Friday, May 21, 2010

Making The Best Better

I was excited that the International Symposium on Beef Cattle Welfare was held in Manhattan this week. It's not everyday you have an international conference on beef cattle issues in your backyard (figuratively).

It was great to see cattle producers working to make cattle welfare practices even better. The highlight for me was listening to Dr. Temple Grandin share her experiences and research, as well as the changes she has witnessed in recent years as part of her latest book and HBO movie tour.

Dr. Grandin has used her life experience with autism to revolutionize the way we once viewed cattle behavior and cattle handling systems. I had the opportunity to take a short course with her while in graduate school and loved that her straight-forward teaching style and passion for her subject.

In her recent travels to major cities across the country she has noted a changing tide in public concern and information about how our food is produced. She warned us that cattle producers were "not winning the communications battle."

One of my favorite parts of her opening speech was a remark about the handling of cattle within packing facilities. Grandin cited her work over many years in auditing animal harvesting facilities. What she reiterated though to the group was that "whether it's organic, natural, humane, or Mc Donald's it's all held to the same standard," in an animal welfare audit.
No matter what type of beef you choose, it's important to know that it was handled to minimize stress and prevent abuse. Those who are cruel to animals may rarely appear on the evening news, but it is my belief that these people are few and far between. This conference was a testament to the majority of cattle producers who are working to produce a safe, wholesome, and humane product. Cattle producers work tirelessly to ensure the welfare of animals, but are always looking for ways "to make the best better."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mama Cow

Our month began with a rather strange occurrence...

Please note: green grass, an uncomfortable looking cow, and a north facing hoof.

We generally finish calving out all of our cows in January and February. I'm not sure if you remember January, but it looked something like this.

Checking heifers in January generally involves every article of warm clothing one owns and a flashlight. As well as my own personal fantasies about adding a windshield to the Trekker to make our late night checks more tolerable. Yep, I'm a big whiner when it comes to winter. I'll do better. I just don't have Mr. O's steely resolve yet. So after acquiring a new heifer last spring that was a bit out of sync with the rest of our herd I was happy to be wearing these during my most recent heifer checks.

Forgive me for not appreciating the "miracle of birth" in the dead of winter. But unless a cow is having trouble or needs to come into the barn for a closer look, I'm not too interested in sticking around. I'll come back and check in two hours. If I don't bribe Mr. O to take my shift. A dozen Oatmeal Crisp Cookies = two night heifer checks.

This day in May however was different. Warm even. So I thought I'd stick around a bit and see what I was missing. I'll spare you those pictures. It's a family show. But as we gathered her in a smaller pen and hid in the shade of the barn, I could only wonder why the heck we don't do this every May.

I'm generally against delivery room photos...

This cow proves to be a great mom. She gets right up and begins to clean her calf. She also assumes a bit of an attitude. Something that reminds me of a story about my sister-in-law watching my two-year old nephew in the "Under Six-Year Old" ball pit at the museum.

Without any practical experience at motherhood, I'm not without a great deal of respect for the moms at our ranch. They are comforters, nourishers, and protectors. And clearly we couldn't run the place without them.

When I hear people far away from the farm talk about how we treat our cattle, I can't help but think of the cows we care for everyday and the work they do for us. We treat them ethically around the clock not because it's best for our bottom line, but because it's the right thing to do. After all ranchers are also comforters, nourishers, and protectors.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

At Last

I never knew there were so many shades of brown, until I moved to Kansas. After several months of this....

Words can't express how happy spring at the ranch makes me. So I'll spare you the rambling.... and hope you'll enjoy these instead!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Meatful Monday

Mr. Optimistic frequently says I have the guilt of four catholics. I'd say it's more like five.

There is however one guilt trip I'm not taking. Lately, I've seen several articles that suggest eating meat is bad for the environment and touting Meatless Mondays. A good friend of mine (and very talented photographer) even found this display at the popular Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

And yes, that's a cow in a gas mask encouraging you to lay off beef and dairy products (center right). Seriously.

