Category Archives: Sustainable Spring

Women and Sustainability…

As the mother of three girls, I am always looking for strong female role models to mentor my girls.  One of my goals as a parent is to raise my daughters to be strong, confident, and motivated women.  I want them to embrace life with a passion and use their talents to make the world a better place.

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Many opportunities—Many dreams…

When I became a part of the beef family in 1997, I was challenged as a young woman trying to gain respect in a man’s world.  In particular at that time, the cattle feeding (feedyard) part of the beef family was made up predominately of men.

Over the years, I have watched the dynamics change with more and more young women choosing a life raising beef cattle.  In addition to a growing number of female beef farmers, there are also a growing number of women scientists that serve as professional consultants: helping farmers like me to make good decisions regarding animal care and environmental stewardship.

I believe that a diverse mix of men and women makes a stronger beef family.  This more eclectic group allows for a wider array of perspective and savvy.  I have no idea if any of my three girls will choose a life in agriculture, but I want them to realize that if they work hard then opportunities await them.

Kim

Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson

One of the young women that I want my daughters to meet is Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Ph.D. Kim is the Director of Sustainability Research for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.  A native of Northern California, she grew up in a small ranching community where her family raised ewes and beef cattle.

In addition to participating in FFA and playing an active role on the ranch, Kim was an all-state downhill skier and basketball player while also being an acclaimed horsewoman.  She still actively competes in dressage riding as well as being a rising star in the discussion of sustainability relative to beef production.

Kim and Day Lilly...

Kim and Day Lilly…

While Kim can claim many great accomplishments, I believe that her greatest talent is her proactive passion for environmental stewardship.  Her childhood memories of town hall meetings marked by heated discussions regarding public land use inspired her to become a woman who uses science to ensure the judicious use of natural resources.

Her quiet confidence and innate personal integrity have gained my respect, and I look to her for guidance as I work to reduce the environmental footprint of my farm.  Her work on Beef Sustainability Research gives me faith for the future.

The ranch where Kim grew up in Northern California.  Her love of this land motivates her as a scientist every day.

The ranch where Kim grew up in Northern California. Her love of this land motivates her as a scientist every day.

Kim is currently working with the BASF Corporation North America (a world leader in conducting comprehensive life cycle analyses) and the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA to create the first industry-wide beef sustainability assessment.  This assessment will examine the sustainability of the entire beef supply chain from pasture to plate.

I am very thankful that Kim has agreed to enter our discussion of sustainability and she will be a contributor to the next couple of Feed Yard Foodie posts.  Not only will we all benefit from Kim’s knowledge and level-headed savvy, but my girls will get to be “introduced” to her as well.  This will be great preparation for the day where they can meet Kim in person as she is at the top of the list for possible mentors!

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Rural Communities: What allows them to endure?

I asked my favorite teenager recently what she thought made our small community both special and sustainable.  I found her list particularly interesting and pertinent relative to our Sustainable Spring discussion.

The Cozad Junior High athletes that competed last weekend in the State track meet.  My favorite teenager kneeling in the front row in the red shirt.

The Cozad Junior High athletes that competed last weekend in the State track meet. My favorite teenager is kneeling in the front row in the red shirt.

  1. Pride in community
  2. Caring nature of community members
  3. Self-reliant
  4. Underlying toughness
  5. Athletic and extracurricular activities universally available to all interested youth
  6. United community in one school system

A key component to our farm’s sustainability is the ability of our rural community to endure.  Our community of Cozad not only provides Matt and I with the services that we need for our agricultural businesses, but it also plays a key role in helping us to raise our children.

Hometown pride...

Hometown pride…

An elementary school teacher in our town told me a few years ago, “Anne, it takes an entire community to raise a child”.  As I think of the thousands of children that I have coached and the hundreds of other adults that have mentored my own children, I realize how very true this statement is.

I was not born in rural America, but I have become a believer in the core values that permeate life in our small town.  The pace is a little bit slower, the people are a little bit friendlier, and an underlying goal of community prosperity dictates an element of teamwork that I never saw growing up in urban America.

  • I live in a community where class distinctions are blurry and hometown pride prevails.
  • I live in a community that unites together to endure challenges, looking inward to find the faith and the strength needed to persevere.
  • I live in a community where youth are universally included in activities and encouraged to participate.
  • I live in a community where every child attends school together, and education is a community project.

