Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Counting My Chickens Before They Hatch

Right now I have 11 dozen eggs in 11 different incubators in 11 different classrooms and I am excited to be a poultry producer. Each year I teach chick embryology to second graders in Pottawatomie County, and it is truly one of the things i enjoy most about my job. Oh sure it has its highs and lows. One year we hatched nearly all of the eggs and the next we only hatched 1 or 2 out of 120.

OK, I can hear the questions already. Why would a known beef producer be so eager to teach young children about chickens and even like it? Well folks, even though we compete for space in the meat counter and compete for your dollars at the check-out counter, it is all animal agriculture.

One of my passions in life is to talk to kids about agriculture. I love being part of the great system of farms and ranches that feed our great nation and I want everyone (especially kids) to know all about it. I love sharing the basics of our business, the science of what we do and how that all relates to the food we all eat.

I start this project by talking to the kids about the embryo's development. I show them and tell them about how the chicks develop each day. Then after two weeks I take a candler into the classroom and we candle the eggs. As I said earlier, sometimes this can be a really disappointing part of the unit. When this happens we talk about how this relates to both agriculture and real life.

During this unit I talk to the kids about the purpose of the chickens they are hatching and ultimately what will happen to them. I tell the teachers ahead of the unit that I will be taking the chicks home to my farm. The kids know that the hens will be kept for egg production and the roosters will be harvested for meat.

Most of the time this leads to an interesting discussion with the kids. However, I truly believe it is important for the kids to understand production agriculture and know where their food comes from. I hope as my years in Extension go on that I can at least make a difference one classroom at a time. I hope that each of those kids leave knowing where their food comes from, how it is raised and why we raise certain animals.

Then maybe they will relay the information to their parents, neighbors and friends. This kind of education used to be part of every child's upbringing through interaction with parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles on the farm. Now as generations are grow up far removed from the farm, it is our duty as farmers, ranchers and those involved in agriculture to make sure this basic knowledge of agriculture is in place. That, friends, is why I am counting my chickens even before they hatch.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Its Easy Being Green

Everywhere I go today I see green, that is probably because it is St. Patty's Day. However, as a farmer/ rancher I see green everyday. This week is Kansas Ag Week and each day had a theme, today's theme is Agriculture and Conserving Natural Resources.

I maintain that farmers and ranchers started the original green movement. Agriculture does more to preserve and improve the air, soil and water than any other business I know of. Sure big lobbying groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Working Group would say otherwise but they will say anything to get your donation. The real truth of the matter is that farmers and ranchers work hard to protect the environment.

Soil conservation has long been a focus in agriculture. Farmers started using terraces, water ways and other conservation practices almost 100 years ago. Today soil conservation has evolved into no-till farming and the immense technology behind this practice. The soil loss off of a field with conservation structures, farmed no-till is very minimal and very close to that of the native prairie. As farmers we realize that the soil is our lifeblood and we need to keep it in place.

Water quality is another area that farmers and ranchers are deeply committed to. Our creeks, rivers and ponds may be cleaner in some instances than they were before the plains were settled. Buffer strips, sedimentation basins, pond exclusions and fencing off of waterways have improved water quality and safety exponentially. Farming practices such as no-till have lowered the use of herbicides, new plant genetics have reduced the need for insecticides and better soil testing has led to more targeted and efficient application of fertilizers. This all results in less run off and cleaner, healthier creeks, rivers and ponds.

Air quality has become a hot button issue and our very own Flint Hills ranchers are working to make the air quality in places like Wichita and Kansas City better. The new Flint Hills Smoke Management plan will help reduce the amount of smoke drifting over our urban neighbors from our beneficial prescribed burns. This is a voluntary plan, implemented because we want to be good neighbors. Other practices like no-till have reduced the dust in the air and the amount of wind erosion. Modern swine, poultry, dairy and beef production systems greatly reduce the odors they give off and help to improve the quality of life for their neighbors also.

I am the proud producer of the food and fiber we all need, but this day has made me aware of something else also. Because of the great advances in technology and the dedication of my fellow farmers and ranchers, I can also say that I am a proud environmentalist dedicated to preserving the natural resources from which I make my living.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Shining Example

April is nearing and in the Flint Hills that means burning season is near. The burning of native tallgrass prairie is necessary to keep it healthy and thriving. Without fire, the prairie will transition into brush and eventually into forest. It is the continued use of fire that has kept our Flint Hills a prairie. Last spring that seemed to be threatened by the EPA and air quality in Kansas City and Wichita.

I must admit, I am like many of my fellow farmers and ranchers, and I am skeptical of the EPA. "I am from the government and I am here to help" are words that raise the hair on our necks. That was how I feared it would be when I heard that the EPA was looking into Flint Hills burning and heightened levels of ozone in Kansas City and Wichita. However, at least in this instance and at least for now, I was wrong.

