When I read that Confined (Concentrated) Animal Feeding Operations was going to be on the Spring Cleaning list, I was quite intrigued. You see, our family farms and raises cattle. In feedlots. Which is considered a CAFO.
The Omnivore's Dilemma has been on my list of things to read since I read The Omnivore’s Delusion, a rebuttal to it. Since this is our livelihood, I embraced the chance to learn more about our operation for this week's carnival. This week's hostess is Kelly the Kitchen Kop tells us about CAFOs and how pastured meats are considered more nutritious at Kitchen Stewardship, and her blog. Katie at Kitchen Stewardship provided a balanced look at Food, Inc. and some other sources at her carnival entry.
I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with Hubs and Hubs's cousin, Chris regarding this topic. (I will be asking them to review this post and I will update any changes they make if I didn't say something correctly. Also all photos are courtesy of my sister-in-law, Rachel, who took them on our farm). Currently we have about 800 head of cattle in our pens, and we own those. We also background for an area feedlot, which means we take cattle when they reach a certain age/size and feed them until they reach another certain age/size. That adds about 400 head of cattle.
We usually get just-weaned calves in September or so and keep them until February. The reason the bigger feedlot uses our feedlot to background is that cattle in our lot gain more weight more quickly and are healthier. I think it's because they get more personal attention. :>)
In addition to cattle, we also raise crops on about 2,900 acres. This year, we will have 1,500 acres planted to corn, 900 acres planted to soybeans, and 300 acres planted to wheat. We also have some fields planted to alfalfa, and somewhere around 2,000 acres of pasture.
We rotate the crops we plant on each piece of ground. On ground that is irrigated either by a center pivot (picture a big sprinkler) or gravity/flood irrigation (pipe with holes in it that can be opened or closed to let water through to certain rows), we will plant corn one year, then soybeans the next year, and back to corn. On our dryland ground (the only water it receives is rainfall) adds wheat to the rotation after beans. By rotating, we can use less fertilizer and control weeds better.
The resources used to produce corn have decreased dramatically over the past few decades. Better technology means things such as better equipment that means we can get by tilling the ground less. That means less time needed, less fuel burned, and less erosion of the soil, as well as less water needed because the soil is able to better retain the water it already has. Although genetic modification is a hotly debated topic, GM crops mean that we can use less fertilizer and pesticides. Feedlots are also located geographically near corn to reduce transportation costs.
About half of the corn we raise is fed to our cattle in a specific ratio of corn, ground hay, silage, distillers grains, and pellets that include vitamins, minerals, and a bit of protein. After our harvest is complete, we test the harvested crops to check their nutritional levels and then supplement the animals' diet accordingly using the pellets. The ratio of the corn, hay, silage, and distillers grains depends on the size of the animal and its stage in fattening, and then a certain amount is allotted per head of cattle in the pen.
Silage is made by chopping the entire corn plant - stalk, leaves, cob, and kernels of corn. Distillers grain is a co-product from ethanol production. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, "ethanol is produced from the starch in corn and the remaining protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals make up distillers grains."
While the most "natural" diet for cattle is probably grass or hay, animals fed a diet of such take longer to fatten (and thus produce meat). I would like to note that our cattle don't spend all their time in the feedlot. During the winter, they are placed in fields where corn has just been harvested. They glean the corn that was left behind, even digging through snow to find it, and also eat some of the dead leaves and stalks. During the summer, we take them to pastures to graze for as long as the land will support them.
Cattle really *like* corn, though, and there have been many taste test studies that have indicated people prefer beef that is corn fed versus grass fed or oat fed. I can give plenty of anecdotal information as to how cattle prefer corn - one year, another farmer planted corn on his field next to one of our pastures. I lost count of how many times he called to say that our cattle had gotten out and were eating his corn! Thankfully Hubs really worked on fixing that fence and we've received fewer calls since then. According to Chris, people have used grain to finish cattle even back to Biblical times as it improves the taste and texture of the meat.
The feedlot waste is carefully managed. During the year, we use equipment to push manure away from the feed bunks and the concrete apron on which the cattle stand while eating. Every year, we clean pens by scraping up manure and hauling it to spread on fields to use as fertilizer. There are guidelines as to how much and how often we can apply manure to fields; anyway, too much applied will adversely affect how our crops grow.