    A special thanks to Katie Arndt for taking this picture.

    A special thanks to Katie Arndt for taking this picture.

Matt and I feel blessed to be a part of such a wonderful community, and we try our best to give back to the town that has given us a quality of life that is second to none.

Matt volunteers as a member of the town hospital board, the Cozad Development Corporation, the United Way investment committee, and several other agriculturally related area groups.  I focus my efforts outside of agriculture on youth athletic programs and have spent this spring coaching and helping with three different sports teams (soccer, swimming and track).

Perhaps this YouTube video describes the community feeling that permeates rural America’s small towns most effectively.  Take a moment to watch the Cornhusker Football team with a young boy challenged with cancer and you will see the heart of America—the vital presence of a compassion that creates an inherent ability to endure.

This is the essence of rural America: strong, compassionate and sustainable…

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Digging In the Dirt…

I have always loved digging in the dirt.  Although I grew up in the city, my dad is an avid hunter and we spent many of my childhood weekends in the Lake Okeechobee area hunting on Florida ranch land for quail, ducks and dove.

My brother and I, many many years ago out at the "hunting camp"...

My brother and I, many many years ago out at the “hunting camp”…

When Matt and I moved to Nebraska, my one condition on the move was that I wanted a house “in the country” where I could have lots of room to have animals and gardens.  Our house is positioned on the edge of one of Matt’s farms and sits on about five acres.

My two horses lay claim to a large portion of those acres, but I still have plenty of room to experiment and grow things.  This spring has been mentally challenging for me because it has been too cold to garden.  Our trees are only now starting to bud and my summer perennials are barely peaking their brave heads above ground (the tulips and daffodils perished in a snow storm several weeks ago).  My fingers have been itching to play in the dirt…DSC05280

On Sunday, we had temperatures in the low sixties so I herded up my free labor and headed outdoors to do some gardening chores.  My girls always complain a little bit as we get started, but it does not take long for my older ones to get excited about transplanting and clearing out the flower gardens.

Transplanting lilies...

Transplanting lilies…

They seem to have inherited my love for digging in the dirt and making things grow…

In addition to my perennial flowers taking the plunge above the soil, my rhubarb and asparagus are coming up.  It will not be long before it is time to get the colder season annual vegetables in (it was 28 degrees Saturday morning so not quite yet!).  This year we are doing a combination vegetable garden with my  mother-in-law and the girls are in charge of weeding 🙂

Dividing our Irises...

Dividing out and replanting Irises…

It renews my soul to dig in the dirt.  It fuels my optimism to watch new life grow in my gardens.  It brings a smile to my face to watch my daughters learn the combination of care and just a little magic which brings beauty to our yard and vegetables to our table.

Even while we garden and water, she still dreams about that great tasting steak that will go along with her vegetables :)

Even while we garden and water, she still dreams about that great tasting steak that will go along with her vegetables 🙂

We topped off the afternoon by finding the first toad of the year.  Karyn seemed to spend more time playing with it than helping with the gardens...I guess that is the joy of being the baby of the family!

We topped off the afternoon by finding the first toad of the year. Karyn seemed to spend more time playing with it than helping with the gardens…I guess that is the joy of being the baby of the family!

Is it warm enough to get your gardens going for the growing season?

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Water + Heat Units = A Green Spring

My favorite cowgirl and I headed down to our pasture ground last Sunday to search for grass.  Nebraska has been moisture deficient since early last summer and, in particular, the drought has greatly hurt the 23 millions acres of grass pasture that makes up more than half of Nebraska’s land mass.

Searching for grass...

Searching for grass…

While the vast majority of our land is crop ground, we do have approximately 600 acres of cool season grass pasture in the Platte River Valley.  Typically, we graze cattle on this land from April to Mid-June, and then again from August to October.  I purchase “light yearlings” or “fall calves” that weigh 600-650# to graze on this land.

We grow these animals on grass pasture until they weigh approximately 800#.  At that time (or at the time that all of the grass is eaten), we bring them into the feed yard to prepare them for harvest.

Typically, this light yearling would already be out grazing grass instead of at the feed yard...

Typically, this light yearling would already be out grazing grass instead of at the feed yard…

Today is the 2nd of May.  Normally, we have already turned cattle out to pasture and our cool season grass is lush and green.  This year the grass is very slow to grow due to two important variables: water and heat units.

