Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

They don’t make country music like they used to. That racket the new country radio stations are playing? I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t country. I’m not sure most of it is even music.

I’m grumping like an 80-year-old woman with a pipe and a rocking chair, babbling about the old days. But what happened to creative lyrics that told a real story? When did artists let go of the art of making music?

George Jones sang about it in Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

Who’s gonna fill their shoes
Who’s gonna stand that tall
Who’s gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball
Who’s gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you
Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes

And I got to wondering, who’s gonna fill the shoes and boots and lace-ups of the farmers and ranchers? While they may not be knocking on the blue-haired doors of nursing homes just yet, a lot of farmers and ranchers are on the downhill slide of life. Jesse Bussard touches on this topic of aging farmers and ranchers and young people wanting to get started in her Beef Producer blog “Future Ranchers Lack Keys: Land, Livestock and Money”.

Who is gonna fill their shoes? Is it you? If so, post a comment. Even if it’s just a short, “My name is Festus McGou, and I am [or hope to be] a pumpkin farmer.”

I don’t want folks saying they don’t make farmers and ranchers like they used to, because I don’t think that’s true. If your dream is production agriculture, then stand up and say so because there are those who need the camaraderie and others who need to hear their footprints won’t go unfilled.

Unfilled boots in northeast Oregon snow

Speaking with One Voice: Children in Agriculture

The proposed child labor law on farms and ranches that would have severely limited the way kids can work on the farm or ranch has been withdrawn! This is due to the passionate responses from people across the country who took the time to stand up and say something. While there was a parental exemption that was loosely defined, extended family and friends of farm and ranch kids would have been stripped of many of the experiences I had growing up on a cattle ranch.

Quick example: I went to a cattle branding a couple weeks ago. It was a traditional family/friend weekend with everyone pitching in. If these revisions had been in effect, most of the kids there wouldn’t have been able to join in on the fun.

In August 2011, I said focus should be shifted from child labor legislation to safety education. With the statement released yesterday, it appears that is the direction the powers-that-be are finally ready to move in.

Why? Because those in the rural U.S. pulled together and spoke with one voice about an issue that really impacted every sector of agriculture.

I want there to be less farm and ranch accidents. I want kids to be able to learn life skills and lessons in the great outdoors, and I want that to happen in a safe environment. I want to bring my nephews onto the ranch, teach them how to ride a horse and learn how to properly administer a vaccine.

Today I am thankful there won’t be legislation standing in the way of that.

Excerpt from U.S. Department of Labor statement on withdrawal of proposed child labor rule for agriculture

The Department of Labor announced the withdrawal of the proposed rule dealing with children under the age of 16 who work in agricultural vocations.

The decision to withdraw this rule – including provisions to define the ‘parental exemption’ – was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms. To be clear, this regulation will not be pursued for the duration of the Obama administration.

Instead, the Departments of Labor and Agriculture will work with rural stakeholders – such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Future Farmers of America, and 4-H – to develop an educational program to reduce accidents to young workers and promote safer agricultural working practices.

No torture. No terrorizing. No single stalls.

“These animals are terrorized, tortured, and in the case of beef, enclosed in a single stall their entire life.”

This was from a comment I saw on an article regarding Safeway’s decision to stop selling lean finely textured beef (dubbed pink slime) in its stores. I’m not a meat scientist so I can’t speak with any type of authority on the pink slime debate. (Here’s a great collection of articles directly addressing the pink slime issue.)

However I am a rancher’s daughter, and I have been involved in the beef cattle industry for a long time. So it is from both personal experience and a lot of observation that I say ranchers do not terrorize or torture their animals, and cattle are not enclosed in a single stall for their entire lives.

A Look at a Cow’s Life
On our cow-calf ranch, the mama cows are kept on pasture year-round. We manage our breeding season so the cows have calves in the spring. Many ranchers do the same, but some calve in the fall. Others leave the bulls in with the cows all the time and have a continuous calving cycle.

During the winter the cowherd is brought in closer to headquarters for more attentive care during the harsh weather and in preparation for calving. Growing up in Iowa, there’s plenty of snow and no grass through the winter months so daily deliveries of hay to the cows are needed. The cold temperatures and nasty weather (usually!) require constant monitoring when the baby calves start hitting the ground. Yep, even in the middle of the night.

