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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Ranchers and Livestock: A Complex Relationship

As I travel and talk to the general public, I find that a grand majority of them, from omnivore to vegan, are concerned about the welfare of livestock. They care deeply about the way livestock are treated and they are appalled by the videos of abuse that are put out by various animal rights groups. They like to tell me about their dog, cat, or maybe even their horse and how they couldn’t bear the thought of those animals being eaten.They wonder how ranchers feel about these animals and their welfare. Do we really care?

This is always a difficult discussion to have with folks since the relationship a rancher has to his livestock is very complex and most of the public has little experience with animals to relate to a rancher. In addition, the videos they see and stories they hear are not an accurate representation of the industry. So what I typically do is tell my story and what livestock have meant to me.

For me, caring for livestock was never a question. It was all that I’ve ever known. One of my first clear memories is helping my mother pull lambs at 2 AM when I was three or four. I started showing lambs at four with my ewe lamb named Pirate, and I showed my first market lamb at six. I got my first pony about the same age and a horse soon after. We’ve always had cattle and I was literally raised in a barn (a sale barn to be exact). From that age, I had chores and wasn’t allowed to have dinner until my animals had been fed.

Pirate and I at my first show

In my house, we raised our own meat. So from a young age, I was feeding the animals that would end up on the dinner table. It was just normal. All the animals were cared for and treated with respect no matter their end point. Plus, who wants to eat something that has been mistreated?

Most of what I read on this topic from agriculture folks goes into the time taken caring for the health and welfare of livestock, the scientific reasons that we use one system over another or the calling that ranchers feel in their hearts to take care of livestock. These are all true and I could give you hundreds of stories about the joys of saving animals on the verge of death, the stress of always worrying about their well being and the heart break of seeing them go. But I think what exemplifies the story of a rancher’s relationship with an animal, is the story of my Dad and Blackstrap.

An old cowboy once told me that cowboys get one good horse, one good dog, and one good woman in their lives (if they are lucky). Snapper was Dad’s dog. My mother is the woman. Blackstrap was his horse.

Snapper, Dad’s dog and my guardian

Dad got Blackstrap when he was twelve and they grew up together. Blackstrap was a big, stout Quarterhorse gelding that was basically jet black. Dad raised him and broke him to be a cow horse.  I heard stories about the things this horse did from the time I could walk. I even rode Blackstrap with Dad before I could walk. Not that he was without his faults, but Dad seemed to love him even more for those. Dad rode other horses later, but they were always compared to Blackstrap and none of them could ever measure up.

When I was about six, Blackstrap developed colic while on some spring pasture. After trying all he could, Dad realized Blackstrap was going to die. My father is a practical man. He knew dying of colic wasn’t going to be pleasant, so Blackstrap needed to be euthanized. If there is one thing Dad can’t stand, it is to watch an animal suffer. So we loaded Blackstrap up and took him to the horse slaughter plant nearby (this being 1992 and horse slaughter still being legal). I can still vividly remember Dad walking him across the scales and up to the floor himself. It was the first time I saw him cry.

At six, I knew Blackstrap was going to be put down but not that we were at a slaughter plant. Once I grew up and figured it out, I asked Dad, why take him there? His response has always stuck with me. He said that Blackstrap was always a horse with a purpose. Those folks would do the most humane and professional job euthanizing him, and Blackstrap would still have a purpose.

I guess the whole discussion comes down to your belief system. I believe cattle were put on this earth for us to use and cowboys were put on this earth to take care of the cows. Thus, we tend to our animals using the best animal husbandry we can.  We know their overall purpose is to feed people, but they aren’t treated like hamburger on a day-to-day basis. It is this overall purpose that drives us to take care of them.

There is pride and honor in caring for animals that will feed hungry people. It’s a calling and one that ranchers take seriously. It is a purpose that drives us through days of mud and blood, rain and snow, sweat and tears. The relationship and obligation that a rancher feels for his animals is one that cannot be expressed, it must be felt. It’s something that can only be seen in the lines and wrinkles of a rancher’s face.

Dad thought I should move away from agriculture and be an engineer. For a while I tried, but it never felt like my purpose in life. I believe my purpose is to help share with the public that ranchers can and do care about livestock all the way from conception to consumption. Pasture to the plate, these animals mean the world to ranchers.

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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Organic, Natural, Grass-fed or Conventional: What is the right choice?