After a very dry summer, fall and winter; we were blessed with almost 3 inches of rain (along with snow and ice) in April.  The rain brought life-giving moisture, but it also left behind very cold temperatures.  At the end of last week, we finally saw some warmth with highs in the upper 70’s but it did not last as we had snow again yesterday…

Closing a gate in between pastures...

Closing a gate in between pastures…It’s nice to have a helper along!

As Megan and I rode the pasture ground, I realized that I would not have grass to graze for several weeks yet.  While it is valiantly trying to turn green and grow, it is way behind normal.  The lack of carryover moisture combined with a dry winter and a cold spring have left Nebraska’s grasslands struggling.

Pure joy!

Pure joy!

I was glad to have my favorite cowgirl along as we traversed the pasture ground.  She was a bundle of sunshine laughing and telling stories from her week at school.  Her natural optimism is good for me and brings a smile to my face.  As we loaded up the horses and headed for home, I thought to myself that her positive nature plays a key role in the sustainability of my mental fitness!

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Different Kinds of Smart…

My oldest daughter has read Gone With the Wind  three times and has the first page of A Tale of Two Cities memorized.  She took the ACT as a 7th grader and qualified for the National Duke TIP program.  She loves history and geography and can likely rattle off the capitol of any country in the world.

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The Intellectual…

Yet, when I take her to the feed yard and ask her to chain the gate, she gets a lost look on her face.  That same look appears as I request that she move a group of cattle out of the home pen or to tell me which animal does not look like he feels well.  It resurfaces again as I show her a gate latch that is broken and ask her how she would fix it.

My oldest daughter is a gifted intellectual.  Her verbal skills are nothing short of incredible, and she will no doubt become a great debater and philosopher.  However, she is greatly challenged by practical problem solving skills.

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The Problem Solver…

My middle daughter is quite different from her sister.  She loves patterns and puzzles, and is a gifted cowgirl.  She has an innate understanding of animals, and a wonderful ability to solve problems fluidly even while under pressure.

She has little interest in memorizing world geography or debating passages from books, but she is your “go to” girl when you are sorting cattle and need someone to calmly and efficiently work the gate for cattle to travel into different pens.

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Intellectual + Problem Solver = A Good Team!

Just like any other two individuals, my daughters are unique and have natural strengths and weaknesses.  As I look around my community, I see the same eclectic picture.  I view this very positively because the diversity of talents makes for a very strong culture of people.

Isn't this what it is all about?

Isn’t this what it is all about?

The third tier of sustainability is cultural in nature, and some define it as social diligence.  Looking at the words separately, social implies togetherness and diligence implies hard work.

Perhaps this means that the successful achievement of sustainability requires both a team effort and hard work at the individual level?

Recognizing the beauty in uniqueness and diversity is a challenge that we face as individuals and as a nation.  Realizing that no one is perfect, and also that everyone has something different to offer is sometimes difficult.  I believe that listening to understand all of the while recognizing that together we are stronger plays an important role in the discussion of sustainability on a cultural level.  Our individual experiences determine our perception and our opinions.

Developing underlying feelings of respect and trust for others creates both a teamwork mentality and the motivation to use our individual talents for the betterment of society.

I love to watch my two oldest girls work together: the intellectual and the practical problem solver.  One views the world as a set of words and thoughts to memorize and debate—the other as a set of pictures to put together like pieces of a puzzle.  Their minds are so different and, as a result, they make such a powerful team when they work together.

The great standoff...

The great standoff…

As beautiful as it is to watch them work together, you can likely imagine what happens when they do not respect each other’s differences and struggle to work together as a team.  Perhaps you can picture the scenario clearly because you have been in a situation where your perception of the world is vastly different than someone with whom you interact?

 Imagine a world where teamwork and individual dedication to greatness come together. 

That is my picture of cultural sustainability.

 What do you think?

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Partnerships Create Sustainability…

I grew up a privileged child.  My parents always provided for me, and I never knew any form of financial insecurity.  I remember my dad sitting in his recliner chair at night watching CNN and worrying about the markets, but I never lacked for anything important.  He worked hard and, as a result, his law practice always persevered.

My parents with my daughters...