All the pairs (mama cows and their baby calves) are turned out on grass pastures for the summer and fall. We turn the bulls out with the cows at this time as well so the mamas can get pregnant again. Depending on the year, the calves are weaned from their mamas around October and brought home.

Some calves are sold straight off the cow, but we have always backgrounded our own calves. We keep them on an acreage and feed grain and hay until the next spring. As yearlings, these calves are sold at the livestock auction, usually to feedlot buyers. The calves are then finished at a feedlot for a few months until ready for slaughter.

Not all calves are sold to a feedlot. We keep the best heifers as replacement mama cows for the cowherd. Sometimes people keep a few head to feed out for private sale or to provide beef for their own families.

There are also grass-fed beef cattle herds, certified organic and purebred herds. How things are done will vary depending on location, equipment, business model, etc.

Terror and torture?
How does it make any sense for a rancher to terrorize and torture the cattle? There is nothing positive that comes from that. Even if a rancher didn’t care about his or her animals – and they do, very much – from a pure business standpoint, mistreating animals is a no-win proposition.

Animals under stress don’t gain weight/maintain condition as well. They are more difficult to handle, damaging to equipment and can be a danger to be around. All those things negatively impact the bottom line of profit.

There are a few bad apples. Cattle ranching is not immune to the shady characters that pop up in every sector of business. If you know of a bad apple, report it immediately to the authorities.

Just a Snapshot
This is just a quick snapshot of cattle ranching. I could talk for days about all the time, money and effort that goes into caring for a cow-calf herd. Kinda makes this blog post seem a little puny, but I wanted to share the truths of my family’s cattle ranch.

No torture. No terrorizing. No single stalls.

A lot of hard work. A lot of long days. A lot of good times.

Chipotle Sparks Conversation

I think the idea of returning to 40 acres and a mule is nice. I like the idea of having a small hub of diversified agriculture with beef cattle, hogs, a couple of milk cows, some chickens and a big garden.

I also think it’d be nice to live in the days of wide open range and traveling everywhere on horseback with a six-shooter wrapped around my waist. I definitely would have nipped that whole dress/petticoat business in the bud though.

Nice ideas aren’t always actionable. Stepping back in time to an era when most people had homesteads with lots of elbow room isn’t possible in our current world. Why? Even if land and finances made it possible, most people aren’t willing to sacrifice time or location to make that happen.

I don’t see urban centers liquidating. I don’t see many people making time to cultivate gardens or raise barnyard chickens. I don’t see many people giving up their careers or the amenities of big city living to rough it out on the prairie.

If that isn’t happening, then how are we supposed to “go back to the start” as Chipotle’s commercial depicts?

In light of a sky-rocketing population, I don’t see how such a move would sustain our appetites. Ignoring all the knowledge we have gained through decades of research on the intricacies of agriculture seems foolish to me as well.

If we are going to evaluate sustainability of agriculture, we must do so from all angles. How are we going to sustain an increasing number of people? How is the farmer or rancher going to sustain his/her business from an economic standpoint? How do we manage our resources in ways that sustain them while also maximizing the needed production? These are the questions farmers and ranchers are addressing.

Looking at my own day-to-day life, I don’t see myself raising chickens, having a milk cow in the barn or growing a year’s worth of vegetables.

Why? I don’t have the finances to support a land purchase or amenities such as barns and corrals to accommodate livestock. I also don’t have the time. It takes an incredible time investment to maintain a garden large enough to provide enough produce until the next growing season.

My family raises beef cattle. When I was little, my dad substantially increased the cow herd with the purchase of 120 first-calf heifers. The ranch has continued to grow in the last two decades, but believe me, family is the absolute core of that business.

Does it look like the small herd dad started with? Of course not, but if anything, it’s more family-centered than it was back then.

I don’t think it is right to disparage one type of agriculture over another – i.e. organic, grass-fed, conventional, farmers markets, etc. There is a need for each type, and that’s being said by a person raised on a conventionally-run ranch. I also support the right of people to choose where they source their food. Agriculture is a business, and the law of supply and demand is equally at play here as it is in every other business.