My friend even overheard a mother say, "See, that is why you are helping the environment by becoming a vegan!" The little girl didn't look so convinced. But many adults are.

Most of the meatless claims center around a 2006 research report by the United Nations titled "Livestock's Long Shadow." The report claims that livestock production accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, this information continues to be recycled.

The problem is that it is a global estimate for all of agriculture, not just livestock. Agriculture across the globe is quite varied. In addition, the study included transportation of livestock products...something you'd also have to do for vegetables unless you live in a greenhouse.

A 2008 U.S. EPA report says, methane from livestock accounts for only 2.4% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That's relatively small considering transportation accounts for 26%.

What's more, many Americans are actually not meeting the food guide pyramids requirements for lean protein. Beef is the number one food source of zinc (essential for your immune system), as well as an excellent source of iron and protein that will help meet the pyramid's guide. More great news - there are 29 lean cuts to choose from.

Farmers and ranchers work hard to maintain our earth's natural resources everyday. It's our livelihood. So feel guilty about eating too much triple chocolate layer cake (or not calling your mom), but don't feel bad about eating beef.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mo vs. Mo in Food Inc.

As an agriculturalist, I have never criticized Food Inc. In fact I didn’t even have my pitchfork sharpened last night when I flew (figuratively) through the door at 8:45 p.m. after a meeting and turned on PBS. I did not see the first 45 minutes but I spent the next hour asking….can that be?

I’ve heard a lot about Food Inc, if not through the beef industry then via the Academy Awards list of Best Documentary Nominees. But I have been slow to criticize, because I simply had not seen it for myself.

One thing really surprised me. Although I’ve been in production agriculture all my life and spent several summers testing grain at the Co-op, I had no idea what a bunch of "jerks" worked at Monsanto. Wait a minute…my brother (who I find quite likable) works there. The portion of the movie that I watched (which was technically part two), didn’t spare any expense at providing Monsanto a one-sided fight. Especially, when all of the talking is done by those "poor farmers.” I couldn’t wait to hear what my brother had to say when I texted him while watching. Fortunately, this email arrived from him this morning:

"How dare Monsanto patent the seed that they put billions of dollars of research into? Why shouldn’t farmers get the technology for free?

To give you an idea it is estimated that Monsanto spends $2.6 million a DAY on seed research.

What they fail to tell you is that Monsanto isn’t out to destroy poor innocent farmers by taking them for all they are worth. Rather they are out to protect the patents of their products that they have worked to develop. One thing they also forgot to mention in the movie is Monsanto doesn’t collect a dime from the lawsuits. Anything that is awarded to Monsanto either through lawsuit or settlement is immediately donated back to youth scholarships and agriculture education groups within the area that the farmer is from. Click here for their side of the story.

As far as poor Maurice (Mo) Parr the seed cleaner from Indiana. No one stated he had to quit cleaning seed. He simply has to quit cleaning seed with Monsanto’s genetic traits in it. It was sad how the movie portrayed Monsanto squashing poor Mo. Read Mo here.

Then there is Troy Roush. Never mind the fact that Monsanto should sue him again for confidentiality violations as was determined per his settlement. The guy still buys seed from the company he hates."

I assure you my big brother is not a company spokesman, just someone who offers another side to the story. While he's not unbiased, he did mention he needed a raise. No one's totally satisfied with company policy.

However, while watching the video in my home, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for poor Mo and the gang. I have a real soft spot for elderly men, especially elderly farmers. I’m a prime example of one more person watching this film without all the facts.

Unfortunately, anyone watching this movie was doing it without all the facts. I was saddened and shocked by the blanket statements about dishonest people in the food industry. As a chronic perfectionist I’m open to a discussion about how I can do anything better, including raising food. I’m a firm believer that anything can be done better. But don't attack the hardworking men and women racing to keep up with the challenges of feeding a dramatically increasing population, that is demanding affordable food.