My parents enjoying being grandparents many years later…

When my brother and I approached upper elementary school, my mom went back to school and earned her Master’s degree.  She then continued her career teaching at Cardinal Newman High School.  She says that she teaches because it is her vocation, but I am savvy enough to realize that her paycheck also allowed me to graduate from college free of debt.

My parents are planners.  They are providers.  As an adult, I can look back and see that they made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.  Twenty years later, I want that same thing for my own children.

My daughters and their cousin provide the next generation...

My daughters and their cousin provide the next generation…

Today, I worry about the markets looking at a computer screen instead of on a television but my face gets the same little crinkle in between my eyes that I used to see on my dad’s face.  I can now empathize with his worries of making a payroll, running a personal business, managing risk, and never losing sight of the responsibility to provide for my own family.

There are days when I am tremendously proud of my professional accomplishments.  There are days that I am scared to death that my hard work may not be enough.  Even though I believe that it is my vocation to care for cattle and raise beef, financial sustainability is never far from my mind.  It has to be—my farm is a business that must be able to endure.

It is not always easy...

It is not always easy…

Historically, raising cattle and growing beef is commodity based where supply and demand determine the price for the end product.  I believe that the single largest driver toward my financial sustainability is building demand.  The ability for me to endure requires that someone wants to purchase my beef at a price that will allow me to pay my bills and also provide for my family.

I have no financially sustainability if you do not have a desire to purchase this...

I have no financially sustainability if you do not have a desire to purchase this…

Building demand for beef from a farm in rural Nebraska is no easy task.  Cattle outnumber people 4 to 1 in my beloved Cornhusker State, so most of my customers live far away.  Growing beef is also a very capital intensive and heavily regulated business.  There are many obstacles to direct marketing and also to attaining the vertical collaboration that I believe is so critical to long term financial sustainability.

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He is raised with care…

Last week I took a major step toward achieving my dreams of building beef demand through quality.  I have known for a long time that accomplishing this would require partners and collaboration—my small feed yard in rural Nebraska does not produce enough volume of beef to surpass the challenges of building a brand or a demand for my specific product.BMG.jpg

I am incredibly proud of my new alliance with the Beef Marketing Group and am excited to enter into a new phase of learning and development.  My focus on quality will prevail and strengthen as I pool my ideas with a great group of cattlemen.   I have always led with my heart, and today still believe that the things that feel right lead to success.

ProgressiveBeefLogoGreen

I have faith that this new venture with BMG and Progressive Beef will help me to accomplish my goals of continuous improvement in animal welfare and food safety.  It will also help me to further develop a relationship with all of you wonderful people that choose to celebrate your lives over a delicious beef meal.

He still provides through mentoring to both me and my daughters...

He still provides through mentoring…

As I worked these past few weeks to complete the alliance with BMG, I frequently thought of my dad and how he always taught me to persevere while also staying true to my values.  Today I am smiling knowing that I have made him proud while also offering the same example to my daughters.

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Protecting Our Livelihood…

When I fell in love with my favorite farmer at the age of 18, I began to research his home state of Nebraska.  This interest in “where he came from” transferred over to my studies, and I wrote a research paper on the Ogallala Aquifer for one of my Environmental Studies classes at Dartmouth College.Ogallala_Saturated_Thickness_1997

At the time I did not realize it, but the Ogallala Aquifer is perhaps the single most important natural resource for our farm.  It is a subsurface body of water that underlies approximately 80% of the Hi Plains region of the country.  Nebraska is located above one of the deepest parts of the aquifer.

My favorite farmer teaching the next generation why water quality is so important!

Approximately 2/3’s of our crop ground is irrigated directly from the aquifer, and it is also our source for drinking water (although usually our family drinks it out of a facet)…

In addition to ground water irrigation, Central and Western Nebraska are known for surface irrigation.  Our surface irrigation system is comprised of a series of ditches and reservoirs that work with the Platte River to bring rain water and snow melt from North Central Colorado and Eastern Wyoming to our region.

The irrigation pivot north of the feed yard that uses recycled water in addition to surface irrigation water to help this corn grow.

The irrigation pivot north of the feed yard that uses recycled water in addition to surface irrigation water to help this corn grow.

The surface irrigation system described above, in addition to irrigating our crops, also works to replenish the aquifer.  Together with water conservation practices and more efficient irrigation methods, this surface irrigation system has actually increased the water levels of the aquifer underneath Central Nebraska during the last 25 years.

