The second in a series of three farmers to close the panel at Kitchen Stewardship this week, Debbie Lyons-Blythe is a wife, mother and rancher and has been married for 22 years. Her husband works off the farm during the day, so she is in charge of the day to day duties of ranching. Of their five children, the oldest is attending Kansas State University majoring in Agriculture Economics, and the other four are all in high school. Find her online at Life on a Kansas Cattle Ranch or @DebbieLB.
Be sure to check out the other interviews in this series:
- Mid-sized farmers (Ohio and New York)
- local (to me) grassfed, organic farmers (Michigan)
- big farm 1: Liz in Iowa
- big farm 3: Wisconsin
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.
By the way, all answers are copied directly from the farmer; I’m not qualified to edit! Debbie specifically told me how thought-provoking the questions were, and one can see the effort and dedication she put into her answers…and into her family farm.
|Debbie: farms 3,000 acres of grassland and cares for 500 head of beef cattle. She describes the family operation as “sustainable, traditional, CAFO.”|
|When someone asks you how you farm, what’s your one sentence answer?|
|I am a seedstock producer and I grow the genetics that determine the quality of beef that you get to eat. I do sell cattle for beef, but mostly, my cattle are mostly used for breeding.|
|How did you get started farming? Why do you do it?|
|I was born into ranching. I grew up on our family cattle ranch, run by my mom. I love the independence of setting my own schedule and working outside, and I am committed to the health of the livestock and land. I work every day with the cattle. I am very blessed to be raising my children on this ranch that my husband’s family homesteaded in 1890. We all work side by side to care for 500 head of cattle.|
|What’s your educational background, including life experience with agriculture, that led you to where you are today?|
|I graduated from Kansas State University with a BS in Agriculture Journalism. I love to write and I love to ranch. Perfect combination for me!|
I have been running our ranch for the past 22 years. This is a family owned and operated ranch. I have one hired man who helps me feed cattle in the winter, but other than that, we do everything with family as the labor force. We are very blessed to be able to work with our children to instill in them a responsibility to the land and livestock, as well as a work ethic that will be beneficial to them for the rest of their lives.
|How many head of cattle do you care for? What breeds?|
|We have 200 head of Angus cattle and 300 head of Angus-crossbred heifers. We also feed out approximately 200 head each year that our goal is to sell as Certified Angus Beef. They are fed in a traditional feed yard. We also aim to market them through the Nature Well program—a natural program with no added antibiotics or hormones.|
|What products do you sell, and to whom? (i.e., large companies, individuals, co-ops, etc.)|
|For the most part, we sell our breeding age bulls and heifers to other ranchers. They then breed them to produce calves and raise the calves for consumption.|
Our calves from the feedyard are sold through a marketing contract through US Premium Beef—a rancher owned company. Our beef is Certified Angus Beef and is then sold to restaurants and through a few specially licensed grocery stores across the world.
|What is the best food for a dairy cow? For a beef cow?|
|We are blessed to live in the middle of a very unique area—one of only 3 in the world that is still mostly native grass. This part of Kansas is called the Flint Hills, and it has much more pasture land, compared to crop ground or urban areas. So this land is really perfect for raising beef! Our beef cows are grazed on the abundant, nutritious grass throughout their lives. During the winter when the grass is covered by snow and is of low quality, we feed them hay we baled ourselves. When their nutrition needs increase post-calving, we supplement with alfalfa hay which has a higher protein content for energy. We carefully monitor the cows and calves as they grow to maintain good condition and health.|
All our calves are raised on grass pasture until they are weaned—as all nearly all the calves in the United States. At weaning time, we begin feeding them a roughage based diet with protein pellets and a by-product of making corn ethanol, called distillers grain. After we sort the breeding quality cattle from the cattle we’ll take to the feedyard, we begin to feed them differently, as they have different jobs.
The breeding cattle are fed a silage/grain mixture that is designed to help them with sufficient nutrients to grow strong and healthy. The cattle in the feedyard are fed a silage/distillers grain/ground hay/corn ration. They love this mix and readily eat it. It is scientifically designed to provide nutrients to help them to grow muscle and fat to reach a finish weight in approximately 100 days.