However, if you have questions on the source of your food, there are so many places where you can go directly to that source instead of a marketing campaign by a large company such as Chipotle. Farmers and ranchers from all genres of agriculture are putting voice to what they do.

Just a handful of people who are a great resource about agriculture:

  • Crystal Young – Crystal does an excellent job of sharing her agricultural experiences as well as her love for turquoise. She wrote a post on her reactions to Chipotle’s ad. (Twitter)
  • Trent Bown – Trent is recently back in the blogosphere, but his video about his dairy and was downright great. I really can’t say enough good things about it. Go. Watch it. (Twitter)
  • Emily Zweber – I have learned a great deal from Emily. Her family owns an organic dairy, and I’m thankful for the way she has broadened my views when it comes to different types of agriculture. (Twitter)
  • Jennifer Elwell – Jennifer is the voice behind Food, Mommy. I am continually impressed by her thoughtful, well-researched posts on food and nutrition. (Twitter)
  • Jan Hoadley – Jan is another person who has been indispensable in helping me learn more about other areas of agriculture. Coming from a commercial Red Angus ranch, it’s been a lot of fun to see different agricultural practices. (Twitter)
  • Jeff Fowle – I know you’re probably seeing a pattern here, but every time I read Jeff’s site, I learn something. The man has a very common sense approach when he addresses food and agriculture issues. I always walk away with something new to ponder. (Twitter)
  • Meg Brown – Meg is an inspiration. Opinionated and passionate about the beef industry, she shares her experiences with both ag and non-ag folks and is always willing to strike up a conversation and answer questions. Plus she has an amazing meatloaf recipe! (Twitter)

Marketing is a misleading source of information. At best, ads (for anything) should be a spark for researching a topic in-depth. Jennifer Keller wrote a great piece on truth in advertising and her experiences in presenting to the same students as a Chipotle representative. As the Euripides quote goes, “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.”

Finding answers is an elusive hunt. What constitutes an answer for me won’t be the same for you based on our different experiences, values and outlooks on life. I hope this Chipotle ad sparks questions. I hope it drives people to search for more information about where their food comes from, and I hope talking to the farmers and ranchers who are at the beginning of food production are high on the list of people to visit with.

Here’s one final question to ponder: have you ever seen a commercial suggesting computer technology go back to the start?

Transparency in Agriculture

Transparency has become a buzzword in agriculture. Be transparent. Open your doors. Show the world what you’re doing on your front porch.

And I agree. Sticking our heads in the sand is not an effective way to deal with the powerful political and activist groups who oppose animal agriculture. It’s also not a good way to pick up a conversation with consumers who are interested in learning about where their food comes from. I like talking to people about cattle ranching, and I can’t do that if I never poke my nose beyond my front door.

The problem with buzzwords like transparency is that they lose power the more they’re tossed around. They lose meaning, and once the meaning is lost, how do you take action?

It seems to me that there are two main questions to answer about transparency in agriculture.

  1. What does transparency mean to you?
  2. How are you going to act on your definition of it?

I want to make it clear that I agree with the concept of transparency. I just want to encourage everyone – including me – to really stop and think about the reality of transparency in our own individual lives.

We are not all going to be Cargill on Oprah, an agricultural social media rockstar or an owner who hosts weekly ranch visits. And that’s okay.

But we can have a great impact in little everyday type of ways. With the people we work with, the folks we meet at church, the friend we invite out to ride fence.

That sounded fluffy. Fluffy is for down pillows and 70s shag carpet.

Stop talking. Start doing.

PS: Check out Ryan Goodman’s ideas and list of links on this question: how would you work differently if a non-farmer/rancher followed you around for a day?

PPS: There might be a part two on Transparency in Agriculture as I just thought of something else that relates in a roundabout, Erica-type way. It’ll probably be called…Transparency in Agriculture, Part 2.

5 Factors in Marketing Beef Cattle

livestock auction, creston, auctioneer, cattle, beef, sale

Image by Andy Goodell of Creston News Advertiser

How the heck do you compete in the cattle market if you don’t have black hides? A question about how to overcome the struggles of marketing non-Angus cattle on the Beef Daily Blog by Amanda Radke addressed this issue. It can feel like bucking a big square bale when you take Herefords, red cattle or Brahman-influenced steers to the stockyards.

