Saturday, March 19, 2016

GMOs, Food and First World Problems



I often tell people I am a proud producer of the food we all need. I am also not embarrassed or ashamed that the food I raise includes GMO crops or animals that have had antibiotics. I truly believe that both are important tools that help me produce more food with fewer inputs. In the case of antibiotic use in my livestock, I believe them necessary to take the best possible care of my animals. I am also certain that the food produced from GMO crops and livestock who have been given antibiotics properly are perfectly safe.
That is why it is so maddening when I hear or see ads that proclaim products antibiotic or GMO free. Of course the implication is that those products are somehow safer than food from GMOs or animals that have been given antibiotics. Each time I want to shout at the TV and tell them that GMOs are completely safe and all meat is antibiotic free. I do realize it is the consumer’s right to purchase the products they want.
However, the idea that we can decide how food is produced as a society is a first world problem and one that is very troubling. Several states have had referendums on GMO crops. In the forum of public opinion GMO crops are continually maligned and theorized to cause health problems. This is even though nothing has ever been scientifically proven and GMO crops have been deemed completely safe for human consumption. I challenge anyone to provide peer reviewed, proven scientific papers that prove otherwise.
The bottom line is that GMO crops are an important tool that allows us, as farmers, to produce more food with fewer inputs and less impact on the environment. We need them to feed an ever growing world population. We are also in the business of producing what the consumer wants, which creates a dilemma. Again I have absolutely no problem with producers who decide not to grow GMO crops. We are all part of the same team. However, as farmers who do choose to grow GMOs we need to stand up for the crops we grow.
It is up to us to dispel the myths perpetuated in social media and other channels. We need to talk about what we do and let the public know that our crops represent many years of scientific research and even more years of testing to insure their safety. In a world with a growing need for food we cannot let our food abundance lead us down the road of allowing assumptions and theories to override science.
Our use of antibiotics in livestock is also in jeopardy. Any of us who raise livestock understand the importance of their use. Antibiotics are a necessary tool for us to insure that the animals we care for are healthy and comfortable. If their use is limited or taken away completely animals will suffer unnecessarily. We will also not able to produce meat as efficiently as we need too.
Again, this restriction of animal antibiotics is based on theory and assumptions and not at all on hard science. What makes the antibiotic issue even more troubling is that our own government is falling victim to this hysteria. Again, I challenge anyone to provide me with undeniable proof that the antibiotics we use in the production of livestock have anything to do with antibiotic resistance in humans. The antibiotics we use in our livestock are safe, have been tested and we follow precautions to make sure they remain safe and reliable.
I know I am preaching to the choir. Most of us in agriculture understand the importance of all of the advances in modern agriculture. GMO crops and antibiotics for livestock are just two of the most important discoveries and they are crucial technologies when it comes to our ever growing world demand for food. We may not need them to feed the United States but they are critical to feed the world.
It is great that we have enough disposable income to allow us to pick and choose what foods we eat. I say more power to those who want to control how their food was grown and have the money to pay a premium for food that was produced in less efficient systems. That is their choice. However, I do have a problem when they try to force those decisions on others who may not have the means to afford those choices. That is why it is so critical, that we stand up for the technologies that help us produce food efficiently, affordably and safely.  


