Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Our Nebraska Feedlot and Farm

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.

Feeding Cattle
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.

Waste Management
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.

E. coli
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.

Factory Farms
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...


Angela said...

This is incredibly interesting! I loved reading about your farm, I can't believe you have that many cattle!

I agree with you on the taste of the meat, we get all our beef from Monte's parents, who have cattle, and we think it tastes SO much better than store bought.

Johnlyn said...

This was great to read. I recently watched Food, Inc. and to say I was shocked is an understatement.

However, I do realize that it's only one side of the story. I'd love to know where I can buy milk from where the cows don't stand in manure 24X7 like they showed in the movie. I've found a raw milk place locally, but I need pasteurized. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!

I'm buying a side of beef from a local rancher - so excited that I have this option again!

Sarah @ Mum In Bloom said...

With all the contraversy on food and farming, it took you alot of courage to write this very thorough post. I'll have to read it a few times to absorb it all but I commend you on saying your side. I love your blog and your posts and appreciate you sharing :)

KellytheKitchenKop.com said...

Wow, I agree that it was really awesome that you took the time to provide another look at this issue.

Thanks Lenetta. :)


Heather said...

I also liked reading about your farm and the reasons behind what you do. All in all it sounds like you are all very responsible with your animals, the land, waste, etc. I would feel a lot better buying an animal directly from you than from the grocery store! A big part of my problem comes with the cross contamination part and the mixing of many different animal's meat. The small butchers and farms can avoid that completely, which I like.

While I am still glad we are heading towards no hormone, no antibiotic, grass fed animal source, I support family farms and wish you guys (and all my relatives that farm) nothing but the best! I agree with the comment on Food, Inc that America's farmers are amazing and they will rise to meet the demand of the consumer, if we want different we must let our farmers know and then pay them fairly for it!

Thanks for the great post,

Kitchen Stewardship said...

Only 5 comments? Whaaaaa? This was a very comprehensive post, and perfect for this week's theme. I've been looking forward to reading about your farm!!

I like the crop rotation, partial grazing, and the care taken with transportation, waste disposal, and not overusing antibiotics. Still worried about the hormones...and I wonder what's in those "pellets"...you know me, always digging one level deeper than I probably ought to.

Some of your observations (cows standing in their own poop anyway, the fact that they like corn) are really underlining that there's more than one side to every story.

Thank you SO much for taking the time and courage to put this together!
:) Katie

PS - Send your meat fairy my way. I wouldn't mind beef just showing up in my freezer! ;)

Anonymous said...

This post is great!!! I was really looking forward to what you would have to say about this. My family is in the dairy business and they operate what many would refer to as a "factory farm". I haven't seen Food, Inc. nor do I plan to. Not all dairy cows stand in manure 24X7, Johnlyn. It is frustrating to read or hear what people believe to be true. Thank you so much for posting this!!

tonya said...

thanks for sharing! every time a farmer stands up & puts a real face w/ a "factory farm" it tears down the false stereotype.

Avid said...

I am so jealous. Your farm sounds great. Send beef, please. Thanks for writing this.

DarcyLee said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. We recently bought our beef from a local farmer and I believe he raises his cattle mostly the way you do. I can tell the difference in the beef from what I get in the grocery store. I plan on buying my beef this way from now on. What a wonderful peek into your life. By the way, I found you through Katie at Kitchen Stewardship.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am a fiarly healthy eater, but am VERY TIRED of the whole food inc/organic yuppie craze. This was very refreshing.

Kudos to you and your family

Anonymous said...

I've had so many of the same conversations with my farmer husband who's also done his fair share of cowboying in the past. It's so frustrating isn't it, trying to do the "right" thing while still staying afloat. Oh and in reply to your post on my BLOG...I had not yet visited heavenlyhomemakers but I will now...plus I found a really yummy soaked bread recipe (supposed to be very healthy for us) that I made yesterday. Actually I started the night before that but anyhoosers it's very yummy, very moist and very soft. Let me know if you want the recipe. Now, off to play on the puter til the little ones wake up!

Anonymous said...

Thank you SOO much for this post. I grew up on a family farm in North Dakota, now living in Utah. I am constantly fighting with the misconceptions people have. It seems our society is so willing to believe the worst of our farmers/ranchers without looking for the other side of the story. This was a very refreshing post. Thanks for speaking so candidly, I truly enjoyed this post!

Cori said...

Thank you so much for this well presented opposing view. Although I don't like the idea of routine antibiotics in the weanlings or implanted hormones, I appreciate your honesty and willingness to put this "out there."

Johnlyn said...

For those of you who are frustrated with the "whole food, Food Inc." movement, fad or whatever you want to call it, please have patience with us!

