Tag Archives: environmental footprint

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.

coffmancalf1a

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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The Myths of Sustainability Relative to Beef Production…

cabstripsteakI really love to eat beef!

I really love to eat beef, and it is important to me that I feel good about my food choices.  Because I care about the environment and the sustainability of our earth, I strive to raise beef responsibly.  At the end of the day, I want to feel good about both how I spent my day raising cattle and also about the beef that I place on the dinner table for my family to eat.

This is a good way to end the day...

This is a good way to end the day…

There are many myths regarding the topic of sustainability and beef production.  I asked Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson to address a few of these in the hopes that it will enable us all to have a clearer picture of the “sustainability of our beef”.

Anne: What are the top 3 myths that you hear about related to sustainability and the beef production chain?

Kim: 1) Grass fed or organic is more sustainable than conventionally-raised beef. This is simply not true. When it comes to measuring sustainability, more efficient utilization of resources like land and water is the most important thing. I am not advocating that consumers should not eat grass fed or organic beef or that they should choose conventional beef. The great thing about food is that in America, we have a choice – but if you are choosing one production method because you believe one production practice is more sustainable than another, you are misinformed.

2) Eating less beef improves your individual sustainability. Beef producers have reduced their environmental burden by 9 percent in five years. Cattlemen and cattlewomen are already working toward a more sustainable future and beef is necessary to provide protein to a growing global population. In fact, every agriculture product will be necessary as we work to provide food for more than 9 billion people with a balanced diet without depleting our natural resources. Furthermore, many cattle ranchers are located on land that cannot be utilized for crop production and cattle do a great job converting forage that is otherwise unusable by humans to a nutrient dense protein.

3) All of the environmental impact of food occurs on the farm – Actually, in many of the sustainability impact categories we measured, such as energy use, the consumer and retailer use more energy than the farmers. This illustrates why it is so important to evaluate sustainability across the entire supply chain – so that improvements can be made where they actually make a difference.

Feel good about what you cook.  Megan does :)

Understanding where your food comes from helps you to feel good about what you cook. Just ask Megan  🙂

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Sustainability Q and A with Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson

It is my job to care for him in the best way, and also using the fewest natural resources...

It is my job to provide him with good care, and also to use the fewest natural resources to grow nutritious beef…

Matt and I care about the sustainability of our farm.  We not only want it to endure, but to thrive.  Our goal is to produce high quality products through the judicious use of natural resources.  In our journey to continuously improve, we look to scientists like Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson for guidance.

Below is a Q and A with Dr. Kim where she answers my biggest questions relative to the topic of sustainability.

Anne: Why do you think that it is important for beef farmers and ranchers to understand issues related to sustainability in beef production?

Kim: The largest challenge that agriculture is faced with today is preparing to feed a growing population which is expected to surpass 9 billion people by 2050. This population will require at least 70% more food using fewer resources than we have today.   Beef producers have a rich heritage of passing ranches and feed yards from generation to generation, however, sustainability is more than that.  With the increasing pressure of producing more food with limited resources, it is more important than ever before to utilize research and science to help meet this challenge.

For this reason, the beef checkoff has funded the largest sustainability assessment ever conducted along a food supply chain.  This study will ensure that U.S. beef producers will have the knowledge to continue to produce high quality beef while increasing our stewardship of land and resources.

Anne: Why is it important to have scientific documentation of the environmental footprint of beef?

Kim: It is important to have scientific documentation about our industry’s sustainability so that farmers can better utilize new innovations.  It is also imperative that the beef industry be able to measure improvements. One of the real challenges with sustainability is that 100 people will have a hundred different definitions.

The beef industry’s definition is much larger than the traditional definition of just carbon footprint or measuring greenhouse gas emissions. To the beef industry, sustainability is about balancing environmental responsibility, economic opportunity, and social diligence.

Anne: Explain the scope of the beef sustainability study, as well as the initial findings.  What are we doing well, and what do we need to work on?

Kim:  We used a life cycle assessment to predict environmental, economic, and social impacts to benchmark the sustainability of U.S. beef in the past and present. Millions of data points were utilized to accurately capture all inputs and outputs along the beef value chain. Comparing sustainability over time allows us to understand how improvements in cattle management and changes in technology affect industry sustainability.

Since 2005 the sustainability of beef has improved significantly.  Some examples of why U.S. beef industry sustainability has improved include: Improvements in crop yields, animal performance, and the increased utilization of bio-gas recovery.

This life cycle assessment method also allows us to identify areas where opportunities for improvement exist; some examples include: improving cattle utilization of protein in their diets, reducing packaging material, and reducing food waste.

Anne: What is the next step after the results are validated?

Kim: We are expanding the work to regionalize the data, so farmers can utilize the results to analyze their operation, regardless of where they raise cattle. This is a very important aspect of our sustainability project because a one-size-fits-all approach is not sustainable.

