Thursday, August 29, 2013

Small Bales and Modern Ag

Each year we bale a few small square bales of hay. We use them to coax the cows into the pens in the fall, feed them to the ewes in the lambing jugs, any animal in the sick pen, and the occasional seat at a church event. We don’t bale very many, but we do bale enough to make me appreciate my big round baler.
I wasn’t very old when Dad got his first big round baler, I kind of remember him putting up thousands of small square bales each summer and feeding them out in the winter. There were a number of years he baled, loaded, unloaded and stacked the bales pretty much by himself. Each summer I marvel at this feat after stacking my few hundred bales in the loft, with help.
Sure there would be some benefits to feeding small square bales. I would bet that my hay wastage would drop significantly. You better believe that if I go through all that work and pain to handle all that hay, the sheep and cows are going to savor every mouthful. I would also guess that the hay would be much better quality, after all much of it would be stored in my loft away from the elements.
The most obvious benefit would probably be to my health. I keep trying to sell my friends on the great “burn” a session of unloading small square bales gives you. It is far better than any workout at any gym (of course this is all theory on my part). Think of all the calories you would burn and all the muscle groups that get worked out. I know if I fed all small square bales I would be in much, much better shape.
Of course in reality, the labor saving benefits of handling big round bales versus small square bales is kind of a no brainer.  In the summer Dad and I can bale much more hay, in much less time with a great deal less labor. The labor savings and time savings are also passed along in the winter when the hay is fed to the cows. Baling small square bales and stacking them in the loft does make us all a bit nostalgic about the way farming and ranching used to be, I suppose it is a bit of a metaphor of some of the attacks we are all under in agriculture today.
Small square bales make us all remember a time when all farms were smaller. I am sure in the filter of time things seemed simpler. You worked hard, kept your nose to the grindstone, made a good living and turned around each morning and did it all over again. Farms were smaller because the work was so physical. The physical nature of the work also took its toll. Have you ever met an older farmer who didn’t have a bad back, worn out knees, hips that were shot and shoulders that didn’t work?
Then along came better technology, i.e. big round bales. This invention made it easier to bale more hay and feed that same hay to more cows with less labor. All of this technology made our jobs much easier physically and it made us much more efficient also. Sure we can think back fondly to the past, but the reality is that we need the increase output that big round bales give us. I also suspect that there will also always be a place for small square bales.
Now take this idea and apply it to other, more controversial, areas of agriculture like gmo crops. Our gmo crops allow us to utilize other new technology like no-till. Sure much like small square bales, I miss disking. There was something therapeutic about tilling up the land and the smell of newly tilled soil. However, gmo seeds allow me to be a more efficient producer while still being a good steward of the land. The world and its increased population need me to be the most efficient and productive farmer I can be.
At the end of the day, there is still a need for all types of farming and all kinds of farmers much like there is a need for all sizes and shapes of hay bales. While I would not give up my big round baler or my pick-up bale bed to go back to feeding all small square bales. There is something to be said for the good kind of tired you feel at the end of the day looking at a big stack of bales in the hay loft and I am glad for both experiences.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Food, Security and the Farm Bill! Wake Up D.C.!!!!

