It was a real treat to introduce you to a variety of farmers from across the country last week in the Kitchen Stewardship Farmers’ Panel.
Personally, I learned a lot and continue to as the comments thread keeps running with some Q&A with certain farmers. The bottom line in my mind is that farming and food is rarely a black and white issue, with the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other.
Read all the interviews with the panelists:
- Mid-sized farmers (Ohio and New York)
- local (to me) grassfed, organic farmers (Michigan)
- big farm 1: Liz in Iowa
- big farm 2: Debbie in Kansas
- big farm 3: Big L in Wisconsin
I presented the interviews as stand alone posts for a couple reasons. First, each questionnaire is quite lengthy and really didn’t need my commentary to flesh out what you had to read for one day. Second, I really like to let people form their own opinions before I jump in. Now I’m jumping in.
One active commenter, Cirelo, pointed out that it might be too easy to interpret the intended takeaway from a single interview as something like this: “Well, CAFO beef is not as bad as I thought, so I guess I can let the pressure off myself on finding that good beef source.” She felt that it’s a dangerous proposition for me to allow KS to propagate such opinions.
I do my best to be all about balance here. I hate to present only one side of the story, and although I don’t want to justify anything that is inappropriate, unhealthy, or downright dangerous, I’m also a realist. The ideal in many situations isn’t always the possible, at least not all at once. That’s why I wanted to open the doors to the way 95% of CAFO farms operate – family owned and not nearly as big and ugly as Food, Inc. portrays.
Also, in my opinion, not as natural or appealing to me as as another family farm dedicated to raising cows as God intended – on grass.
Scientific Rations vs. Grass and Hay
In nature, what do cows eat? They graze on grass. Their 4-part stomach is designed to digest such roughage, whereas our poor stomach would suffer if we ate grass. (But we can eat cows – isn’t the food chain amazing! Almost as if it was perfectly designed to capture energy from the sun and allow everything on earth to subsist…ahem…)
Finding exclusively grassfed cattle, particularly dairy cattle, is actually very difficult in some locations. Here in Michigan, both local farmers I interviewed said that the cows they have would not be nourished enough to give good milk without some grain to supplement the dried hay rations. A helpful correction in the comments stated that there are U.S. standards that require the label “grassfed” to be equated with “exclusively” – no grains allowed.
Some breeds, generally heritage breeds like Jerseys and Guernseys, are well-fitted for grass alone and milking. We’ve hybridized our cattle to give more milk, and dairy breeds like Holsteins are no longer fitted for exclusively grassfed. One more reason it pays to ask lots of questions of your farmer.
Modern larger dairies and beef operations usually have scientifically balanced rations for their stock, consisting of haylage, silage (sometimes made from whole corn plants), distiller’s by-products and other industry by-products, vitamins and minerals. It’s pretty cool to hear about the fact that some of this food is fermented (see how cow food is made in pictures), since we all know how healthy fermented foods are.
However, reading that list, particularly the fact that industrial by-products are used, makes me cringe. The “green and crunchy” gal in me does appreciate the fact that something that might otherwise go to waste is turned into food, but there’s the vital question about the nutrition of the food and whether it’s a good fit for the digestive system of cattle.
When I make croutons from old bread or stock from vegetable trimmings and chicken bones, it’s a way to harness garbage and use it for food. However, if I make croutons from old white hamburger buns or use goitrogenic vegetables (like broccoli or kale) in my stock, I’m doing more harm than good for my family’s nutrition. Better to just throw them away, or compost them.
There’s a strong sense in me, backed up by science (some sources here), that cattle should be eating real food, just like people. Real food for cows is grass, which includes dried hay and alfalfa in the off-season.
A reader who has a milking cow sent some photos of her 100% grassfed cows.
“Here are two pictures of our Milking Shorthorn, Hannah, from last summer and one picture of her calf from last year, Amos. We bought Hannah when she was a 500 lb heifer. She has had two calves for us and she will be calving again very soon. These pictures are from last summer. All our cattle are 100% grass-fed. We drink the milk raw.”
I’m no cattle judger, but I’d love to hear from people who are. It sounds like cattle judging (deciding if a cow looks healthy, basically) has simply changed its standards to fit grain-fed instead of grassfed cows over the last few decades. That makes sense to me, but I’m pretty happy with beef that might not make Grade A if it’s been raised more naturally. I might not make Grade A myself, you know, but I’m okay with the no makeup look, even if the culture is not.
Cirelo makes the perfect point on “scientifically balanced rations” vs. the grass God created as the perfect food for cows. It is very similar to the way we feed our babies as humans: do we believe that scientists have figured out the right nutrition for newborns, i.e. baby formula, or can we trust in nature’s way, i.e. breastfeeding? I’m a breastfeeding mama and proud of it, and although I know there are circumstances that warrant formula, it is still only a pale replica of breastmilk. I feel the same about cows and grass.
What About GMOs?
