food than they are able to eat. This facilitates saving leftovers for future lunch use.

It is estimated that food waste costs the average American family of four $1365.00-$2275.00 per year. This out of pocket cost is in addition to the environmental impact of wasted resources as well as food security issues. While reform is needed at each sector of the food production system, food waste at the household level is the most costly as the resources needed to deliver the food to the plate are highest at this last stage of the food production chain.

How do you limit food waste in your kitchen?

Author's note: Reducing food waste is a personal goal.

Author’s note: Reducing food waste both on my farm and in my kitchen is a personal goal. I plan to revisit this topic periodically and hope that you will share in the journey by thinking of and sharing ways that you too can reduce food waste.

Together we can make a more sustainable planet…

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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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The EPA, WOTUS, and the Myth of Environmental Protection…

My favorite teenager arrived home last week after spending three weeks at Trinity University taking a course entitled “Myths and Legends”. As she walked out of the airport, she was quick to tell me that a myth “didn’t have to be based on the truth or science to be real, it simply had to be accepted as such by a subset of people.”

Her words have filtered through my thoughts many times over the past few days as I pondered the recent actions of the Environmental Protection Agency. On March 25th, the EPA and the Army Corp of Engineers jointly proposed a regulation redefining what waters will come under Federal jurisdiction through a new definition of “Waters of the United States (WOTUS)” under the federal Clean Water Act.

The agencies have chosen to use the powers of the Executive Branch of government to redefine an already existing law, despite the fact that Congress refused to authorize a legislative change and the proposed rule goes against the definition of WOTUS upheld in the Federal Court system. A basic understanding of United States history would pull into question this action as it is a clear violation of the Checks and Balances System upon which our government was formed.

The proposed rule is a clear overreach of power by the Executive Branch of the United States government, cleverly disguised as environmental protection.

Our farm is diversified:  in addition to the cattle feed yard, we also have grass pasture land and crop ground.  This new definition would expand EPA's jurisdiction to include our pasture and farm ground...

Our farm is diversified: in addition to the cattle feed yard, we also have grass pasture land and crop ground. This new broad definition would expand EPA’s jurisdiction to include pasture and farm ground like ours (pictured above) because during times of heavy rains/flooding parts of this land are under water…

The 88 page document that likely requires legal counsel to fully understand makes many significant changes to expand the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency. Examples of them are as follows:

  • The rule effectively allows for federal jurisdiction over any and all water as the word “navigable” will be eliminated from the Clean Water Act. This means that ditches, ephemeral streams, rain water puddles or low areas of pasture or farm ground, as well as storm water conveyances in urban/municipal areas are now able to be regulated by the EPA. As such, federal permits may be required for “normal” practices both on farms and in the cities.
  • The rule usurps the jurisdiction of ground water protection from state agencies because the EPA and Army Corps fail to distinguish “shallow subsurface flow” from “groundwater” thereby opening it up for federal regulation.

    As part of my Nebraska State Operating Permit from the NE Dept. Of Environmental Quality, I test the ground water under my feed yard twice a year to ensure that there is no contamination.  Ground water protection has historically been regulated by state agencies...

    As part of my Nebraska State Operating Permit from the NE Dept. Of Environmental Quality, I test the ground water under my feed yard twice a year to ensure that there is no contamination. Ground water protection has historically been regulated by state regulatory agencies…

Additionally, an “interpretive rule” that was published alongside the proposed definition by the same federal agencies devastates the collaborative relationship that farmers and ranchers have built with the Natural Resources Conversation Services (NRCS) by turning the NRCS into an arm of the EPA and converting the NRCS scientists from professional consultants/resources into EPA regulators.

Together, these rules make the EPA the land-use planning agency for the entire country.

As a CAFO, my cattle farm is already under the jurisdiction of the EPA as the farm has held an NPDES permit through the agency for more than 20 years.

As a CAFO, my cattle feed yard has held an EPA–NPDES permit for more than 20 years.  Therefore, the feed yard part of our farm was already regulated by both the EPA and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality prior to this rule change…

I have had one direct exposure to the Environmental Protection Agency in my 17 year tenure on the farm, and it was clearly the worst single episode of my professional career. With no notice, two EPA agents arrived to perform a “routine inspection” despite the fact that my state regulatory agency normally performed this task.  They entered my office flashing badges and instructing me that I would go to jail if I did not cooperate with them.  Quite frankly, they treated me like I was guilty of a crime despite the fact that I was both innocent and fully cooperative.