I just want to serve my family the best thing for them. After I watched Food, Inc., I found myself wanting to support local farmers. Prior to watching the movie, I was content to buy the cheapest cut of meat I could possibly get.

I can see how you would get tired of defending yourselves. I get tired of people asking me what I could possibly do all day as a stay at home mom. Most of these people are NOT being mean, they are simply ignorant about what a homemaker does.

Information is power. Posts like this one, help me understand the industry better.

Lenetta said...

I have to say... I don't think I was being so much courageous as I felt a little bit like a fraud with all these posts about "getting out" CAFOs when we run one. :>)

Johnlyn, as for a pasteurized raw milk source, maybe ask around to the local (and not quite so local - phone calls!) places and see what they say. Actually, I'd rather find a raw milk source myself but there aren't that many in Nebraska! (And I saw a poor mama cow a couple of weeks ago that was so engorged, as a former nursing mother I really wanted to go find a bucket and milk her! Not that she'd have gone for that...)

I firmly believe that we all have to make decisions that are the best for our own families given the set of specific circumstances that we have. It's different for everybne based on health, income, location, and many, many other factors.

I guess I'm blessed in that nearly everyone else around here utilizes similar practices to ours, so it really isn't an issue. Really, this post was my way of learning more about our business. :>)

I'm really looking forward to pesticides next week! I'm all for grow-it-yourself (I just finished planting one of my gardens) but I'll tell you, when I was prepping a huge bucket of "organic" apples for saucing, I just about cried at the amout of time and effort it took to cut out the worms. Although it probably would have added some sort of nutrients to leave the little gusy in... (eew!)

Unknown said...


Great post!

As you know we grow fruits and vegetables so this reminds me of the conventional vs organic debate I hear about all the time.

We are not organic however we are not completely conventional at all. Some of our crops are sprayed, some aren't. We are making more use of mulching (plastic and leaves), hoeing, low tunnels and high tunnels. We try to be good stewards of the land and look to use the best practices we can.

I think the bottom line is to do what the USDA is urging through their Know Your Farmer campaign. Get to know the guy who grows your produce locally, learn about his practices and support him by shopping there. We don't make tons of money farming but love what we do.

I like Michael Pollan's book and he does have some good advice. I especially like his "Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Much" advice.

I could go on and on but I will shut up now. Thanks for an interesting post.

By the way, there is a way to keep bugs out of your apples using plastic or paper bags placed over the apple when it is small. Check out this link: http://indianalivinggreen.com/gardening-a-nature/in-the-bag-pest-free-organic-apples

Elizabeth said...

What a fascinating post! I really appreciate hearing from an actual farmer. I do think that "farm life" is just much different than what many of us city folks imagine. I appreciate the rationale you have explained here for various things, and like your family's commitment to farming... I want families like yours to keep doing what you're doing, even if you aren't 100% grass-fed or what not. I'm glad to hear that your cows do spend some time on pasture, too!

Emily @ Live Renewed said...

Thanks! What a great post! So interesting and informative! I think what I am really learning from all this is to know where my food comes from. I would feel perfectly comfortable eating meat that came from your farm - it really sounds like you guys know what you're doing and are doing your absolute best to raise the best cattle you can. That's something that is so good to hear. When I buy meat at the grocery store I really have NO IDEA where it came from, how the animals were treated, what they were fed, or given (antibiotics or hormones), how they were processed. This has really encouraged me to try to look outside the box (as in big box grocery store) and not just assume that because I don't have a good source for grass fed meat that I just have to deal with meat from the store. I can find local farmers who are doing what you are doing and buy from them! That way I know I am supporting a family farm and not the big corporations, and cutting out the middle man. And this has really encouraged me to ask questions of the farmers about their practices. Again, thanks for such a great post!

Kim said...

Lenetta, as you know, I've been really looking hard at what we eat and where it comes from and I really appreciate your post (can't believe it took me a month to read it!). I wish family farms and smaller butchering operations were our only choice because I think it would make our food supply much safer. Unfortunately, we have no idea where our meat comes from at the grocery store or how much care was put into the process of raising and butchering the animals that provided it.

I think we need to face the ugly issue of factory farming, head-on. The poor treatment of animals for profit is something that needs to stop. I'm so happy to hear that your family is mindful of the animals and crops they raise. I wish all farmers were like that.

We have a farmer somewhat near us who raises chickens and dairy cows and occasionally keeps beef cattle. He's mindful of how he raises his animals and I think that if I can ever stomach eating meat again it will be through him or the like that I buy it.

Thanks for giving us a peek into your family farm's operations, Lenetta. Very educational!

commoncents said...

Interesting... I really like your blog!!

Common Cents

The J's said...

What an interesting read Lenetta! Our house is located next to a cattle feed lot, the owners some of the larger ones in the business out here. Quite a few in this area.