Funny Smells and Wasted Bacon



I have two pickups. One is my feed pickup, and it is just barely road worthy. In fact, the rest of my family refuses to drive it. It might be because it does tend to wonder a little when traveling down the road. Their hesitance might be because it only has one working headlight. Actually it is mainly because of the fact that one door handle is broken and both doors are sprung. That and the fact that after many years of feeding, checking cows and calving season it has a certain odor that is permanently ingrained in its interior.
The other is my good pickup. It is my Sunday Go to Meeting transportation. Other than pulling the stock trailer and trips to town I try not to use it for farm work. The key operative word is trying. Sometimes involving it in farm work is inevitable, especially given the wear and tear factor of the afore mentioned feed truck. I assume I am not the only one in this situation.
A while ago, about December I think, I ended up driving the good truck to do chores. If you remember December was very wet and they lots were very muddy. Because of that I ended up in the good pickup with my muddy chores clothes and boots. During this wet period my lots and barns got really wet and the smell of wet sheep and cattle is not good.
That is why the funky odor in the good pickup did not surprise me. At first I just assumed it was something on my boots. I cleaned the floor mats and yet the odor malingered. I proceeded to try a couple of different air fresheners, yet the odor never quite seemed to leave. My fear was that my good truck had started that inevitable journey to becoming a feed truck.
While I was not happy with that reality, I had resigned myself to accept it. I would apologize to my passengers and explain that the odor was that of wet sheep and other things. The odor got fainter but never quite went away. Especially if the truck had been shut up and sitting in the sun. I had tried and tried to solve the mystery but to no avail.
 Occasionally I need to swap vehicles with Jennifer and her sense of smell is acutely better than mine. More important her level of tolerance for things that are not quite right is much lower than mine. She insisted that there had to be a reason and that it was more than just the smell of wet sheep and muddy lots. Her order was to detail the pickup until the odor went away.
The pickup was moderately dirty with a good layer of dust all over. We also had purchased a new shop vac that was smaller and much easier to get into tight places with. This was something that would play a very crucial role in the final vanquishing of the mystery smell. In any case I set about vacuuming and wiping the dust and grime from my good pickup.
With the new smaller shop vac I found myself getting into nooks and crannies that before had been untouchable. That led me to the area under the passenger’s seat. In my zeal to get every piece of dirt and every dog hair out of my truck I reached up under the passenger’s seat, all the way to the front, over the little metal barrier. I felt the most curious thing, some sort of package wrapped in paper, butcher’s paper to be exact. I got a firm hold on the object and carefully lifted it out.
Much to my surprise I found a one pound package of bacon from the local locker and it all made sense. In December, around the time of the monsoon, I had went to the locker and picked up pork that we had gotten from the neighbor and put it in the back seat. Somewhere during the ride home apparently one of the packages of bacon had slid off out of the bag and under the seat. The real mystery is how it got behind that metal barrier toward the front of the seat.
Triumphantly I told Jennifer about my discovery and how I had solved the problem. She did not share my enthusiasm for the successful odor removal and reminded me that the problem should have been solved long ago. I was left with a mixture of emotions; joy that the odor was finally gone, pride in my accomplishment, dismay that Jennifer did not share my excitement and an overall sense of loss because I had wasted a package of bacon. Oh well, at least the truck smells better, even in the sun.

When Things Go Good!