As we toured the feed yard, there was a complete lack of civility in their demeanor augmented by an apparent ignorance of how my farm operated.  One of the agents stated “I’ve never been this close to a cow before” and mistook the dirt mounds of my cattle pens for manure.  They were clearly well versed in the words that appeared on my NPDES permit, but failed to have the basic knowledge of a feed yard in order to understand how those words were practically implemented to protect the environment.

Years later, as I have analyzed this experience as well as the continual political power-play in Washington DC, I have come to realize that sometimes the goal isn’t necessarily effective environmental protection, but rather a myth based power play perpetuated by a vocal minority to increase federal government control over the American people.

familypictureblkwhite.jpgI worry that it isn’t about the environment. Rather, it is about continually expanding federal government control into the grassroots areas of our country.

Preserving our Natural Resources is such an important task — Each one of us yearns to enjoy in our beautiful legacy.  Let’s work together responsibly to protect the Earth.  It is too much of a treasure to be used in political games.  The EPA and the Army Corps need to Ditch this Rule as it belittles the cornerstones of our country to egregiously expand federal government powers under the myth of environmental protection.

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Environmental Regulation…

Protecting the Environment and Caring for Our Animals To Bring You Safe, Great Tasting High-Quality Nebraska Beef..

The above is the mission statement for my cattle feed yard.  I drafted it many years ago when I wanted to create a simple, yet powerful commitment for my farm.  This statement brings together the three pillars of my personal pledge as a farmer:

  • Commitment to Environmental Responsibility
  • Commitment to Animal Well-being
  • Commitment to Food Safety

Interestingly enough, these are also the three pillars of the Progressive Beef program.  I guess that great minds thing alike!

karyncalf.jpgI view each pillar as a promise that begins with daily animal care and management of the feed yard, but also extends past my farm’s boarders.

When I began my tenure at the feed yard, I carried with me a deep seeded belief that doing the right thing was a universal philosophy shared by everyone.  It took me many years to fully understand why environmental regulation needed to be a component of environmental responsibility.  Perhaps I was naive, but I viewed regulation as an unnecessary step to protecting the resources of my farm.

Taking care of our farm seemed as natural to me as breathing.  The beauty of the land and our desire for long term sustainability to this day continues to demand that my favorite farmer and I are dedicated care takers.

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Our farm is both our livelihood and our home — Our pride and our legacy.

As I quickly approach 40 years of wisdom, I recognize that regulation is a reality.  There are times when I am filled with frustration, doing hours of tedious record keeping in order to satisfy government requirements.  But, there are also times when regulations likely push me to do a more comprehensive job on my quest for environmental responsibility.  Just like anything in life, there are both positives and negatives in every journey that we undertake.

I made a decision several years ago that I needed to be both committed to environmental responsibility on my farm, and also strive to collaboratively work with my state regulatory agency.  We share the common goal, caring for Nebraska’s natural resources, and likely can learn from each other because our perspectives are different.

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Last week, I hosted a group from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality at the feed yard.  This visit was a follow up from a talk that I gave at NDEQ’s annual field inspector retreat last April.  It gave me the opportunity to meet Blake Onken, the new Supervisor for the Agriculture Section of the Water Quality Division of the NDEQ, as well as Cay Ewoldt who is a section supervisor for the Field Services office.  Accompanying them was my NDEQ field inspector, Jerry Newth, who is in charge of auditing the feed yard on a yearly basis.

Following a tour of the feed yard, we visited for more than an hour about many issues and concerns, and how we can work to improve the collaborative nature of our relationship.  I appreciate the feedback that they offered to me and hope that I was able to give them a glimpse into the perspective of a cattle feed yard owner.  I am optimistic that we can continue to make positive improvements in our journey toward environmental stewardship.

While each one of us, in our own way, can pursue the common goal — I believe that it is likely that together we can get there more effectively. 

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I would like to thank Blake, Cay, and Jerry for taking the time to visit with me.  Additionally, I would like to challenge each one of us involved in both agriculture and environmental regulation to strive to attain a strong measure of collaboration. 