Different areas of the country have different resources available, and every producer faces a variety of challenges based on where they live and the climate they face. We are also working to develop a tool that will allow producers to assess individual approaches to improving sustainability on their farm.

beef sustainability image

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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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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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Sustainable: The Ability to Endure…

I did some searching on the internet last week for a definition of sustainable.   This one is my favorite.

Sustainable: The ability to endure.007

  • Perhaps this definition spoke to me because there are times on our farm when I feel as though Matt and I are so challenged that we simply endure.
  • Perhaps it spoke to the natural tenacity that is firmly embedded in my personality.
  • Perhaps the simplicity of those four words caught my attention because they juxtapose against the convoluted conversation that normally surrounds the word.willfeedsign3

For whatever reason, it resonated with me and has circled around in my mind for several days now.  Interestingly, the third pillar of the Progressive Beef program is Sustainability.

Click here for the first two pillars if you missed them in January’s posts:

https://feedyardfoodie.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/progressive-beefs-first-pillar-food-safety/

https://feedyardfoodie.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/proving-that-we-care/

ProgressiveBeefLogoGreen

The fact that sustainability is a cornerstone to the Progressive Beef program speaks to the importance of the topic relative to the production of high quality beef.  Just as I care about food safety and good cattle welfare, I also care about the environment and the sustainability of my farm.Sept. 4, 2011 024

Matt and I must both effectively use and protect our farm’s resources while simultaneously enduring both Mother Nature’s trials as well as man-made challenges.  My favorite farmer believes that urban sprawl is the single largest threat for the future sustainability of our farm, our country and our planet.  That belief creates this pivotal question:

How can we all endure as population growth tests our ability to exist without irrevocably harming the Earth?

May 20 2011 015

Because this thought is forever in our minds, there are many things that Matt and I focus on at the farm to try to increase its ability to endure.

  • Reduce waste through recycling.
  • Responsibly manage the manure that we use to fertilize our crop land.
  • Reuse the water that runs off of the feed yard during a rain to both fertilize and water adjacent crop land.
  • Constantly learn new science and the subsequent development of technology, and determine whether it is a fit for our farm.
  • Procure the feed for our cattle locally (either on our own farm or within our greater community).
  • Feed cattle who are bred to be efficient converters of feed, and offer them outstanding care that enables them to reach their God-given potential.

I believe that achieving and maintaining sustainability is a journey.  It is a constant evolution of ideas and practices that revolve around a principle goal of responsible food production, and are driven by an unrelenting desire to be a good caretaker.Pasture June 2, 2012 Gather 032

Somewhere deep inside my heart is the desire to not only endure but to endure with excellence.  Does the surrounding new life of spring inspire you in your journey for sustainability?

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What is a Beta Agonist?

A beta agonist works to relax smooth muscle tissue.  In humans, it is used to treat or prevent breathing problems that result from asthma or other airway diseases.  My daughter, Karyn, uses an albuterol inhaler before athletic events—this is an example of a beta agonist.  By relaxing the smooth muscle tissue in the airway, albuterol allows air to flow in and out of her lungs more easily.

Yes, it was cold enough Friday to warrant the stocking cap…Especially since she had just finished swimming practice 🙂

The use of an albuterol inhaler is new for Karyn.  Those of you that followed Feed Yard Foodie last November and December will remember that she became very ill and was hospitalized with pneumonia over Thanksgiving weekend.  My baby (she may be 7, but she’s still my baby!) got very sick, and her respiratory system still has not fully healed.  While there appears to be no permanent damage to her lungs, the tissue in her airway has not fully recovered which impedes her ability to move oxygen in and out of her lungs.

Go Kare-Bear Go!

Because she is such a tremendous little athlete, this challenges her.  She is my most “stoic” child, and never complains.  But, as I watched her run early this spring when athletics started up again after a winter hiatus, I could see her struggle to breathe.  When I initially took her to the doctor, she was only getting a 60% supply of oxygen into her lungs.  After an intensive two week treatment, we got her up to 80%.  She is on the right track, but it will take time for her to fully heal.  Until then, her albuterol inhaler will be a part of our athletic routine.

Setting the meet record in the 200M Saturday in Hastings, Nebraska…

Modern medicine and medical technology is amazing.  The first beta agonist became available for human use in 1968, and it has revolutionized the lives of asthma patients or other people like Karyn that have a temporary condition which impedes oxygen flow.

Animal scientists often look to human medical advancements for new ideas.  Animal scientists and food animal caregivers are constantly looking for ways to improve.  Whether you are talking about improvement in animal care, improvement in food quality and safety, or improvement in the use of resources necessary to grow that food; we constantly search for ways to get better.

I raise them to make beef—I am always looking for ways to do a better job. That sets both my animals up for success and also, you, the consumer of my beef.

A couple of decades after the first beta agonist became available for use in human medicine, animal researchers began looking for ways that they could be beneficial on farms growing food.  They discovered that a beta agonist could allow cattle to increase lean muscle (what we want to eat), and decrease fat deposition (what we do not want to eat) all while enabling them to use fewer pounds of feed to make more pounds of human food.

