It’s been such a joy to share real farmers’ stories with you this week, and I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from our first four panelists as much as I enjoyed hosting them. The final three guests are from larger farms, in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Kansas. I suspect they’ll be a bit more controversial, since many of my readers tend toward the smaller farmers, traditional methods, and “farm-to-table” style eating.
I do, too, but even Michael Pollan admits that it may be a lofty goal to expect grassfed farmers to feed the world, at least in the present economic climate.
The philosophy at Kitchen Stewardship has always been one of finding the balance, so I’m actually quite pleased to share these farmers’ views. I want you to see that they work hard, are very conscious about what they do and the decisions they make on their farms, and value their animals, their products, and their consumers.
Since I have three left and I can’t do a 2-column line up like the others in the Farmers’ Panel series (here and here), I’ve decided to give them each their own post, rather than make this post go on forever.
Allow me to introduce you to some new acquaintances:
- Liz @ Life as an Iowa Farm Wife: I became acquainted with Liz through my resident agvocate, Tonya, who loves to send me ag-related links on Twitter. This one happened to be Liz’s article entitled “Factory Farmed Animals Live in Horrible Conditions and GMOs will Kill You!” a feisty and realistic rant that certainly piqued my interest. I browsed her blog some more and knew I wanted her on this panel. Read Liz’s interview below.
- Debbie @ Life on a Kansas Cattle Ranch: Another connection through Tonya, Debbie is very active in advocating for agriculture, both via social media and real life speaking and appearances. She put a lot of thought into her answers to my 20 questions, and I’m honored to have her as a guest. Read Debbie’s interview HERE.
- Big L in Wisconsin: I can still remember my college roommate at Michigan State, a land grant university well-known for its Agriculture College, shouting numbers and words I didn’t understand while practicing her cattle judging skills for competition. I probably didn’t even describe that right. I want you all to know that I was shocked at her whole-milk-only standards (in my skim milk days when I gained 15-20 pounds on caf food, ahem) and that it was pretty cool learning a tiny bit about the world of agriculture through her. Of course I’m tickled to have her on Kitchen Stewardship, and I wish you all could meet her in person. She had to answer the questions twice because the Internet ate her first attempt, which she says may have been a little saucy; I’m disappointed we got the more tame version! 😉 Read the final answers HERE.
| Liz: An industrial CAFO beef farmer from Iowa, Liz blogs about “the day-to-day life of family-corporate-agribusiness-farming and working to dispel the myths about where your food comes from!” at Life as an Iowa Farm Wife.
|When someone asks you how you farm, what’s your one sentence answer?|
|My family raises crops and livestock using modern, industrial, and sustainable methods.|
|How did you get started farming? Why do you do it?|
|I’ve always been a country kid with a strong interest in agriculture. I grew up in the middle of the heartland, but not on a traditional farm. My dad has always worked in agricultural related business, and has tried his hand at a few different aspects of farming, while I lived with my mom on an acreage and had horses my whole life.
I went to college for Ag Business. Then, I was introduced to (and fell in love with) more tradtional, full-time corn-beans-cattle-hogs farming when I met my husband in 2002. The fact that my husband was a farmer is what attracted me to him, but it’s not why I love him. Although, it is hard to separate the farmer from the farm. And I do love both! I guess you could say that is why I do it….I love the lifestyle, and I love the farmer. 🙂 I just couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else, and although it is a hard lifestyle, the hard times are well worth it.
|What’s your educational background, including life experience with agriculture, that led you to where you are today?|
|Haha….see question 3!
