Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Feedlot, Rediscovered.

Will Feed, Inc. (Cozad, NE)
August 24, 2012

We were the only ones up at 6. The sun still tucked itself below the horizon while cattle crouched low on folded legs. Anne and I cruised up and down the alleys of the 3,000 -head feed yard in her truck to “read bunks”. This was her routine for determining from yesterday’s leftovers how much cattle should be fed today. After a meeting with the foreman about the feeding instructions, we returned to the alleyway and were greeted by weanling calves at their gate. These calves were beginning their first full day at the yard. It was time for their morning exercise and training. Anne flushed them away from the gate with a Shhhh and waving arms to send them back into their pen and have them exit in a wide circle back through the gate. She zigzagged behind them, reminding questioning ears and curious eyes where they were to go. The calves obediently, though sleepily, walked forward and away. They occasionally looked over their shoulders and wondered if they were heading the right direction. Anne encouraged them on to the back of a holding pen with her presence only, and held her arms straight out from her sides to have them “park” there. 
When they succeeded in following her directions, she moved to one side of the narrow pen and folded her arms behind her back. She began to slowly walk forward against the direction the cattle faced, and the cattle trotted past her. To slow them down, she slowed her pace. To stop them, she stopped or walked alongside them in the same direction they faced. A bovine’s “tipping point” is right at their shoulder. If you want them to walk forward, you stay behind their shoulder; stop, you stay at their shoulder; change directions, you come in front of their shoulder. After their exercise and training was complete and their behavior became more organized and collected, the calves were sent through the tub, the snake, the chute, and the squeeze to receive their new identification ear tags and vaccinations. 
After toughing out ear piercings and shots, these calves were ready to go home to their pen! Just as I’m sure they’d hoped, there was fresh prairie hay sprinkled with a little feed waiting for them in their bunks. They formed a neat line without a sound. I wish young people could do what young cattle can!
Notice that each animal gets about 300 square feet in every pen. You always see cattle crowded up together in feedlot pens leaving plenty of open space because it’s their natural herd behavior to stay close, especially if food is involved! Also, according to Beef Quality Assurance standards, feed yard pens must be kept free of mud. If water doesn’t drain properly, a skid steer must come and remove the mud. The “hills” in each pen allow a dry space for cattle to congregate in case of heavy rains, so that excess moisture can drain away from them. The entire yard has to slope down toward a water collection ditch that empties into a holding lagoon. Liquids, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, are pumped onto adjoining crop fields.

Throughout the morning, the foreman was busy making the day’s rations. Weanlings eat mostly hay for a week, and then the cattle start out on a mix of less than 15% corn, 50% distillers' grains, and 30% hay with some vitamin and mineral supplements. They progress all the way, very gradually over the course of 6 months or more, to a mix of 30% corn, 60% distillers' grains, and about 8% hay, straw, and corn stocks plus some supplement. Shocked to hear that there’s not a lot of corn in the diet? Read this article by BEEF magazine about transitioning away from corn.
They are fed twice a day, precisely the right amount so just a few scraps remain in the bunks by morning: not wastefully so they leave too much behind, and not too meagerly, either. The first night I arrived at Will Feed, I saw Anne and her workers ship cattle out. Three cattle semi-trailers headed for National Beef in Dodge City, KS picked up over a hundred finished cattle, well-rounded and readied for harvest. Look at how big they are compared to the new calves!
I discovered that the relationship people have with cattle at a feedlot can be a lot more intimate than at a cow-calf ranch. Cattle are far more dependent on people in that setting. If Anne or any of her three workers gets sick, sleeps in, or takes the day off, it directly affects the cattle. They can’t find their own food. They can only wait for it. If any steer or heifer walks with just the slightest limp, has eyes that squint just a little too much, or holds their head a little low, the cowboy who rides in pens every day or Anne who exercises the animals every day will notice it and attend to it. Out on the range, some cattlemen go days without seeing the same cow or calf.
The attention to cattle in a feedlot is much more acute. Stressed, sick, depressed, lazy, etc. cattle do not grow good beef. Cattle that have been given hormones or antibiotics improperly will also not grow good beef. Anne believes “We need to set calves up for success.” For the ongoing story of Anne and the animals she cares for, see her blog, Feed Yard Foodie. Anne won Beef Quality Assurance Producer of the Year in 2009, and this year her feedlot is being nationally recognized by Certified Angus Beef. To support her and the Beef Quality Assurance program that guides animal care for the industry, look into what BQA stands for, ask your local producers to get certified, and put some beef on your plate this week!

Hopefully more personal accounts like mine and like Anne's on her blog will serve to reclaim the Power Steer from Michael Pollan and the rest of us who lost confidence in the beef industry. What do you Think?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In Nebraska with Feed Yard Foodie!

I am currently spending the week at Will Feed feedlot in Willow Island, Nebraska! For more information about Will Feed and the amazing story of its primary operator, Anne Burkholder, please visit her blog, Feed Yard Foodie. I'll tell you all about it next week, but until then...we've got cows to feed! Back to work!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Flour or Corn Tortillas?

Two articles by Justin Gillis from The New York Times promote agronomy research for strains of food crops that can better cope with the heating and drying that much of the planet is facing this generation:

Revisiting Climate and the Food Supply
Aug. 18, 2011
A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself
June 4, 2011

Wheat is a C3 ("cool season") plant. When temperatures rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheit or so, C3 plants photosynthesize so quickly that oxygen builds up within the plant faster than the plant can obtain carbon dioxide for construction of sugars, starches, and fibers. Wheat then enters photorespiration, where the plant actually consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide in a much less efficient process of making carbohydrates. Photorespiration is when the plant "stalls" and has a difficult time growing.

Corn, sugar cane, and sorghum (milo) are C4 ("warm season") plants, as well as many other grasses. A C4 plant has a pathway that helps concentrate carbon dioxide within itself to continue the photosynthesis system to "feed forward", and therefore, continue CO2 sequestration and sugar production. These plants can keep growing and producing carbohydrates while exhaling oxygen in much higher temperatures than C3 plants can.

C4 plants are efficient in "warm seasons", while C3 plants are efficient in "cool seasons". If our world climate continues to warm, will there eventually be more production of corn, sugar cane, and sorghum (milo), while there will be less wheat planted and consumed? What do you Think?