I’m currently a 2nd year veterinary student at Kansas State and I did my undergraduate work at Fort Hays State where I majored in Animal Science. My family has a farm where we grow wheat, milo, and alfalfa in addition to raising Angus cattle. In my spare time I like playing guitar, going to the lake, and just hanging out with my friends.
I have been involved with agriculture pretty much all my life. Unfortunately not everyone has had the same opportunities to be involved with food production as I have. The gap between food producers and consumers is growing and I am excited to be part of what Food For Thought is doing to bridge that gap.
I recently came across an article on Huffington Post titled “9 Facts About Factory Farming that will Break Your Heart.” This article was full of misconceptions and scare tactics about how terrible conditions are at these “factory farms.” Now, I could go through these so-called scary facts about food production one-by-one and explain why these practices are performed or how they’ve been over exaggerated for a good news story (that was sponsored in partnership with Chipotle… riddle me that), but since I was home on spring break last week I decided to take a look around our family farm and see what I could find that, if spun the wrong way, could be seen as heartbreaking.
So here are four practices on a non-factory farm that could break your heart, and why we do them:
Everybody knows that cows eat grass and grass grows for free, so why would anybody need to keep them locked in a pen? Multiple reasons exist for this practice. One of the biggest ones is to feed cattle a specific ration so that they can gain weight as efficiently as possible to make it to slaughter weight using as few resources as necessary, this is the idea behind feedlots. But cow-calf producers occasionally keep their cattle in pens too.
The pictures to the left show two groups of cattle in dry lots. The group in the top picture is heifers that are getting ready to give birth to their first calves, they will join the group in the bottom picture after we make sure they have delivered their calves safely and everyone is healthy. They will all go to pasture once the grass is ready. We keep them in confinement to make sure they are healthy, have access to good feed throughout the winter, and to catch them if they need help calving, which brings me to...
#2 We use Chains to Deliver Calves… When Necessary:
This is a picture of my dad and me helping a cow who was having trouble delivering her calf. This may seem unnatural, after all there are chains involved. But sometimes during calving, difficulties can occur that require assistance, and these are big, slippery calves, so we use small chains that are like a choke collar for dogs. We put the chains on the end of the calf’s legs near the feet to pull the calf out. This practice is far from the norm for births, most cattle have no trouble delivering calves all by themselves. But these calves aren’t out of the woods yet because...
#3: We Pierce Ears of Calves at Very Young Ages:
This is my brother tagging a calf that was born today, these tags have a sharp point that pokes through the cartilage of the ear then bends down to hang visibly from the ear. This can be painful to the calf, no way to deny that. Also it can be stressful to the calf and its mother because for all they know, we are attacking. Pain and stress are things we try to avoid in our livestock, but in a procedure like this the benefits outweigh the costs by a long shot. Tagging takes less than a minute and results in a calf that can be identified if it gets lost or sick or has to be moved to a new pasture. A few seconds of pain and stress makes it possible to take care of these animals on an individual level.
#4 We Feed Antibiotics to Our Cattle to Enhance Their Growth:
To the right, is another picture of my brother hard at work putting out mineral supplement to our yearling calves on wheat pasture. This mineral contains Monensin, which is an antibiotic in the category known as ionophores. Ionophores make up about 30% of the antibiotics sold for use in animal medicine. They kill a specific group of bacteria in the rumen (a compartment of cattle’s stomachs where fermentation takes place). These bacteria produce methane, which the cattle belch off. Killing these bacteria lowers the amount of methane produced and allows other microorganisms to make products cattle can absorb and use to grow. Ionophores are not used in human medicine at all, so using them in cattle won’t lead to development of resistant bacteria that could harm people.
So there you have it, folks, four common practices that could be seen as cruel or unnecessary if spun the wrong way, and that’s just in two days. I’ll keep an eye out for more, but until then if you see or hear of something that concerns you about where your food comes from, ask a farmer.