The future of both our country and our earth depends on it…

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Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality…

Today I travel to North Platte to participate in a staff retreat for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.  The NDEQ is the state regulatory agency that oversees environmental quality in Nebraska.  One of its responsibilities is to oversee the NPDES permits issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relative to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s).

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As a CAFO, I hold a NPDES permit.  It is my job to make sure that I manage my farm in compliance with my permit — It is the NDEQ’s job to audit my management performance to ensure that I am doing an appropriate job.  The EPA also has the jurisdiction to come to my farm and conduct an audit as they are the federal agency that oversees the performance of both the NDEQ and any individual NPDES permit holder.

Ideally, our ability to work together as a team leads to realistic and effective care of the natural resources that exist on my farm.  The relationship between a government regulator and a cattle farmer is a unique one as we sometimes bring different perspectives to the goal of environmental protection.  However, I can certainly recognize the need for environmental stewardship and have found the NDEQ to be a fair partner in my quest to grow sustainable beef.

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I have been invited to speak to the group about Low Stress Cattle Handling and how this animal welfare philosophy plays a role in the sustainable cycle of my farm.  Over the years, I have found that increasing animal comfort and limiting stress are key factors to improving efficiency as my cattle work to grow beef.  The amount of natural resources (feed and water) that it takes to grow beef are the primary determinants of the environmental footprint of my cattle farm — Therefore, it is always my goal to set my animals up for success to be efficient convertors of those natural resources.

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I am excited to address and interact with this group for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps the biggest is my constant desire to create an atmosphere of collaboration amongst groups as we all strive to be good stewards.  It is true that my farm has an environmental footprint — it takes resources to grow food and my farm causes a change in the distribution of those resources.  What makes me a good caretaker is garnering the necessary knowledge of how to raise beef in the best way to protect my farm and use it’s resources wisely.

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Each and every one of us has an environmental impact, together we can strive for harmony — both amongst ourselves and with our planet…

 

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Gettin’ Our Poop in a Group…

The manure that my cattle make is a very important component of our farm.  My favorite farmer tends to 4300 acres of crop ground, and the health of that soil is critical to our farm’s sustainability.

The alfalfa field behind my house...

The alfalfa field behind my house in its’ full summer glory…

Both plants and animals need a number of macro nutrients in large quantities to operate their metabolisms and build their bodies.  The important ones are carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. A farmer takes molecules which are organized in a low energy state and reorganizes them into forms that have energy and are ultimately available and usable to humans (food!).

Each year when a crop is harvested off of a field, it takes with it the important macro nutrients that nourished it during the growing season.  In order to maintain continuous soil health, these nutrients must be periodically reapplied to the soil.  The specific needs of the soil are determined by laboratory testing of the dirt through sampling.

Tractor and box scraper in a home pen getting the poop in a group...

Tractor and box scraper in a home pen getting the poop in a group

While the primary resource that my feed yard provides is beef and products made from cattle, my animals produce another resource during their tenure on our farm: manure.  This fertilizer is sampled and analyzed for nutrient values, transported to a nearby farm, and applied agronomically to refuel the soil.

A pile of manure waiting to be taken out of the pen.  The cattle enjoy playing "king of the mountain" until the pile is removed...

A pile of manure waiting to be taken out of the pen. The cattle enjoy playing “king of the mountain” until the pile is removed…

It is important that we get our poop in a group several times a year in order to maintain optimal animal comfort and the most judicious use of the manure that they produce. This process requires that Matt’s farming crew works with my feed yard crew —  teamwork is always best!

Loading the manure onto the truck to take it to the field that needs it...

Loading the manure onto the truck to take it to the field that needs it…

Spreading the manure on an old alfalfa field...

Spreading the manure on an old alfalfa field…

The field pictured above has grown the perennial plant alfalfa for seven years.  It is now time to fertilize the soil, and plant a rotational crop to help preserve soil health and protect future crops by breaking insect cycles and preventing weeds.  After growing corn for a year, it will be replanted to alfalfa.

I figure that it makes me pretty unique when one of the many reasons that my husband “needs” me is my cattle manure…

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Simple Beauty…

I think that perhaps anytime one loses a loved one that the ensuing process of grief involves a period of personal introspection.  I know that this has been the case for me.