My degree is an A.A.S. in Ag Sales and Service-Office Technician. As a child I was involved with 4-H and FFA, which gave me a broad base of life experiences and agricultural knowledge. I worked for farmers doing manual labor; I even spent an internship grooming dogs; and yet another working in a retail farm supply store. I also held jobs keeping books for farms, ag business, and farmer’s co-ops.
|How many head of cattle do you care for? What breeds?|
|Between my husband and I, his brother’s family, and his father’s family, we have approximately 1200 head of cattle that are fed for meat, and 150 head of cows in a breeding herd. Each family has a one-third interest in the cattle.|
|What products do you sell, and to whom? (i.e., large companies, individuals, co-ops, etc.)|
|The majority of our beef is sold to large processors such as Tyson. It is sold on a per pound basis, for whatever price the market is offering when the cattle are ready to be sold. Unless we forward contract (lock in a price), which we do try to do with a portion of our cattle to add some financial stability. We do sell a fair amount of beef (maybe about 30-40 head per year) to local individuals who are looking to fill a freezer. This beef is marketed and processed through a locally owned locker.|
|What is the best food for a dairy cow? For a beef cow?|
|For a beef cow- it depends on the purpose of the cow and the stage of life it is in. If it is being fed for meat, then a high-energy diet, balanced for protein and fiber needs, will produce quality beef in an efficient manner. If the cow is being fed to produce a calf (breeding purposes), then her diet should focus more on maintaining herself and the calf she is growing. Lower energy and higher protein than a feedlot cow ration.
The ingredients and nutritional needs in a cow’s diet can vary greatly, depending on what’s available and affordable, as well as the weather and season. To summarize: Any cow needs the right balance of energy, protein, roughage (fiber), and vitamins. And the right balance depends on what the cow’s purpose is and what its living conditions are like (weather).
|What do you feed your cattle, and why do you choose that feed?|
|Our cattle get a combination of corn silage, corn earlage, distillers grains, hay silage, liquid protein, and vitamins. Not all the cattle get all the same combination though, the feedlot cattle are started on a higher roughage diet and slowly stepped up to a more concentrated ration (has more grain). Although they are never on 100% grain.
The breeding cows get cornstalks mixed with distillers grains in the winter time, and are pastured in the summer time with some supplementation of corn silage. We feed corn based feed because it is what we can most effectively grow on our farm. Aside from the supplements and distillers grains, all the feed we feed our cattle is grown on the farm.
|How do you ensure your cattle stay healthy?|
|We do use antibiotics. Mostly when we first get a group of cattle in. They are prone to illness when they are first put together in a group, much like kids going back to school after a break, they just have to get used to each other’s germs. We do feed antibiotics throughout the time the cattle are in the feedlot, although it is important to understand that the products we feed were specially designed for livestock, and work more like a immune system supporter than a bacteria killer. I firmly believe that though the use of these products we are keeping our cattle healthier and therefore decreasing the overall need for antibiotics in our cattle.|
|What do you do when a cow falls ill?|
|It’s a rare occurrence after the first month or so. But, when an animal is sick, it is separated from the herd, we consult with our veterinarian, and then treat it accordingly. Most of the time, it gets better within a couple weeks and is returned to the herd. Sometimes, though, despite all our best efforts, we have to euthanize an animal.|
|What’s your goal: more milk or higher quality milk, or some balance of the two? For beef cattle: faster growth, more fat, more lean, or what else?|
|I would say that is is none of the above with beef cattle. It is getting the most meat for the least amount of waste. We want our cattle to be able to produce beef as efficiently as possible. As far as the fat vs lean question, I’d say that tends to change depending on the consumer’s demand. We get paid premiums or discounts based on the leaness or marbling of the meat, and those incentives are always changing.
Basically, a cow must remain on feed for a longer amount of time to get more marbling, and the processor has to offer financial incentives to make it worthwhile to the farmer. Right now, there is not much incentive to put extra fat on a cow, so lean beef is what’s in demand.