It is also easy for those of us affected by this to look at our city neighbors as bad people. After all it is their cars, their businesses and their cities that are the base of the ozone problem. However, that view is also very short-sighted. The reality is that our city neighbors are our customers and ultimately our partners in paying taxes and growing our economy.

What happened may be a model for solving future problems. A very diverse group of individuals representing agriculture, government, business, cities and special interest groups came together to formulate a plan to manage the smoke in the Flint Hills.

The plan is voluntary and asks producers to look at where their smoke is going to go when deciding when to burn. Our burns are called prescribed burns. Much like the prescription your doctor would give you, we decide when to burn by what we want to accomplish with that burn.

K-State research proves that burning around April 15 will add an additional 23 pounds to feeder cattle grazed in the Flint Hills, thus lowering the amount of grain needed. Other research promotes burning later in April to control woody invasive species (remember I told you that the tallgrass prairie would revert to brush without fire), lowering our need for chemical and preserving the last tallgrass prairie. Some burns are utilized to promote the growth of forbs for wildlife habitat. There are many different reasons to burn and many different times (within about a 6 week window) utilized to accomplish different outcomes.

The plan is voluntary for producers, so it doesn't restrict the time of the year that they can burn. It simply asks for them to consider other elements such as upper atmosphere mixing height, wind direction, and wind speed when deciding what day to burn. New Internet tools have been developed to help with these decisions. K-State, the National Weather Services, KDHE and various farm groups such as KLA and Kansas Farm Bureau have combined efforts to aid in education and implementation of this plan. It is truly a group effort

Now it is our time, as farmers and ranchers, to put this team effort into place and make a difference in the air quality for our city neighbors while still preserving our absolutely necessary management practice of prescribed burning. This is also a shining example of the partnership and communication that we, as farmers and ranchers, must have to ultimately forge a bond and an understanding with our customers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wednesday is Wear Green for Ag Day

It's March and I am looking through my closet for green. No, its not what you think. I am not putting on the green for St. Patty's Day. Rather I am putting on my green for the 2nd Annual Wear Green in Support of Ag Day. My friend Barrett Smith came up with this great idea last year. I encourage you to wear green also and here is why.

Those of us living in the United States have the incredible blessing of living in a nation with the safest, most wholesome, most abundant food supply in the world. We live in a nation with a system of farms and ranches that produce more food than we consume. We live in a nation where one farmer feeds themselves and 159 others. We truly feed the world.

The network of farmers and ranchers who produce the food and fiber we all need, do so in a manner that is both safe and sustainable. We protect the environment, the soil we live on is preserved, our air is cleaner and the water is purer than ever. This is all because we employ the most technologically advanced methods to produce the nourishment we all need while protecting the world around us.

I will wear green to honor my fellow farmers and ranchers, many whom are four and five generations on the same piece of land and most of whom are family farms and ranches. The men and women who produce your food do so out of a love of what they do. I promise you they do not farm and ranch to get rich. We chose our career paths because it is our calling.

That is why I am asking you to wear green this Wednesday. I am also asking you to pass this on to all of your friends, it would be my wish that everyone I see on Wednesday would be wearing green. After all I am a proud producer of the food we all eat.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The View from My Office

This morning was one of those mornings that reminds me of why I do what I do. Let me share the "view from my desk". The mornings are starting have that twinge of spring. I am not sure if it is the moisture in the air or the slightly warmer temperatures but it is obvious changes are on the way. It just feels like spring in the air.

We are deep in the heart of lambing and calving. There is nothing I love more than to go out early in the morning and watch the lambs and calves. Chores take on the added excitement of finding newborn lambs or calves. It seems as though there are more birds singing and the sounds of spring are in the air.

When the barn doors are opened into the outdoor pens the lambs buck and run and it is one of my favorite things to watch. Ewes are momentarily distracted by the feed being dumped into the feed bunk, but are quickly back to looking for their lambs. Each ewe has a distinctive noise they make to find their lambs. By the end of lambing season, I can almost tell which ewe is looking for her lamb by the sound.

The calves are much the same. During calving, I often unroll bales. When I do this the calves will also run and buck as the bale unrolls. Like the ewes the cows are easily distracted by the hay and soon go looking for their calves.

All of this activity is framed in the heavy, damp, earthy air of spring, soon the hills will start to show tinges of green and the trees will start to bud. I am not sure how to explain it but watching the new calves and the lambs gives one a sense of well-being, you know winter is near its end and spring is coming.

This is all infused with the sunshine coming up over the hills and touching the whole panorama. That is the scene I wish I could share with each of you. It is a scene that makes you feel good about the world we live in and one that makes you feel good about our farmers and and ranchers.

Farmers and ranchers live this scene every morning and that is why we work so hard to preserve it. We work to protect the environment around us and the animals we raise. This scene and experience is one that I never get tired of and one that I want my children and my grandchildren to experience. That, my friends, is why I love what I do.