I was on a first date the other day when my date, who is very health and fitness conscious, was telling me about a discussion she had with a friend about organic beef. Apparently they had decided that it was healthier for you because it was “organic”. Little did she know, she hit one of my ‘hot button” issues and got my typical one minute speech on the fact that there is little difference in nutritional values just differences in how the cattle are raised. I didn’t go through the entire subject since I think I spooked her with my passion on the whole subject, but I’ll go through it for you here.

Organic. Organic farming involves using only what comes about naturally. They fertilize with compost or manure. The cattle generally don’t receive antibiotics or hormones. They can receive qualifying vaccinations and synthetic medications if cattle are sick. Feed must also be from an organic source, probably the hardest part if you don’t produce your own feed. It is a system that is similar to the “Ole’ McDonald’s Farm” from 1900 that most people picture when they think of farming.

While it is sentimental way to do things, it is higher cost with decreased production. It also requires a lot of record keeping and cost with the verification of practices to qualify for the “organic” label. Simply put, while it is an emotionally appealing system, it is not economical way to produce beef in the quantities needed for current populations. If all agriculture switched back to this system there would be a lot less food available, meaning a lot more hungry people in the world that just can’t afford it.

Now I have no problem with people who make the choice to raise their animals organically and go through the USDA defined process for “organic” verification. I do have a problem with those who demonize the entire modern agriculture system in order to market their product (I’m looking at you, Joel Salatin). These folks believe that their method is the best way to raise beef and some produce a good product which is liked by a small group of Americans that are willing to pay the extra cost for the process.

While organic farmers might believe that some agricultural practices are harmful, USDA and FDA tests and approves of all these systems and products. So the opinion that what they are doing is safer and healthier is just a theory with little or no scientific evidence. If you want that product and are willing to pay extra for it, I’m glad you have the choice. It’s free enterprise at work. But if you produce it, please promote your product and system for its own virtues rather than demean the rest of us for using technology.

Natural. This practice is harder to define because USDA hasn’t put an exact definition on what “natural” is. The accepted definition is cattle that haven’t received any antibiotics or hormones. They are vaccinated giving them resistance to prevalent diseases. The majority of cattle are verified through an affidavit at the producer level and stringent specs at the feedlot level, though some retailers are requiring a third party audit all the way through the system for verification.

These are the steaks that I personally buy. For hamburger, it really doesn’t matter as long as it has the right fat content for me (80-20). It is not due to any health concerns, but because the product tends to eat better since implants tend to have a small effect on tenderness. It is just a more consistent product and eating experience in my opinion. Scientifically the difference is not significant but with my cooking skills it helps.

Grass-fed. These are cattle that are never fed concentrates (grains). They are developed to finish weight on total forage. The flavor is much different and it tends to be tougher than grain fed beef because of decreased fat and age of the animal. Grass-fed can also be kind of hit or miss. A savvy producer will graze steers on high energy forages like alfalfa, clover, wheat or barley during the finishing stage to get them to marble. This is basically feeding them grain without harvesting it and yields a product with more fat, but some producers use typical forages so the cattle have a gamey taste (in my opinion) and are tougher. There is a health benefit with the increased Omega-3 fatty acid ratio compared to grain fed.  I eat sushi and other fish dishes to get my Omega-3s, at least then I enjoy eating it.

This is another system from days past. It was used extensively in the 1800s and is still used today in Brazil, Australia, and Argentina. If prepared correctly (cooked very slowly), it can be very good but it takes a lot of time to produce and prepare. It would take millions of additional cattle and acreage to maintain production in this system.

Conventional. This is the typical method of producing beef in the US. A steer will be vaccinated as a calf, receives antibiotics if he is sick, is fed ionophores to improve feed efficiency and lessen risk of coccidiosis, and probably be implanted at the feedlot. Any products that he received have withdrawal periods that will be adhered to in order to eliminate any possibility of residue in the meat. He will be slaughtered in a USDA inspected facility and come to your plate as a healthy individual who produced a wholesome beef product.  His beef might have a small difference in hormone levels but as I pointed out previous, it is a minuscule amount of difference.

So what is the right choice? That’s up to you. All of these methods are safe and produce iron rich, high protein delicious beef. Grass-fed is the only product with a nutritional difference. The method that you (the consumer) prefer is available and that is your choice. The greatest part of this country, in my opinion, is that freedom. If you want a safe, price-competitive product, you can eat conventional. If you want to pay more for the practices that suit you, you can eat organic, grass-fed, or natural.

You can feel good about any of those choices because a grand majority of producers, feeders, packers and retailers care deeply about how beef is produced and the animals producing it (more on that next week). And you can receive the health benefits of beef in a balanced diet.

So whatever your choice, on behalf of cattle producers everywhere, I hope you enjoy your steak.

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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