We are looking right down the barrel of an important junction in the history of our nation. I am sure that we all are disgusted with the bi-partisan arguing and inaction in Washington D.C. I don’t care which side of the aisle you align yourself with, no one can be proud of what is going on, or more accurately, not going in our nation’s capital. This summer the inaction seems to have gotten to a fever pitch and I fear it will affect the very bedrock of our nation. That bedrock is agriculture and that means a farm bill needs to get done and needs to get done right now.
A strong agricultural system has always been the key to the success of the United States. Not only can we feed ourselves but we provide food and fiber to a good portion of the world. I would challenge you to go through history and find an example of an enduring world power without a strong agricultural foundation. Food security is the first thing that must be established to insure that a society will grow and flourish.
The United States has been a prime example of this, For many years we have known that our success lies with the success of our farmers and ranchers and their ability to not only survive but to also increase their productivity as our need for food and fiber increased. This dependence on a strong agricultural system is what led to the development of the farm bill and what has sustained the farm bill no matter which party was in control or what else was going on politically. It has long been understood that a farm bill needs to be a priority. A strong food and fiber production system was undeniably a matter of national security.
I think my friend Ben Boyd, a farmer from Georgia, summed it up best. Ben said, “If you like being dependant on foreign oil, you are going to love being dependant on foreign food.” Just think about how the price of crude oil fluctuates based on the whims of other nations who do not have our best interests in mind, now think about how that would be if that was your food we were talking about. Maintaining and protecting our farmers and ranchers is of utmost importance.
Want an example of how important the farm bill is? Probably the most important piece in the farm bill is the support of crop insurance. Without subsidized crop insurance most farmers could not afford it. Without crop insurance many of my friends in western Kansas would now be out of business because of the sustained drought. Did they get rich because of this coverage? Absolutely not, but it did allow them to pay their bills and stay in business.
Yes, it allowed them to pay their bills, which also allowed Main Street in many small western Kansas towns to survive. We often worry about the outward migration from rural America; I promise you this would have been even worse in the past few years without crop insurance sustaining many of the farmers and the communities they live in. Crop insurance has become our food safety net.
Crop insurance has also become absolutely critical when we go to secure loans to operate with. In a time of increased oversight and regulation on our lending partners, crop insurance allows bankers to feel more secure loaning the large amounts of capital it takes to operate a farm or ranch. Without crop insurance many younger or newer farmers would not be able to obtain the loans they depend on. The next generation of Ag producer needs to be encouraged not discouraged from picking up the torch and running with it.
Right now congress is out on recess (seems kind of ironic because in school if we didn’t get our work done, we didn’t get recess) and it is a great time to contact your congressional delegation. Folks we are all in this together, because if you aren’t producing the food, you are certainly eating it. We all need to reach out to our elected officials and let them know that a farm bill is something that needs to be done now and not later.
Maybe this stalemate is a sign of the times because most people have never had to worry about food or thought about the farmers and ranchers who produce it.  It might be that it is a product of the “my way or no way” attitude that permeates our government. Whatever the reason, a farm bill must be crafted and passed. I would ask that you contact your congressional delegation and let them know that passing a farm bill is not a Republican agenda item or a Democratic agenda item; it is a matter of national security for each of us.

Friday, August 16, 2013

No Test Tube Burger for Me!

Just when I thought I had seen it all. This week I read an article about scientists “growing” a hamburger in a test tube. I don’t know about you but this just sounds so wrong on so many levels. The article went on to say that while the taste was close to the real thing, they had experienced problems with the color.
Later I saw a TV news segment. One of the taste testers said the flavor wasn’t quite right and the burger was very dry. They also featured a quote from an animal rights activist masquerading as an environmental expert about how great this was because it would move the world away from animal production and the environmental concerns he imagined animal agriculture to have.
Wow, my guess is this is one of those experts who have a problem with gmo crops and now he is touting the benefits of man-made, test tube meat? I don’t know about you but I have far fewer concerns and much less problem with eating a gmo crop than I do consuming a synthetic, lab generated hamburger.  It also gives us a look at the double standard these activists adhere too.
Don’t get me wrong. If this test tube meat is approved by the USDA after running the gauntlet of tests gmo crops are subjected too and approved, I will not stand in the way of anyone who wants to consume it. However, I am quite confident that real, cow-made, corn-fed beef will outperform it in any and all taste tests.
Oh did I mention that the burger cost about $325,000 to produce. Production costs may be rising all the time out here on the ranch, but I am quite sure that we can still produce a good old bovine sourced burger for about $324,999 less and that is a very conservative estimate. As for the environmental factor, I just can’t see the faux burger being a real “green” endeavor to produce. Given that our feedlots take extreme measures to protect the environment around them and that they are under a great deal of regulation regarding the afore mentioned environment, I think the nod goes to the cow versus the test tube.
The hype around test tube burgers is just another example of how far removed most people are from the farm and ranch. They do not have a clue about where their food comes from, nor do they fully understand the hypocrisy of opposing gmo crops and embracing test tube meat. We have been genetically altering plants and animals since Adam and Eve were given the deed to the Garden of Eden. Sure over the years our methods have become more sophisticated and the advances have come more quickly, but every plant or animal we grow for food has been genetically modified.
Yes, all of our crops and livestock are genetically modified. Most of it is through the time tested method of selective breeding, it wasn’t until recently that we developed technology that took us beyond selective breeding. That takes us right up to now when scientists can grow a hamburger using the stem cells of a cow. I say great, because the world is issuing agriculture a challenge, we must feed an ever growing world population with less land, less labor and with fewer inputs. That calls for all hands on deck.
As I said, I will not stand in the way of test tube beef production, I just don’t plan on eating a McFake burger anytime soon. I prefer my beef to taste like the real thing. However, if they do figure out how to produce this meat at a reasonable cost, it is proven safe and has the same nutritional value as my beef I will endorse it whole heartedly. If we can do anything to save even one person from starving we should pursue it.
I also promise that I will try and compete with synthetic burger in any way I can. Those of us in agriculture relish the opportunity to meet any challenge we can. I will continue to work each day to produce an even safer, healthier, more affordable hamburger while protecting the world around me and caring for the animals I am entrusted with. All the while, I will enjoy hamburgers produced the old fashioned way.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Thoughts from the Summer