I haven’t done my own research on genetically modified foods, but I’m wary enough of anyone “playing God” and messing with DNA to judge them “guilty until proven innocent” instead of the opposite, which is the perspective of the government. Seems downright dangerous to me to risk our collective health with that philosophy, the same one that resulted in DDT being sprayed up and down dense neighborhood streets decades ago. DDT was finally proven guilty when cancer went rampant. I’m not sure I’m willing to wait for GMOs to have the same result.
Much of the time, crops are genetically modified so they require fewer chemicals, a good goal, but I’d rather have crops that don’t need chemicals at all.
Here’s the real danger, as I see it now, with genetically modified crops: some of them cross-pollinate openly with other crops in the area, and in a very short amount of time, there will be ZERO plants of certain species that don’t have GM genes. Alfalfa is one of those open pollinating plants, and the government just okayed GM alfalfa.
I am greatly concerned about this, because as more research on genetic modification is completed, we may find that they’re harmful to us, animals, or the ecosystem. We may not, but if we do…there’s not going to be an “undo” button.
Once all the alfalfa in the country has been taken over by the GM plants, we will have no choice. Organic cattle farmers will have no choice. And we can’t turn back the clock.
Please take a minute to read some articles about genetically modified alfalfa:
- from The Washington Post
- from The Huffington Post
- take 60 seconds to take action by writing your legislators HERE – use the red arrows to compose a quick message, and it literally won’t take more than a minute.
Confinement vs. Pastured
The three farmers from larger farms that would be qualified “confinement” operations will tell you that the animals are comfortable, clean, and healthy. That may be, but I still send my kids outside to play, even when it’s cold and their toes come in half frozen. Comfortable cows may not always be the healthiest cows, just like the argument that “cows like grain!” is faulty – kids like candy, but we don’t feed it to them as part of a balanced diet.
The farmers also use preventative antibiotics, and both local farmers who raise 100% or mainly grassfed animals have never or rarely found the need for antibiotics. I can’t argue with that.
I realize many people in America have no problem with antibiotics and welcome them to treat their own minor and major illnesses. We as a society like to feel well and don’t appreciate the value of suffering.
I am counter-cultural in this realm.
How I Feel About Antibiotics
I try to avoid antibiotics whenever possible, even when my children have to suffer for an additional day. That may sound horrible and sadistic to you, but I truly believe I have my children’s (and society’s) best interests in mind, and those decisions come with no small amount of consternation and fear on my part.
It may be that the antibiotics are fully out of the animals’ systems before milk or meat reaches the consumer. That’s great – it’s not directly affecting my health. But I value the overall health of the ecosystem called Earth as well.
One of the larger farmers pointed out that we have a LOT of work to do with humans and antibiotics if we’re really serious about combatting bacterial resistance, and she’s absolutely right. I just don’t think the farming industry needs to wait for humans to get their acts together before they worry about their own overuse of antibiotics.
I would never, ever use antibiotics as preventative medication in my own body or that of my family. I personally want to hold my meat to the same standard and am so thankful I have local farmers who feel the same way.
How About Hormones?
I admit I was VERY pleased and a little surprised that Debbie said she uses no hormones whatsoever. (Sigh of relief) There are probably a million environmental reasons, all caused by humans, for the rampant infertility and early onset of puberty that we’re seeing in our world. Whether hormones in our meat and dairy supply is one of them, I can’t say for sure…but it’s another fishy area that makes me extremely nervous.
KS readers had a good conversation about hormones on Facebook recently, which you can read HERE. I think it’s another place where we need to say “guilty until proven innocent” and “if not necessary, don’t do it.” We Americans don’t need to eat more meat than we do, and I firmly believe that we don’t have a deficit of meat or a food supply crisis. Show me empty grocery store meat counters and I’ll admit that we need to figure out how to raise more meat…maybe. I do not support artificial hormones, for people or for animals. Period.
I’m sure there are a few points I didn’t address, but I encourage you to read the conversation in the comments at the Farmers’ Panel posts, particularly the ongoing discussion at this one, which cover some really fascinating points.
I’d love to hear more from readers! What do you think? What kind of beef and milk do you buy? Do you consider what the animals eat? Did you learn anything from the wide spectrum of panelists who were so kind to answer my questions? Do you have any more questions for them?
Two Upcoming Events
I expect the soaked grains FREE recipe eBook to be released on Monday in lieu of the regular Monday Mission. It’s almost 90 pages long and packed with great recipes and information! I can’t wait to share it with you!
I’m also working on the next eBook for purchase, which just received its title thanks to Jen Pagano and the wonders of Facebook. Introducing…
Better than a Box: How to Transform Convenience Recipes into Whole Foods Favorites
The subtitle is still tentative, but the goal of the book is to be a teaching tool so that you can take those old Kraft Food & Family recipes that use canned and boxed ingredients and re-make them to use real foods and great nutrition. I’m excited to keep plugging away at it and hope it will be an awesome resource for anyone who wants to use more whole foods and avoid those inner aisles of the grocery store.
Have a great weekend!
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