So they receive a grain diet for only 100 days of their life. This makes sense financially and nutritionally, as well as in an animal welfare sense, as they love grain! And the American public loves grain-fed beef. It is much cheaper and better for the environment to feed a grain-based diet for the finishing phase, as it takes a much shorter time on feed, and cattle gain weight faster on a higher carbohydrate diet of grain.
|What do you feed your cattle, and why do you choose that feed?|
|We feed what makes good financial sense, as well as what is good for our cattle. For the most part, our cows, bulls and calves spend their life eating grass, or hay that is dried grass. We do feed our cattle in the feedyard a grain based ration and it is specially formulated for good health, as well as optimum growth.|
|How do you ensure your cattle stay healthy?|
|If cattle get sick, I lose money! Not only that, but it is not in my nature to allow a cow or calf to suffer. We check out cattle every day for signs of disease or slight illness. When we see that, we treat the infections with antibiotics.|
We do have to provide a mineral mixture to the cattle throughout the year as grass is not sufficient to meet their needs. During the summer, we mix antibiotics in the mineral mixture to prevent a disease called anaplasmosis. It is spread by flies and ticks and it is a blood-borne disease. It destroys the oxygen carrying capabilities of blood, and a cow or bull that is sick with anaplasmosis will actually suffocate before your eyes.
“Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be,” as Temple Grandin, animal welfare advocate says. There is no vaccine for anaplasmosis and no real cure. If a cow gets it, she will never be cured, but she may get better with antibiotics. But later she may die from it—even after she has been healthy. So our best cure is prevention. The antibiotics are fed to them, not injected, and they have a small dose every day. If they eat the mineral and consume a small amount of the antibiotics all summer, they will not get sick with anaplasmosis.
|What do you do when a cow falls ill?|
|I can’t stand by and allow a cow or calf to suffer. I will treat them with the antibiotics that our veterinarian has prescribed immediately. We work very closely with our veterinarian. He sees all our cows throughout the year and is able to gauge our nutrition program, as well as oversee the vaccination program.|
|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?|
|When selling breeding stock versus feedyard cattle, the goal is different. If a breeding animal is too fat, they can’t breed. If they are too thin, they can’t breed. We feed for optimum growth and fat, so that the breeding age cattle are healthy and happy.|
There is no way to force feed cattle in a feedyard. They will eat what they want and no more. Once they are full, they walk away from the feedbunk and lie down to chew their cud. We aim to feed our cattle in the feedyard for 100-120 days. That is adequate for good growth, good health and excellent quality beef.
|What steps do you take to reach the milk production/quality goal above?|
|We keep our cattle healthy and watch them closely and work with a nutritionist to make sure what we feed them exactly meets their needs. Ranching requires knowledge of science as well as animal welfare! We work with nutritionists and veterinarians on a daily basis, as well as specialists in animal handling to design new facilities when needed. In addition, we attend continuing education classes through the organizations we are members of and network with other ranchers to determine the best way to do individual jobs.|
|Do you think your operation is “sustainable”? Why or why not?|
|Our operation was homesteaded more than 120 years ago! Yes, it is absolutely sustainable! We have been caring for the land and cattle on this land for generations and we hope one day to pass this ranch to our children.|
What effect we have on the environment is a positive effect—our goal is always to make the land better than when we began managing it. If that is the goal of sustainability, then we have that covered!
|Can a cow give milk on grass alone?|
|A beef cow can give milk on grass alone…as long as she has high quality grass throughout the summer and high quality grass that is dried and baled for her through the winter. Different grasses have different nutritional qualities. We raise different grass for higher protein and other grass that is lower quality to feed the cattle during the fall when their nutritional needs are at their lowest. We do not feed our cows (female bovines who raise calves) any type of grain. The only supplement they receive is a mineral mixture to meet their nutritional requirements.|
|Do you think what cows eat affects the quality of the milk/meat? Nutritionally? In what way?|
|It definitely affects the eating quality. That is proven that grass fed beef versus grain fed beef tastes different. I won’t say which is “better” because they both are important in the market! Some people prefer one or the other.|
Most people in America prefer grain-fed beef, as that is what they purchase most. But there are markets for both. In addition, there have been studies that show a very slight difference in the nutritional quality of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef. I believe those differences are miniscule and are not relevant. They are both healthy, safe products and can safely be consumed.