It is my job to be a responsible grower of food…Technology helps me to do this!

Thursday’s post will talk in more depth about the role that beta agonists play in improving the beef that I grow on my farm.  Which one do I use?—Why do I choose to use it?—How does it work?—How does it affect my animals and the beef that they make?

Family time on the track last Saturday—minus my favorite 12 year old who was competing in Tennessee at the Global Finals for Destination Imagination…

Beta agonists play an important role on my farm—Just as they play an important role in allowing my youngest daughter to continue with her love of athletics while her respiratory tract completes the healing process.

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Filed under Antibiotics, hormones, and other growth promotants..., General

What’s her feed conversion?

My youngest daughter is built like a colt.  She has always been that way.  She arrived four weeks early having obviously decided that there was not enough room in my 5’3” frame to accommodate her long legs…While she is not a big fan of eating (there always seems to be something more interesting to do) she continues to get taller and taller and taller.  At age seven, she is one of the tallest children in her grade and stands a full head taller than many of her friends.  I laugh that Matt has interjected height into my genetic pool!  He laughs that Karyn has excellent feed conversion

Karyn (my great feed converter) with one of our guides in Kenya...

Feed conversion is one of those cattle terms that 15 years ago was not in my vocabulary.  It is also one of the most important measurements of efficiency that I have for my animals, and tells me how many pounds of food each one requires to put on one pound of animal weight gain on a dry matter basis.  We convert the pounds of feed to a dry matter basis because different types of feed have different amounts of water in them relative to caloric value.  In a very simplistic sense, it tells me how many natural resources it takes for my animals to grow and make beef.

My two favorite blondes showing off one of our cattle feed rations...

There are many things that go into determining how efficient a bovine is.  Genetics play a big role, but there are many environmental influences on feed conversion as well.  I focus on quality at my cattle feed yard—I buy animals with high quality genetics and I offer quality care to them.  This combination allows for my animals to be very efficient converters of feed.  I believe that this plays an important role in reducing the environmental footprint of my farm because it reduces the amount of feed resources that I need to sustain my animals and grow great tasting beef.

Let’s take a minute and talk about what defines quality care relative to animal comfort and subsequent feed efficiency…

What helps to make them comfortable?

*Acclimation of cattle into the feed yard.  Cattle spend the majority of their lives grazing grass pastures, so the transition from eating grass and living on a pasture to eating out of a feed bunk and living in a dirt-based cattle feed yard pen is an important one.  Limiting stress to ensure greater cattle comfort is an important part of good cattle health and resulting feed efficiency.  We use a concept called low stress handling to help us create an acclimation plan for our cattle to ensure a smoother transition from a life on pasture to a life in a feed yard.

When a bovine is comfortable in his environment, he expresses normal behaviors such as this curiousity toward me and the camara...

*Consistent delivery of a balanced blend of quality feed ingredients.  My cattle nutritionist develops the blend or ration of feed that my animals receive.  My crew and I ensure that this feed is delivered in a consistent fashion to our animals.  Breakfast is delivered between 7:00 and 10:00am, and linner (my children’s name for the combination of lunch and dinner that the cattle receive) is delivered between 2:30 and 5:00pm.  We track the timing of feed delivery to our animals and try to ensure that each animal is fed within a half hour window for their meals on a day-to-day basis.  For example, Calf #718 lived in Pen 17 while he was at my feed yard.  His breakfast was delivered between 8:30 and 9:00 every morning, and his linner was delivered between 3:30 and 4:00.  Cattle are creatures of habit, and consistent timing of delivery and feed quality is important to their digestive health.  We also routinely test our feed rations to ensure the quality and consistency of the blend of feed that is offered to the animals.

The feedtruck delivering linner to Calf #718 and his herdmates last spring...

*Comfortable living conditions in the cattle pens.  We place a big focus on pen maintenance which helps to ensure that the pens that our cattle live in are comfortable for them.  We routinely clean our pens and haul out the natural fertilizer that the cattle produce to maintain a clean living space.  Mother Nature can wreak havoc with this at times when we receive large amounts of rain or a blizzard, but we work diligently to ensure the best possible conditions for our cattle.  My new livestock waste control facility has been a tremendous help in maintaining good living conditions for our cattle because it has enabled the moisture to drain out of our pens more efficiently which enables our pen surfaces to dry more quickly.

We use a tractor and box scraper to clean the pens and accumulate the manure so that Matt's crew can come and load the natural fertilizer and spread it on our farm ground...

The bottom line is that healthy and comfortable cattle make healthy and delicious beef grown using fewer nature resources. This reduces the environmental footprint of Matt’s and my farm.  Just like my happy and healthy seven-year old continues to grow with efficient feed conversion, so do my cattle.  It is my responsibility to offer quality care and feed to my animals.

When I set my animals up for success, I also set the consumers of my beef up for success as well as the long term sustainability of our farm...

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