In my experience, there are three primary factors and two secondary factors that impact the market price of a set of calves. (I was raised on a Red Angus-cross ranch – so no black hides – and we sold calves as yearlings through the local livestock auction. Our stock did very well, and it still does.)

1. Quality.
You have to have good stock to bring a premium. There is no leniency on this. Good conformation, muscling, potential for feeding efficiency and finishing. In a nutshell: genetics.

2. Health. Sending a sick calf through the sale ring is a poor business decision. A good health care program throughout the life of a calf is essential. A rancher who is committed to a vaccination program evaluates the health of his calves more than humans evaluate their own health.

3. Appearance. All other things being equal, a mud-crusted steer will sell lower than a clean steer. Sometimes, sale day is a miserable muddy mess. On occasion, we would swing the stock trailer by the self-help car washes and hose the yearlings off before going to the stockyards.

I’m also going to include disposition in this category. Calm, even-tempered calves are more desirable than agitated, high-strung calves. They gain better, and they’re easier to handle. Oh, putting together uniform pens of steers and heifers is also beneficial in the auction ring.

1. Hide Color.
There is a premium for black-hided cattle. It’s the world we live in. The Black Angus breed has done an outstanding job of branding and establishing black cattle as the standard for quality. I view hide color as a secondary factor, however, because I believe quality can trump color.

2. Reputation. The cattle industry is a small world. Consistently bringing quality calves into the sale barn will earn you a reputation. Does it mean you can get away with selling dumpy steers for a premium? Of course not. Does it mean buyers pitch forward in their seats when the auctioneer announces your name? You dang betcha.

Bottom Line
Here’s the thing about ranching: it takes decades – no, a lifetime – to craft a cowherd that fits what you had in mind when you first started. The only reason my family’s stock consistently earns top dollar is because of a day-in-day-out commitment to being the best at what we do: raising top quality Red Angus beef.

And that’s what I would encourage anyone to do – with raising beef cattle and everything else. Work hard to be the best at what you do, and don’t be afraid to tackle a new way of doing things.

Child Labor in Agriculture

When I think of child labor, I think of kids in sweatshops making Nike shoes or little homeless kids forced into being drug couriers on the street. I don’t think of agriculture – and I certainly don’t think of the way I grew up – when I hear the term child labor, but that is the way some people are headed.

In a recent Huffington Post article Child Labor Rules Stalled At White House As Farm Accidents Continue:

Last week, two 17 year olds were critically injured in Oklahoma when they were pulled into a grain augur while on the job. Responders had to cut the augur to free the boys, who were flown to a hospital with severe leg injuries.

Yet the White House continues to sit on new child labor rules proposed last year by the Department of Labor that some safety advocates say could have prevented that accident.

Although the rules proposed by the Labor Department have not yet been made public, sources familiar with them say they would deem certain work activities on farms too dangerous for minors to perform, potentially strengthening laws that haven’t been updated in 40 years.

I grew up on a cattle ranch. I started helping dad feed cows at 5 years old, learned to drive tractor in the hayfield, moved up to raking and then baling. I was shoving calves five times my size up the chute, working long days, bucking bales, riding horses and chasing cows. Was this child labor?

Ranching and farming accidents make my heart fall just as much as the next person’s, but legislation isn’t the answer to reducing the number of agricultural accidents. It is, and always will be, about proper agricultural safety training. Age has nothing to do with it. Throwing a 40-year-old man out on a combine who has never driven it before is a much higher risk than a 17-year-old who has been taught how to operate the equipment. As one of the comments said on the Huffington Post article, “What law do they think they can write that prevents accidents?”

I didn’t start driving a tractor in the hayfield to pick up bales until dad showed me how to run it. The speed wasn’t much more than a sedated snail’s pace, and dad was able to jump on if I got in trouble. Complete mastery at that meant moving up to raking hay – a much higher-paced job. And then baling with all types of moving pieces, power take-off shafts and potential for fire.

Working with livestock can be dangerous, no matter who you are. Even though I’ve worked with cattle my whole life, I still get kicked, hit, bruised and stomped. So has everyone else who’s been ranching for decades.

How can revisions to child labor laws impact that? Will it change the way children of ranchers and farmers grow up learning at their families’ sides?