Calving season is fully underway. I know it is dry and the temperatures are abnormally warm and I really should be concerned about the pattern we seem to be slipping into but it is really tough. I could really get used to checking and tagging calves without the need to wear coveralls and mud boots. All of the poor hay we had set aside to unroll for bedding is, so far, going unused. I know this can, and probably will change by the time you read this. If it does, I am sorry.
Sunday was one of those days you know you will pay for somewhere down the road. Sure it was a little windy but it was sunny, dry and warm. The kids and I were supposed to help with a pancake feed for our 4-H club because of this we left before chores were done. Jennifer was going to finish chores around the barnyard, check the cows at our place and go help Dad tag new calves before she had to leave to help with an FFA Alumni fundraiser. Sunday mornings are hectic but this one promised to be even more so.
Jennifer called to tell me chores were done and we had two new calves at our house and she was going to help Dad tag four new calves at his house. Six new calves is a pretty productive day this early in the calving season for us, and it was a nice day to boot. Shortly after arriving we found out we were double booked to help so the kids and I headed home to tag calves.
Isaac and I fired up the feed truck and made our way out into the pasture looking for one big black cow and one big baldy cow. Just a few yards into the gate we found the big black cow and her big bull calf. With all of the quickness and agility of a teenager, Isaac easily caught the calf and in no time we had him tagged and ready for release. One down, half way done, or so we thought.
As we admired our handy work, we noticed another black cow, slightly smaller with a slightly smaller calf just a few yards away. Quickly we loaded made another tag and eased our way over to the next calf. It was a nice heifer calf and again we easily caught it and worked it while the mother watched us with a skeptical eye. There was really no way this cow could have been mistaken for a baldy so there must be another calf here. We gathered things up and got back into the pickup.
We did not drive another twenty five yards before we found a brockle faced cow with a big brockle faced calf. Maybe this was the big baldy, but it didn’t seem to fit either. We loaded up once again and carefully made our way to the cow and calf. Again capturing the calf was not difficult and the mama seemed ok with us tagging and checking her baby. It was a bull calf. The sun was shining, all seemed right with the world.
We collected all of our equipment again and returned to the pickup just about a hundred yards from the gate. We were still in search of the elusive big baldy cow. We picked our way through the other cows and older calves sunning themselves. Just twenty yard into our drive we spotted her. There stood the big baldy cow with a pretty little baldy calf, kind of a smaller version. This had to be the second calf Jennifer had told us about.
Isaac and I were more coordinated in our capture effort; after all we were much more practiced up. We easily captured the fourth calf and quickly gave it a brand new tag to match her mama’s. We stepped back and admired our work. Four new calves all less than a hundred yards apart, tagged, banded and vaccinated all in less than fifteen minutes. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Jennifer called to tell us that she and Dad had their four calves tagged and she did not seem to feel any remorse about her miscount on the calves. Dad was only fifteen minutes late to church and we continued on with our preparations for the FFA Alumni fundraiser.
I know I am setting myself up for one of those days it is blowing, raining and cold. Nothing goes right and we can’t find the calves. But for one shining moment it was nice to take a step back and enjoy the moment. Content cows, healthy new calves and sunshine, I could get used to this.

Lambing Standard Time



We are nearing the tail end of lambing season when it comes to the number of ewes we have to lamb. However, I am sure we are not to the tail end of lambing season when it comes to the number of days. It always amazes me just how long the last 25% of the flock takes in comparison to the first 75%. Yes, I know those last 25% should be culled but how much fun would that be?
It did occur to me last week that we had a time change. No, don’t worry we have not sprung forward and you were not late for church. That painful day when we lose an hour of sleep is yet to come. No, this week I discovered I was living on lambing time. To be honest, I think I have been living on lambing time for the past three weeks. This is the time of the year when everything revolves around the lambing barn, and not my calendar.
Two weeks ago I was asked to serve as a member of a farmer panel. No problem, the meeting started late enough in the morning I should be able to do chores and everything would be just fine. It did all go as planned until I made one last check of the ewes before I went inside to get ready. Ewe 3107 decided to start the birthing process. I quickly caught her up and moved her to the lambing barn and decided to wait to make sure there were no problems. I waited and waited and waited until the very last minute and sure enough she had a set of healthy twins.
I showered and dressed quickly, hoping the smell of lambing season was just permanently imprinted on my sinuses and not my entire body. I ran out to the truck and took off like a shot and tried to make up for lost time on the road. I skidded into the parking lot just in time and just as my low tire light went off. I bailed out and as I ran past the rear tire I could hear air hissing out. At least I had made it, so I called it a win. I must also send a shout out to the Blue Valley Telecommunication guys who took pity on their farmer panelist and changed the tire for me while I participated in the discussion.
Then last week I had a meeting in Topeka. The start time of this meeting was 10:00; again I mistakenly thought that I had plenty of time to get chores done and arrive on time. This time ewe 3169 was in labor when I started chores. Perfect, I thought, she can have this lamb while I do chores. Little did I know I was on lambing time. I caught her and moved her to a jug in the lambing barn and proceeded on with chores.
When I finished the barnyard chores I checked back in on her. Nothing, so I decided to continue on and feed the cows and the bulls. Upon completion of those tasks I once again peered into the lambing barn to check on her. Again, much to my chagrin, nothing and no more progress adding to my growing anxiety. I still had about 30 to 45 minutes before I had to leave, so I went into the house and waited. While I was waiting I consulted with Jennifer and Dad and both told me to be patient and go on to my meeting.
I decided to go out one more time and found nothing more had happened. I then went in and texted someone else going to the meeting and told them I would be late. Thirty minutes later I went out to the barn and found the ewe laying down, chewing her cud. Rattled beyond words I called my vet and he gave me the same advice my wife and father had given me earlier. With that I got dressed still wondering if the smell I could smell was just in my head or was real, which is not a real confidence booster.
I made it to my meeting more than 30 minutes late after starting out late and then getting lost. As I pulled into the parking garage the low tire light again went off, although this time the tire was only low and I did get to drive it to air after the meeting. The rest of the day I nervously checked my phone as Dad checked the ewe and relayed messages to Jennifer. Finally Jennifer came home at 4:00 and helped the ewe have twins.
It was a good reminder to a less than patient shepherd that it doesn’t matter what my calendar says during lambing season. I might think I have plenty of time built into the schedule, but in reality I am on the schedule of my sheep. No doubt about it, mid January the time changes from standard time to lambing season time.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Local Foods and Feeding the World