|Do you raise your own calves? If so, what do they eat?|
|Beef calves spend the first 8-10 months of their life living with their mother cows in the pasture consuming milk and eventually grass. We wean them at that age.|
|What do you do on your farm to foster environmental stewardship?|
|The Flint Hills of Kansas is an amazing area…it is one of only 3 grasslands in the world that the grass is the same that has grown here since the beginning of time! Everything we do is to maintain or improve the native grasses in the Flint Hills. We control the weeds and invasive scrub brush by burning off the old grass in the early spring. This removes the old dead grass that has nearly no nutritional value, and kills the invaders at the same time. We also manage the grazing distribution in each of our pastures by encouraging cattle to graze over all the area, instead of concentrate on one area. We do this by improving ponds, moving the mineral feeders or cross-fencing and physically moving them to the area we want them to graze. We are entrusted with caring for this fragile environment in Kansas and our ability to continue to ranch here depends on our ability to do what is right for the land. It is an honor to have that responsibility!|
|Anything you want us to know about GMOs?|
|Irrelevant in the beef industry.|
|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?)|
|The average citizen’s taxes are due in April, but a farmer/rancher’s is due in February. In addition, we pay huge amounts of taxes on all the land we own and facilities that are needed for working cattle. In a rural area, the school systems are dependent on property taxes and farmers and ranchers are the #1 source of that tax.|
We do work with the government to provide them information on our environmental practices in exchange for a small amount of money. In addition we allow public hunting on some of our pasture land, in exchange for a payment from the government. We are certified for Beef Quality Assurance and that means that we have taken tests to ensure that we know how to give a vaccination and handle cattle in a safe, healthy way.
In addition, we certify our calves through an age and source verified program that traces them from birth to slaughter. We guarantee that they have the genetics and are the exact age that we say they are, and are open to an audit by government entities at any time because of that. We keep extensive records and can tell you exactly how many cattle are in each location, as well as exactly which cows and which bulls, and which cow raised each calf. There is a huge amount of paperwork and scientific calculations involved in ranching!
|What do you see as the future of farming/dairy farming in America? What concerns or hopes do you have for the future?|
|I believe that the future is bright for my children. Americans love beef and they do trust us to do what is right to raise a safe, healthy product. We have learned that we must be more open to people asking questions and willing to offer tours of our ranches and feedyards so that the general public can learn how we raise their food.|
In addition, people across the world love American beef. With the growing population, we will need MORE food produced on the same number of acres in just a few years. We must find ways to be more efficient and also more responsive to the consumer’s demands. The only difficulty to that responsiveness is that it takes years to produce a different product….a cow’s lifetime! So it is difficult to change mid-year. But we need to listen, as well as tell our story.
|What did I miss? Here’s your soapbox:|
|I am thrilled to be included in your program/survey. I am no one special! I am just a woman who is a rancher. We manage our ranch like everyone else in the Flint Hills of Kansas—we all want to do the right thing! I am also a mom and want to feed my five kids the best, most nutritionally appropriate as well as safe food I can. I only want the same things you do…for my kids to be the best they can be and that means good health and education. I have chosen to raise my kids on a ranch—raising the food for your families. I’m proud to do that.|
Recently I posted photos of the birth of a calf! We are lucky to live in the Flint Hills of Kansas and I am blessed to be able to share it with you. If you have any further questions or follow up information, do not hesitate to email me.
Thank you, Debbie, for taking such time to converse with us here at Kitchen Stewardship. It’s good for all of us, myself included, to get a peek into a large farm operation that is also family owned and operated. Sometimes I think it’s easy to divide the world of cattle farming into two categories: small and at least somewhat organic and massive, 5000-head confinement feedlots with nary a blade of grass in sight.
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, all the ladies on the panel clearly have more experience than you in the field…literally. Let’s treat them as such.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: $50 Kroger gift card, only through Thursday, 4/28 at midnight.
The next few weeks I’m talking about our family’s experience with being grain-free and then gluten-free, kids included, for Lent. You’ll find lots of GF resources and information…and lots of meat, too! 😉 Be sure to sign up for a free email subscription or grab my reader feed. You can also follow me on Twitter, get KS for Kindle, or see my Facebook Fan Page.