Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts from guest blogger Trista Milliman. Trista is a native Illinoisan who now lives in Oklahoma where her and her husband run a cow-calf operation. For the first part, click here.
I addressed my friend’s accusations calmly and factually. Hard to do when you’re angry. First, I explained the “steroid” myth. I don’t know who labeled them that, maybe the media or PETA, but we DON’T give our animals steroids. What they get is a growth hormone implant in their right ear. Now, anyone who has taken an Anatomy and Physiology class, what are the two growth hormones that NATURALLY OCCUR in the body, human or animal? Estrogen and testosterone. The hormone we implant is estrogen. (Every woman knows what role estrogen plays in unwanted weight gain.) The estrogen improves our calves feed to gain ratio, which cuts down on the amount of money we have to spend on feed and the amount of time they have to be on pasture. Translation: you get better beef at an affordable price with a smaller amount of time between our pasture and your plate. No steroids here. Oh, and if you’re that concerned about the amount of hormones in your food, consider this: there are 500 times more estrogen in ONE leaf of organically grown spinach than in a three ounce piece of estrogen implanted beef. My town friend was listening.
I moved on to the antibiotics. My town friend loves her two dogs. So, I asked her what she does when her dogs get sick. Of course, she takes them to the vet and if it’s an infection, the vet prescribes an antibiotic. It’s the same with our cows. If we spot a sick one, we take her up to the alley and give her an antibiotic. We treat her as long as she needs it. Simple. If she’s not sick, what’s the point in wasting the money on giving her (and the rest of our herd for that matter) an antibiotic? Not very cost effective if you’re trying to run a business. If the animal is sick we treat her, if she’s not, we don’t. I can’t come up with a better description of animal welfare than that. Point made.
Then, we moved on to my favorite topic, feed. My specialization in my major was livestock nutrition. My husband and I both figure our rations as do many beef producers. And if they don’t do it themselves, they hire a nutritionist. Now, how many PETA or HSUS supporters use a nutritionist when feeding their own families? My town friend just couldn’t get over the idea that we were feeding our cattle genetically modified grain that had been sprayed with pesticides. She was just so sure our cattle were ingesting all types of toxins that would end up in the meat. I explained that one of the reasons we “genetically modify” grain is to make it insect and disease resistant so that we don’t have to spray chemicals on it. I also gave her a short economics lesson while I was at it. In laymen’s terms, a GMO produces more with less input, therefore making the product cost less. Keeping costs down on our end is what keeps costs down on the consumer’s end. People forget about that part. Point taken.
My town friend was so taken with the notions that are portrayed in “Food, Inc.” and Omnivore’s Dilemma. She thinks everyone should have chickens and “organic” vegetable gardens in their back yards. That’s great, if that’s what you like to do for fun. That’s awesome if you feed your family and have a little extra to give to all your neighbors and your friends. But is that really relevant to everyone’s living situation? No, it’s not. Let’s just be honest. Is that going to feed the world? No, it’s not.
The reason we try to feed out our calves to market weight within 18 months is because we’re doing just that, we’re feeding the world. We wouldn’t be getting anywhere if we waited on them to reach market weight on just grass. We’d be at least 2 if not 3 years out before we could feed anyone. If you want to go back to agriculture the way it was in the 1940s, be my guest, but if you think the world is starving now, consider what it would be like if we took a step backwards? And, not to mention the amount of money we would have to spend on importing food from other countries because we couldn’t meet our own demands. Don’t even think for a minute that food production around the world is regulated better than it is here. I’d much rather have pork raised on concrete from the U.S. than I would if it was raised on the dirt in some third world country living off of the trash and waste in the sewer ditches. Our food is as healthy and safe as it’s ever been. The whole idea of research and technology is progress. Who in the world thinks it’s a good idea to regress to old medical procedures, or maybe go back to using type- writers instead of computers?
I crunched some numbers to illustrate my point. Back in 1940, the world population was around 2.3 billion people. There were around 6 million farmers and ranchers in the U.S. and each one could feed 19 people a year. Fast forward to 2010. The world population is roughly 6,825,100,000 and there are around 5.7 million U.S. farmers and ranchers (that’s about 2% of the U.S. population). Thanks to our research and technology, a U.S. farmer can feed 155 people a year. Not to be arrogant, but the U.S. farmers and ranchers feed the world. And there are less of us to do it. In fact, there are 300,000 less farmers in 2010 to feed over three times what the population was back in 1940. Every year we are expected to provide more food at less cost to the consumer, with less land to use, with less input, and less waste. We meet the demand. We give the consumers what they ask for. She heard me loud and clear.
Setting aside all the statistics, producers love their animals and the lifestyle they provide despite some hardships. How many times have we had to cancel dinner on friends while we tend to a sick calf? How many times have we had to miss church to find a lost calf or cow? How many hours have we spent feeding orphan calves? And what about all those hours spent on the floor board of the truck or the kitchen floor trying to warm up and dry off a newborn calf in the middle of a Northeast Oklahoma blizzard? How many times have our neighbors missed their own children’s ball games, dance recitals, or piano lessons because they had to stay with a bloated cow? I’ve even ruined a nice J.Crew sweater (gasp!) to pull a calf when one of our first-calf heifers was having trouble. All of this to put quality food on your table. Where are the animal rights activists then? How many of them make sacrifices like that?
I don’t know that I completely won my town friend over, but I know I proved that what we do is ethical, humane, and practical. And it’s not just to turn a profit, either. If that was the case, we would have found an easier way to do it by now. My point is that we, as producers, need to make sure that we are the ones providing the general public with the CORRECT information they need to know about the food we supply to them. The average consumer is so detached from the origin of his/her food that it makes it very easy for anti-agriculture organizations to come in and offer these people their version of what animal agriculture is. I encourage producers to get involved in putting your story out there via social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs to share the information you want your consumers to know about your operation. Something as simple as a video of harvest or chore time at your farm/ranch is a great way for consumers to see your passion for what you do and where it all starts from pasture to plate.
Cow/Calf Operator and Farrier