Maybe it is the heat and humidity, or maybe it is all the last minute fair preparation, but my mind is mush. OK, my mind is even more mush than it is normally, but I am having trouble putting thoughts together and that is a bad thing when you are trying to write a column. I have a lot of random thoughts bouncing around my head so I thought I would share them with you.
A watched tomato will never ripen. If only I could grow vegetables like I grow weeds.  I really like jalapeƱo peppers, but in the end they will burn you. Did you ever wonder why the garden attracts any animal that escapes it’s pen? I am not sure why I plant a second crop of sweet corn; it is doomed before it ever sprouts.
I have given up trying to figure out where it is raining by looking at the radar. Why is it that we all think the rain clouds split right before they reach our house? Every farmer or rancher I know is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yes, we have had plenty of rain and everything looks good but if we don’t get more in the next week we might be in trouble. Those darn clouds keep splitting and going around my place.
It is easy to be critical of modern farming and ranching techniques when you have plenty of money to buy the food you want. Organic, natural and local foods are great but they come with added costs and many people can’t afford them. I am fine with people choosing organic, natural or local but don’t force them on others who can’t afford to make the same choices. The Farm Bill is just as important to our national security as defense spending. In the words of one of my friends; “if you like being dependant on foreign oil, you are going to love being dependant on foreign food.”
I also don’t have a problem with choosing meat that is either organic, natural, free range, anti-biotic free, hormone free or any other niche’ production method, however, keep a couple of things in mind. During the heat of the summer and the bitter cold of the winter, I am sure the animals in confinement are more comfortable than those outside. They also don’t have to worry about competition for food or other basic survival needs of those raised out in the open. As for anti-biotic free, I prefer to care for my animals with the best medicine modern veterinary medicine can provide me. My animal’s health and comfort come first and I would have no problem feeding the meat of an animal properly treated to my family.
On a lighter note, a few observations from the county fairs I have judged recently. White calves are hard to keep clean, and white clothes on the kids showing them are even harder to keep clean. I never knew how thankful my mother was that I never showed dairy cattle. Learning to shut the gate is one of the most important lessons you will ever learn.
Every 4-Her says they will start on their projects earlier next year. After many, many years of close personal observation, I am here to tell you, it will be next year’s goal too. It is always best to buy your cattle from Grandpa; he gives you the best deal. In rare cases a heifer named Fred makes sense.
It might be a good idea to tell an embarrassing story to the judge, on the microphone, in front of a large crowd. Sure you will still get in trouble but at least you have witnesses. It is always good to warn the judge that your calf eats clothes. The most obvious answer is always the best, even if the judge asks stupid questions. Judge: “Where did you get your calf?” Bucket Calf Showman, looking at the judge like he just fell off the turnip truck: “From a cow!”
4-H fair preparation is a marathon with a sprint at the end. No matter how many lists you create, plans you make and how well you prepare. You will forget something for the fair. The best part of the weeks leading up to the fair; are practicing the recipes that are being taken to the fair. Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel you see in the weeks leading up to the fair is a freight train called fair.