|What steps do you take to reach the milk production/quality goal above?|
|We have very specific feed rations for our cattle that will accomplish this. We also work very hard to ensure the cattle are comfortable (dry bedding, clean pens), because a happy cow is a productive cow.|
|Do you think your operation is “sustainable”? Why or why not?|
|The buzzword of the century it seems. Yes. Our farm is sustainable. It’s an amazing cycle. We grow crops, feed them to the cattle, the cattle turn them into meat, as well as produce fertilizer for next year’s crops. And though advances in technology, we are producing more with less.|
|Can a cow give milk on grass alone?|
|Sure can. It’s how our cows feed their calves all summer long.|
|Do you think what cows eat affects the quality of the milk/meat? Nutritionally? In what way?|
|I don’t think it is so much *what* the cows eat…as *how* they are fed. I’ve seen good and bad examples across the board. It doesn’t matter so much the system the cow was raised in, as how the cow was cared for in that system. Grass-fed systems can go awry, as can confinement systems, if the cattle are not properly cared for. If a cow is kept in a cold, wet, muddy pasture, she is not going to produce anything well, just as a cow kept in a dirty, wet confinement barn will not either.
It’s all about the management…keeping the cattle comfortable and converting their feed efficiently. A stressed animal is going to produce leaner meat, that much I know.
As far as nutritional differences, I’m not a human nutritionist, and I just don’t feel qualified to answer that.
|Do you raise your own calves? If so, what do they eat?|
|We do. Not all of the cattle we feed out are home-raised, but we do have herd of about 150 cows that we breed every year and raise the calves from. I think I explained what they eat in previous answers.|
|What do you do on your farm to foster environmental stewardship?|
|Everything! Seriously! Our crop land is no-till, we have acres of buffer strips, terraces, and waterways to conserve soil. We use our livestock’s manure as fertilizer. We test our soils and our manure to ensure that we aren’t over-applying fertilizer. We store our manure and apply it to the land when it is best utilized by the crops.
The pesticides we apply allow us to produce more with less. Our livestock have scientifically formulated rations to keep waste to a minimum. We follow rules and regulations, as well as recommendations, all designed to preserve resources.
|Anything you want us to know about GMOs?|
|What is your farm’s relationship with the government? (i.e., do you need and certifications? Do you receive any subsidies? Anything else you have to give them or get from them that the average citizen doesn’t?)|
|We work with the government very closely. We must certify all the acres we plant, and report what is planted on them. We must obtain pesticide application licenses. We have conservation plans we must adhere to. We have manure management plans that dictate when and where we can apply manure.
All of these regulations are enforced though inspections, complaints, and audits. In exchange for being in compliance with government regulations, we receive subsidies. The amount of subsidy has decreased in recent years, due to the increase in commodity prices, as well as decreases from the government. I think this is a good thing.
We farmers take a black eye for receiving subisidies, and I think we have done a very good job in recent years of weaning ourselves off of them. I feel it is important to point out that farm subisdies make up only 30% of the farm bill, the rest goes to nutrition programs such as WIC and Food Stamps.
|What do you see as the future of farming/dairy farming in America? What concerns or hopes do you have for the future?|
|I see a future where the farmer will continue to do as he has always done. Innovate and adapt. So far, agriculture has met and defeated every challenge presented to it by society.
There are minor things that concern me, such as our ability to all get along, but when I look at the big picture, I see a bright future. I look at my son and daughters, and wonder what great things they will get to see in their life time, what advances will we make?
|What did I miss? Here’s your soapbox:|
|Very thorough….thanks for creating this dialogue! I am honored for the opportunity to share my farm with your readers.|
Thanks so much, Liz, for sharing your family and your farm with us! Remember to visit Liz at her online home about beef farming in Iowa.
UPDATE: My wrap-up and opinions of the entire series, including grass vs. grain, big vs. small, GMOs, and if I’ll make any changes in my shopping habits after interviewing a diverse array of farmers, is HERE.
What do you think? I’m excited to see animated, respectful, curious conversation happen in the comments today. Please know that no name-calling, cursing, or rudeness of any kind will be tolerated. It’s my blog and I’ll “delete” if I want to!
It’s certainly okay to disagree, but let’s use our grown-up tone of voice and remember that unless you too are a cattle farmer, these ladies clearly have more experience than you in the field…literally. Let’s treat them as such.
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