Instead of safety advocates focusing on child labor legislation, the focus needs to be on proper agricultural safety training. Offer agricultural safety courses. Implement agriculture and safety classes into rural school districts. Get articles into farm and ranch publications providing safety tips and reminders of the dangers of working in agriculture.

Waiting on the White House to do something (that probably won’t help anyway and could negatively impact family operations) is a proven waste of time. Do something that matters today. Do something that can have an impact – even if it’s just one person – right now.

Reducing Theft From Ranches

“In the end, the farmer’s diligence made a big difference and helped us catch two suspected bad guys,” said Grant County Sheriff Tom Jones.

This quote was from a story earlier today about a rancher who called authorities to apprehend two suspects who were trying to make off with $6,000 worth of metal from his property.

3 Key Factors in Catching Ranch Thieves

1. The rancher was alert. This rancher was out and about at 4 in the morning. He was in a position to notice something amiss. He knew the truck and trailer were unfamiliar. He knew that metal theft is a likely candidate. He was consciously paying attention to his surroundings.

2. He observed. Sometimes it’s better to hold on to your cards before busting a place wide open. As a person trying to protect her property, I would have been very tempted to confront the thieves the moment they began trespassing on my property. But as a person with a criminal justice degree, I applaud the rancher for assessing the situation and gathering information.

3. He called the authorities. Instead of handing out his own justice, the rancher called the authorities in for an arrest, and he did it at the right time. Not only were the thieves caught in the act with stolen goods, it also put the rancher in a safer position. You never know how dangerous another person can be, whether they are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or what weapons they have.

In many cases, ranchers and farmers aren’t there to observe. Many operations are sprawled out over many acres and many miles, and everything can’t be watched all the time. Limiting the opportunities for theft is often the best route. And, however fruitless it sometimes seems, report any thefts to your local authorities. They may not hunt down the thieves, but a record of the reported theft will be kept on file. Patterns can be tracked as well as methods of operation.

Have you had metal, fuel or other goods stolen from your property? What did you do about it?

Tackling Animal Cruelty

I was drinking coffee when I watched the Mercy For Animals video showing cruel treatment of dairy calves at the E6 Cattle Company operation. (It is painful to watch, so please be advised if you choose to go see it.) The coffee turned to ash in my mouth as I watched it, but the end slogan of “Go vegetarian” caused me to pause. What had been a horrifying depiction of animal cruelty turned into a horrifying depiction of animal cruelty to support an agenda.

I have a problem with animal cruelty. I have a big problem with it, and the majority of ranchers treat their animals with great care. Not only because animals help provide for their families, but because watching an animal suffer, let alone causing an animal to suffer in such a way, is not to be tolerated. It even bothers me when people work their cattle more roughly than necessary, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.

Animal cruelty is bad. It’s not okay. I think the vast majority of people from all walks of life can agree on that point. But what I am questioning today is the undercover video part of this story. I am questioning whether it was edited. I am questioning why this case of animal cruelty was not reported to the proper authorities immediately. I am questioning if the suffering of these animals was used to support an agenda.

The responsibility does not fall solely on the shoulders of those folks performing those horrible cruel acts. Was there anyone at E6 Cattle Company who knew these animals were being treated cruelly, had a problem with it, and didn’t say anything? If so, then this is partly on them. (The owner, Kirt Espenson has stepped forward to handle this situation.) Why did the camera operator not stop the cruel treatment? Or, as some sources have stated, why did the camera operator take part? Was completing a video to support a campaign more important than stopping such cruel treatment of a helpless animal? This is partly on the camera operator and anyone who happened to be watching.

The responsibility also falls to the rest of us working in animal agriculture. We have a responsibility to call out the bad actors among us; being silent is not an option.

So while I appreciate that this case of animal cruelty has been exposed, there must be a better way for efficient and effective management of animal welfare issues. Reporting animal cruelty cases to the proper authorities should be an immediate response, but that doesn’t prevent the cruelty from occurring in the first place.

I am interested in proactive approaches that reduce the number of animal cruelty cases from happening. Inspections? A community watch program? I don’t know what the best solution is, but we can do better than this. We have an obligation to do better than this as ranchers, as animal owners, and as human beings.