I believe there's a place at our tables for all types of production including organic, grass-fed, and conventional. I do however have a serious problem with one producer disparaging anothers product without true scientific evidence.

What this video misses is that we have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world that is the envy of our neighbors. Daily we walk into clean, brightly lit stores to purchase, affordable, wholesome, and (when prepared properly) safe foods. How lucky we are as a nation to have this much time on our hands to complain about it….it’s probably because we aren’t cleaning our own chickens in the backyard.

My lunch break is over and an hour isn't nearly enough time to dispel all of the myths in this film. Visit Safe Food Inc. to learn more about the films inaccuracies.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Fell In To A....

When it comes to jobs at the ranch, I'm generally not too picky. After dwelling in an office most of the day, I'm thankful for anything that doesn't involve heels.

There is however, one job that will make me immediately want to find somewhere else to be: Burning.

I really was never aware of my fear of fire until I went to my first burn with Mr. Optimistic seven years ago. I got clotheslined by an overzealous, hose-wielding college boy while holding a drip torch. Both I and my pride were singed.

After marrying the Flint Hills however, disappearing to the mall during burning season seems a little wrong. So I've learned to adjust, adapt, and of course take pictures.

If you are a stray to the area like me, you may wonder why this is done. For one, good stewards of the land have a saying to "take half and leave half." In other words, when grazing a pasture, one would like to graze until half the grass production for that year is used, and then move the cows to another pasture. What is left behind, though, is lots and lots of mature, dead grass. When pastures are burned at the right time, it gives new nutrient-rich and efficient grass the opportunity to grow. And become the most incredibly beautiful green color imaginable.

Also, burning helps control invasive plant species like cedar trees and different types of brush that can overrun grazing land. Want to get Mr. Optimistic ruffled? Tell him you love cedar trees. Our neighbors love them, and we don't speak to them anymore.

There are many other reasons why rangeland burning is important for the Flint Hills, even including a cow's picky palette. Apparently to her, the grass is greener (and more delectable) on the other side of the hill. Cows will sometimes return to their favorite spot too often, shortening the grass and allowing invasive plants to take hold. I have a similar problem with McDonald's french fries, so I'm not judging.

In short, Mr. Optimistic is not a pyro, but a conservationist seeking to find the best way to efficiently manage and maintain the resources that we have. By keeping our pastures viable, we are able to efficiently feed cattle and a growing human population without increasing the land needed for agriculture. Which I'm sure makes all of our cedar tree loving neighbors very happy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Keepin' it Real

The McDonald's "Gimme back that filet-o-fish" commercial has officially been in my head periodically for a year. I'm so glad they brought that sad mounted fish back for another Lenten season.

Recently the screaming fish in my head was replaced by a smoother jingle. "When it's real. You know when it's real." Ironically when I saw this commercial today it was for a competing less-catchy fish sandwich at Wendy's. The commercial touted fish that was "Real without question."

This all seemed pretty trivial until one commercial later a K.F.C. commercial cited their chicken was prepared in their kitchens...."by a REAL cook." Really Colonel?

I even saw a mayonnaise commercial recently touting real ingredients with a maternal figure (who was way too happy about mayo) encouraging me to, "say yes to real."

This past week, while enjoying some chicken nuggets I noticed the container they were in said they too were made with "Real Chicken." And we all know that same joint serves 100% real beef in their burgers.

Apparently, real-ity is all around me.

"Real" seems to be the favorite word of food marketing companies nationwide. Is it the new green? But, what does it really mean? I just had some Chicken flavored Ramen for dinner. Did I imagine that? Tasted real.

I can't help but wonder what all of this advertising says about consumers. While I consider the beef we produce and eat in our home to be real...I'm not sure what constitutes this marketing sanction. As a beef producer I'm convinced I better figure it out, because judging by the work of market researchers this is a real priority.