Recently I was asked how I felt about the local food movement. My answer was; I am all for it up to a point. In fact, I am a willing participant in it. Each year we market a few head of the calves and lambs we raise locally. I must say that interacting with my customers is one of the things I enjoy the most and maybe one of the most unrecognized benefits of locally produced foods.
One of the things I do tell my customers is that the product I am providing is not more nutritious than the meat you buy in the grocery store. However, I do think that I have a better product. My beef is aged before it is cut up and that makes for a much better eating experience. I have my hamburger made much leaner than most of what is bought in the grocery store. I also probably feed my animals longer and give them more grain than most of the beef or lamb on grocery store shelves. Finally, I believe that I have animals that produce genetically better beef than the average calf.
All of this adds up to a better product, not a more nutritious one. However, because I feed my animals longer and because my hamburger is leaner, I must charge a premium price. Unfortunately, the higher price probably excludes many consumers. I cannot speak to others who raise livestock, crops, fruits and vegetables for local sale, but my breakeven price for the livestock I raise is much higher than the larger, commercial feeders. If you will let me revert back to my Ag economics background, it is simply the economies of size; they can spread costs over a much larger area and purchase inputs at a discounted rate.
I agree that there probably is some intangible feeling that locally produced food is better. I think the consumer has an idea that it is fresher and tastes better and they could be right. Either way, it does give some farmers and ranchers an opportunity to produce locally grown foods and increase their profit margin. The same person who posed the first question to me also made the statement that maybe every farmer or rancher could benefit from selling some of their produce locally. After some windshield time to think about it, I think there may be some merit in that statement. Please hear me out.
Each time I deliver my beef or lamb, I have the chance to interact with a consumer. It gives me a chance to get to know them and them a chance to understand what I do. Jennifer observes that I can only make one or two deliveries in a day because I spend so much time talking to my customers. Part of that is because I like to chat with people but part of it is because I am proud of what I produce and I like to share it with anyone who will listen.
These chats over deliveries have given me the opportunity to talk about antibiotic use, growth promotants, livestock handling and husbandry. I have had the chance to tell about our history in agriculture and out plans for the future. In the end I leave the delivery with a better understanding of the consumer and, I hope, they have a better understanding of how their food is produced. That is where I think every farmer and rancher would benefit from selling something they produce locally.
I do try to leave my customers with the thought that we still need large scale commercial food and fiber production. While I truly believe the beef and lamb I sell is a higher quality product, I also understand it is not affordable or right for all consumers, it is not a bargain. I believe that we need to produce food in a much more economical manner to feed the growing population in more urban areas who might not have access to locally grown food or the income to purchase them.
So the answer to the question is that I do believe that the locally grown food movement is a good thing as long as we realize that all farmers and ranchers are in the same boat. We need to keep that in mind and we need to remember that we all must row the boat together. The bottom line is that there is a place in agriculture for all farmers and ranchers. At less than two percent of the population we need all hands on deck, big or small to produce enough food and fiber for a rapidly growing population.