Category Archives: Environmental Stewardship

Good Timing…

As winter hints of an end and spring draws my crocuses out of the ground, I spend time putting together my spring shipment schedule. The growing season in Nebraska dictates that many bovines leave the home ranch in the late fall when Mother Nature signals the end of the growing season. After wintering at my feed yard, spring and summer finds these animals ready to make beef.

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Good timing enables the ultimate goal as both the environmental footprint of my farm and the quality of my beef rely on my instincts of when to ship cattle to the packing plant.

My judicious dedication to timely cattle shipment makes me a good farmer.

It ensures that an optimal amount of resources (animal feed and water) creates the ultimate nutrient packed, great tasting beef product that we feed to our families.

If I do not feed my cattle long enough, then their beef may be less tender and not provide the best eating experience. If I feed them too long, then the additional resources of my farm are turned into fat that must be trimmed off of the meat before it is packaged to sell to you. I honor the resources of my farm as well as my customers when I do it right; and I get a report card from the packing plant each time that I ship cattle.

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

Many thanks to Miranda Reiman for taking this picture…

There are two main components to figuring the optimal time to ship a group of cattle:

  1. Looking at the numbers.
  2. Looking at the cattle.

I feed cattle off of the same ranches almost every year, so I start the process of figuring a shipment date by looking at the report card from the previous year. Did I get an “A” last year, or do I need to make changes to the feeding plan?

I then look at the:

  • Initial weight of the animals when they arrive at the feed yard from the home ranch
  • The estimated average daily gain (which I calculate looking at past years’ performance)
  • The appropriate shipment weight of the animals based on the genetics, age, and phenotype

Using these three numbers, I can theoretically predict the appropriate shipment date. As much as perfection would make life on the farm easier, weather often wreaks havoc with a good plan. Consequently, it is very important to look at each group of animals after figuring the numbers (keeping in mind the weather patterns of the recent months) to make sure that life in the real world fits the plan drafted on paper.

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Good timing relative to shipping cattle to the packing plant is both an art and a science. It also requires an inherent desire to be a responsible steward as market conditions may often tempt a cattle feeder to not remain dedicated to timely shipments.

I view good timing as one of the ways that my farm excels at sustainability and the judicious use of resources…

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Love Food, Hate Waste!

The United Kingdom launched a large scale public awareness campaign called “Love Food Hate Waste” in 2006-2007.  Data taken by the WRAP demonstrated that this campaign successfully reduced avoidable household food waste in the U.K. by 21% from 2007-2012.  I believe these to be impressive results accomplished relatively quickly and with reportedly little inconvenience to the citizen.

Recognizing food waste and making a conscious decision to improve provides the most important key to reducing food waste in the home.  Following that with understanding labeling, being willing to purchase produce that is not “visually perfect”, and either correct portioning or a dedication to eating leftovers provide some of the basic cornerstones.

In an effort to continue to raise awareness relative to food waste, and also to give each of you some practical tips for reducing waste in your kitchen; I am beginning a season of Love Food Friday.  This spring, I am enlisting the help of professional chef Christopher Gigiel to offer a tip for eliminating food waste each Friday.  I am also hoping that he will share a few of his favorite beef recipes as well!

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Christopher joins us from Denver, Colorado where he manages the day-to-day operations of the Beef Culinary Center, caters in house meetings and events with recipes that prominently feature beef, and works with the Beef Innovation Team on recipe and new-product development.

He has worked with the beef checkoff program since the spring of 2014. A Johnson & Wales University alum, Christopher earned his Associates of Science in Culinary Arts and Bachelors of Science in Food Service Management. In addition, he held a Culinary Fellowship where he taught culinary lab classes and helped manage the operations of the culinary building.

Prior to working with the checkoff, he served as Food Service Director for a non-profit in Eastern Pennsylvania where he revitalized their culinary program. When he’s not in the kitchen, you can find him cycling throughout the Mile High City which boasts more than 850 miles of bicycling adventures or camped out in a local coffee shop with a book and caffeinated beverage in hand.

I am really excited about this series as it brings practical tips for reducing food waste to all of us as we work on this journey of continuous improvement :)

Please help me to welcome Christopher to the Feed Yard Foodie Family for the Love Food Friday series!

 

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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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