Dad and I, taking a moment together while fly fishing in Crandall Creek...

Dad and I, taking a moment together while fly fishing in Crandall Creek…

It was a shock to learn in late August that my dad was terminally ill.  His time on earth was very limited and his ensuing quality of life for those few short months was poor.  I struggled amidst the stress of having to accept that his illness was something that I could not fix.

One afternoon this fall, as I sat in the Dallas airport waiting for a connecting flight to Florida, a bit of personal introspection reminded me that my dad had always looked for the simple beauty in nature.  Although our professional lives took very different paths, we shared this unique love of the outdoors.

Likely, this is the most precious gift that he ever gave to me and I know that it gave us a special bond.2013_09_27_mr_Will Feed for Drovers-67

There have been many times over the past 17 years when I have felt that my life on a cattle farm in Nebraska fulfilled a lifelong dream of my dad’s.  Although he was an acclaimed attorney, I think that there was always a part of his heart that yearned to be more closely tied to the land.  He fulfilled this need by spending all of his free time outdoors hunting and fly fishing.  I know that the fact that I chose a life working in agriculture was a source of tremendous joy and pride for him.

My dad not only loved to be outdoors, but he also loved to physically challenge himself while interacting with nature.  To him, there was a simple beauty in pushing himself amidst the wilds of Mother Nature.

I have vivid memories of him goading me into taking a run with him in the Florida heat…annedadrunning

Canoeing among the vast alligator population in Fish Eating Creek…familycanoe

10+ mile horseback rides in the mountains of Wyoming (in search of the ideal trout stream)…annedadhorse

Leading a forced march across the prairie looking for grouse, pheasants, and prairie chickens…dadgrouse

Last week I had a moment of oneness with my dad as I checked cattle health at the feed yard.  It was a cold January day in Nebraska — cold enough that cattle chores were just a bit challenging — and I looked up to see three bald eagles soaring and hunting in the corn field just north and west of my cattle pens.

Too bad my I phone does not have a good zoom--the eagles are just dots on the horizon...

Too bad my I phone does not have a good zoom–the eagles are just dots on the horizon in this picture…

Watching the eagles was a truly awesome sight — one that my dad would have appreciated for a myriad of reasons.  I spent a moment knowing that a piece of him was living on through me.

I’d like to think that perhaps it was the best piece of him—the one that held his true passion for the simple beauty of living in direct congruence with the land.

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The Route Less Traveled…

There is a stretch of road in between Arnold and Dunning Nebraska that is a little slice of heaven.  It is 29 miles of rolling hills, canyons, and grazing animals.  I think of it as truly The Route Less Traveled, but I have to admit that it is a place that brings me great peace.

A special place...

A special place…

The drive is a solitary trip, and rarely do I encounter another human being while traveling along this route.  I have the pleasure of taking this road a half a dozen times a year when I trek north to the Nebraska Sandhills to move cattle off of home ranches and into my feed yard.

A marriage of man-made technology and beautiful prairie land...

A marriage of man-made technology and beautiful prairie land…

Perhaps it is because I love the wide open spaces—Perhaps it is because my cell phone doesn’t work so I have the choice of opening the window and listening to the silence or cranking up the radio and singing to my favorite songs.

The blend of open grassland and canyons makes this a truly unique place...

The blend of open grassland and canyons makes this a truly unique place…

Regardless, I know that I look forward to the drive that seems to soothe my soul.

In addition to cattle and horses, I have seen many deer, ducks, turkeys, pheasant, and grouse along the way.  It is beautiful the way that livestock live in harmony with the wild animals of the prairie.

Mallard ducks enjoying the open water that has not yet frozen with the promise of winter...

Mallard ducks enjoying the open water that has not yet frozen under winter’s spell…

I am often reminded as I head north on this road the importance of environmental stewardship and what a pivotal role ranchers play in maintaining the balance of life in the rural areas of our country.

They play several important roles...

The great converters…

These cattle thrive amongst the natural wildlife of Nebraska while also converting forage into an iron rich protein source that fuels both my family and yours.

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The healthy balance of mankind and nature speaks to me even in the winter months when the grasses turn brown…

The Nebraska Sandhills’ grasslands are a perfect blend of Mother Nature’s gifts and the tender loving care of the cattlemen and women who tend to them amongst the routes less traveled…

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