There are a couple of "runoff pits" strategically located near our feedlots so that any liquid (such as after a rainfall) will go there. We sometimes pump water from these pits to irrigate nearby fields instead of hauling manure there. Larger feedlots are required to have test wells drilled, so that the groundwater may be monitored for contamination, as we live over the Ogallala Aquifer.
It should be noted that even in pastures, cattle will stand in waste by choice. Standing in water is one of their methods of cooling off, and cattle tend to "do their business" wherever they happen to be standing.
Antibiotics and Hormones
Healthy animals receive no antibiotics in our feedlot, and Chris estimated that only about 5% of our cattle get sick. Sick animals are kept separate from the rest of the herd. When we receive calves from the feedlot for which we background, we give the calves a bit of antibiotics (typically in their feed) to prevent illness. They have just been weaned and it is a rather high stress time for them.
One of the many things I learned in my conversation with Chris is that far more disease in cattle comes from birds than from the cattle themselves! Also, cattle have immune systems not unlike people, and cold and wet conditions can contribute to cattle becoming sick. Also similarly to people, our cattle receive vaccinations against disease to keep them healthy.
Antibiotics are labeled with a withdrawal period, that ranges from 0 to 30 days. During that period, an animal is not to be slaughtered in order to give the antibiotic time to clear out. Injections are also given under the skin versus in the muscle to prevent the antibiotic from reaching the meat. After slaughter, the carcass is inspected and if an injection site is present, it is visible. The carcass is then taken out of production (I'm not sure what they do with it!) and the processor could punish the producer (us) by anything from not paying for that animal to refusing to buy any further cattle. Therefore, it is extremely important to follow the required guidelines and specifications.
We do give our animals hormone implants to speed their weight gain, and Chris admitted that there are producers that probably overuse hormones. He believes that hormones will eventually be phased out due to selective breeding. We tailor the implants to the animal, conservatively giving them only as much as needed for optimal growth.
Something else I did not know is that E. coli is actually a naturally occurring bacteria. According to Chris, we are much more likely to get sick from things such as unwashed contaminated lettuce than meat. Cross contamination is also a problem - for example, reusing the plate which you brought raw burgers to the grill for the cooked burgers without washing it.
Although there probably is a reduction in contamination of grass fed beef, Chris estimated that most cases of E. coli contamination in meat occurs after butchering. Regardless, if meat is handled and cooked properly, your chances of contracting e.Coli from it are very low. Hamburger has the highest chance for contamination because it is made of scraps from many different sources.
Nebraska actually has safeguards in place to protect family farms and discourage enormous factory farms. Family farms come in many sizes, though. I read Chris some of the statistics quoted by Kelly in her post linked above regarding how much of the meat supply is produced by a very few companies. He feels that end producers of meat likely do this as a means of protecting themselves - that way they know that safeguards are in place, and that precautions are being taken. While I didn't ask Chris this, I also wonder how exactly that breaks down. Perhaps there are a large number of feedlots such as ours that sell to packing plants that sell to the big guys. I don't know how it works, but I suspect it's not quite that neat and tidy.
What's the Bottom Line?
We (our family) don't believe that we (producers as a whole) would be able to flip the switch and follow all the practices laid out by Food, Inc. and Michael Pollan and others and still produce enough to feed the world.
Besides, I want to point out that not everything on our farm is kept confined. Our chickens have free run of the place, and can be found scratching and pecking around all over. (I've never asked them their motivation for crossing the road, though.) Our miniature donkey, Radar, also gets to roam around, although he occasionally gets a little bit naughty and nips or sneaks up behind you to give you a nudge in the back and that gets him promptly returned to his pen. He isn't lonely there, though... I actually saw him nuzzling, licking, or *something* one of the cows in the pen next to his today. Not sure what they were doing.
Anyway. We don't treat the cattle our family eats any differently than the cattle we produce to sell. Hubs believes that our meat tastes better than what you can buy in the grocery store, and he says he noticed a big difference in taste when he went into the Air Force. We will continue to stay abreast of current research, trends, and technology to provide the best food we can.
PS - Because I don't like knowing what I'm eating looked like when it was staring me in the face, I prefer to think beef shows up in our freezer via the meat fairy. I also think that while Americans as a whole are doing better at learning really where their food comes from, the truth is that farming is a dirty, bloody business (as noted in the Omnivore's Delusion linked above) and it's definitely not as easy as it might seem. You may have heard the phrase "running around like a chicken with its head cut off" - well, there is truth to that statement. And I'm not sure most Americans are ready to deal with that sort of reality regarding their food...