One of my favorite parts of summer is looking at the lush green of Matt's alfalfa fields.

One of my favorite parts of summer is looking at the lush green of Matt’s alfalfa fields.

Water, quite literally, brings life to our farm.  Our family, our animals, and our crops cannot survive without it.  It is paramount for Matt and I to take care of our water supply—our farm is not sustainable without it.

The promise of life...

The promise of life…

The use of soil water probes, center pivots, and water recycling practices all play a role in the conservation of our precious water sources.  However, we must not only conserve the surface and ground water but also to protect the quality of the life-giving aquifer.

In partnership with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, I began Ground Water Monitoring testing at the feed yard in 2003.  I test the ground water (its depth and its quality) two times per year in five different strategically placed wells surrounding the feed yard.

Taking a water sample out of one of the five testing wells that surround the feed yard.

Taking a water sample out of one of the five testing wells that surround the feed yard.

This allows me (and the NDEQ) to monitor the depth of ground water surrounding our farm, track the directional flow of the water, and ensure that ground water quality is not negatively impacted by my feed yard.  In its simplest form, Ground Water Monitoring is my report card of the job that I do to responsibly manage the nutrients on my farm.DSC03742

Twenty years ago, when I met my favorite farmer, I had no idea that I would become a key contributor to our farm and the protection of its natural resources.  Today, I wear many hats:  American, Wife, Mom, Cattle Feed Yard Boss Lady, Caregiver of Natural Resources.  I wear them all with pride, never forgetting that my responsible diligence determines the environmental sustainability of my livelihood.

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Environmental Sustainability: How do I care?

Sustainable = The ability to endureDSC04814

While I believe with all my heart that our farm’s ability to sustain is intrinsically tied to its capacity to endure, I also recognize that good planning and an attention to detail is critical to our success.

Sustaining is not just something that happens if you get lucky—it is the result of careful planning and diligent implementation.  It is the art of taking what Mother Nature gives to you and turning it into a usable and beneficial resource.

Recent Sustainability research conducted by the Beef Check Off demonstrates that there are three components of sustainable beef production (raising cattle to grow beef): environmental responsibility, economic viability, and social diligence.DSC04451

Because I care, I have the responsibility to minimize the environmental footprint of my farm.

While every decision that Matt and I make on the farm affects its environmental footprint, the following list denotes the key concepts of how we practically care for the farm’s environmental sustainability.

  • A detailed manure management plan that includes both soil and manure sampling, and makes use of a computer program to help figure the healthy balance of nutrients on crop ground.  The plan also ensures the proper handling of the manure as it is transported from the feed yard to a neighboring crop field.
  • A lined holding pond allows us to use the water that drains off of the feed yard during a rain storm for both irrigation and fertilization on our crop ground.  The heavy plastic liner of the pond prevents the leaching of nutrients while the water is being stored.  This helps us to both recycle the liquid for later use, and to protect the ground water (Ogallala Aquifer) that is under our farm.
  • A careful rotation plan for our crop acres reduces erosion and helps to build and sustain soil health.
  • A careful pen cleaning schedule allows for timely and effective solid manure collection.  This helps to ensure good cattle pen conditions, and the effective use of the natural fertilizer that our animals produce.
  • The procurement of genetically high quality cattle which destines them to produce tender and flavorful beef while using fewer natural resources (feed) to make that beef.
  • The dedication to high quality holistic care practices which reduces stress and improves the comfort of our cattle.  Comfortable cattle make healthy and flavorful beef using fewer natural resources!
  • The use of technology to increase the efficiency of our animals.  For instance, I use both growth hormone implants and a beta agonist feed supplement at the end of the feeding period to help my animals maintain efficient feed conversion until the time of harvest.
  • The use of crop farming technology to increase the efficiency of our crop ground.  For instance, Matt’s tractors are equipped with GPS systems to ensure that seed is placed accurately into the ground at planting.  He also uses soil probes and other mechanisms to ensure that he is using irrigation water efficiently.DSC05079

Matt and I have many “tools in our environmental sustainability tool box”.  We believe that it is our obligation to both our farm and to you to use them responsibly and with diligence.  Our farm has sustained for more than 60 years.

It is our goal that our grandchildren will one day care for it with the same reverence that we do today.

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