FOOD TECHNOLOGY

Translating Food Technology

Translating Food Technology: Why Do Farmers Do That? Feeding corn to cattle

Why farmers feed corn to cattle

"On feedlots, beef cows often suffer from severe digestive disorders caused by the unnatural diet they are forced to consume," contends the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"We put them in pens, called backgrounding pens, and we teach them how to eat something that they are not evolved to eat, which is grain, and mostly corn," says Berkeley journalism professor turned food critic Michael Pollan.

If cattle evolved to forage freely for grass, why do today's farmers feed them corn and other grains?

First, let's straighten out a couple of points:

  1. Virtually all U.S. beef cattle, with the exception of veal calves, eat grass for a portion--in fact, most--of their lives. So even "grain-fed" cattle are mostly grass-fed over the majority of their lives.
  2. Even when those cattle arrive at a confined feedlot, where they are then "put on feed" in order to prepare them to become beef, that diet is never just grain. Depending on the cattle and the stage of their production, it is a careful mix of not just corn or other grains like milo or wheat, but also forage-based ingredients like chopped young corn plants (silage), hay, or hulls of oil-seed plants like soybeans, cottonseed and others. Those forage portions, which would be similar to fiber in the human diet, approximate the "natural" forages (or grass) that critics like Pollan claim cattle are no longer provided. They generally will make up anywhere from under 10 percent to one-fourth of the diet.

As to why farmers use grain in the diet, adding grain is an economical tool to increase the energy level in the animal's diet, which is important for it to not only grow rapidly, but also to add the all-important fat marbling within the meat, which gives it the flavor and tenderness profile American consumers come to expect. Just like people, cattle basically need two general nutrients to grow and grow well: protein and energy.

  • Protein is generally created in the calf's pre-stomach known as the rumen, where it has the unique ability to break down fibrous plant material into raw materials that can then be converted into protein.
  • And althought the rumen is also capable of converting that fibrous plant material into energy, as well, the system is much less efficient at doing so than it is in getting energy from starchy feedstuffs like grain. Extracting energy from grains is a much more biologically efficient process than extracting it from forage during rumen digestion, which in turn makes the animal more efficient in growing, gaining weight or reproducing. Efficiency in production equals lower cost of production, which translates to lower costs for consumers at the meatcase. Only when the starch content of the diet becomes too high do cattle have problems, a problem feedlot nutritionists are trained to watch for and remedy by increasing the level of forage.

Have a question about why farmers do that? Use the comment section to ask.

Translating Food Technology: Organic marketing takes a beating. Are you next?

Can the flaws of organic marketing behind painted over?

A newly released blistering indictment of organic marketing may be a wake-up call to grocers about the risks of promoting the healthfulness of such claims

A new report released in late April accuses the organic-food industry of building its 3,400-percent increase in sales over the last quarter century only by using deceptive marketing practices, a deception that involved the willing participation of the U.S. government through its U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 16-page research review commissioned by "Academics Review," a non-profit association of academic professors, researchers, teachers and credentialed authors from around the world "committed to the unsurpassed value of the peer review in establishing sound science in food and agriculture," according to the group's description, studied more than 150 existing scientific sources to evaluate the organic industry's health claims--both those actively expressed and those only assumed by consumers but permitted to stand by marketers. And the results are not pretty for anyone offering up the organic experience to shoppers.

"Our review," the authors write, "suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and advocacy related practices with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed USDA Organic Seal."

"This review of published research, documented organic and natural produce industry practices, and advocacy collaborations shows widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities, both transparent and covert, disparaging competing conventional foods and agriculture practices." Those concerted efforts between product marketers and "independent" nongovernmental organizations advocating for organics, the Review article said, "...have contributed to false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions influencing food purchase decisions [which have]...generated hundreds of billions in revenues."

"Our review of the top 50 organic food marketers finds these practices to be pervasive throughout the industry and not simply by a few bad actors. This disparagement marketing via absence claims with direct and implied health risk allegations is found on food packaging and labeling claims, in-store marketing displays, online campaigns, media relations, and extensive advertising in print, radio and television. Additionally, research reveals that anti-GMO and anti-pesticide advocacy groups promoting organic alternatives have combined annual budgets exceeding $2.5 billion annually and that organic industry funders are found among the major donors to these groups."

Blindly following organic food companies into that shaky marketing scheme risks the grocer's reputation when studies like the Academics Review article reveal health claims to be questionable. Organics-industry critic Mischa Popoff, author of Is it Organic? a critical dissection of not only the business behind today's organics industry but also its not-so-attracive ideology, believes retailers may be especially vulnerable to the "cunning deception" of organic marketing.

"As the final 'entity' in the food chain just before the consumer, retailers should know they are the ones with everything on the line if the whole organic industry turned out to be a house of cards," Popoff, a former organic inspector who wrote Is it Organic? to expose the continual "cheating" he witnessed throughout the certification process, told Farmer Goes to Market. "And if they were paying attention, they could plainly see that without any testing, organic certification is indeed a house of cards."

But rather than join in and "beef up" the organic certification process, he argues, retailers have simply tried to take themselves out of that potential line of fire by positioning themselves as innocent bystanders in what he believes is a failed system.

"For years," he says, "I’ve wondered why every single entity in the organic food chain is required to be inspected and certified under the USDA National Organic Program. No exeptions! Everyone from the farmer, to the broker, through processing and packaging--even the truckers, for God’s sake; they all have to certified."

"Everyone, except for the retailer."

"A handful of organic retailers who became 'voluntarily certified' aside, retailers in the organic biz for the most part clearly took themselves out of the whole rigmarole of being certified precisely so they could claim they’re 'only the merchandiser,' and hence wash their hands of all responsibility. It’s kind of like when politicians pass laws on ethical behavior, but exempt themselves."

Popoff believes it's dangerous ground to be standing on as the claims about organic grow more and more questionable. Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness claims of organic.

What's your opinion? Use the comments section to let your fellow grocers know what you think about this contentious issue.

Translating Food Technology: Why Do Farmers Do That? Annual tilling and re-tilling the soil

Why do farmers plow the soil year after year

"Soil erosion is second only to population growth as the biggest environmental problem the world faces," Cornell professor David Pimentel once told the media. Although many factors contribute to the resulting loss of soil necessary to grow food, one of the most controllable is the tillage practices of farmers on that land. So why do farmers till the same fields year after year?

For nearly as long as civilized man has grown rather than gathered crops, he has tilled the soil for those crops prior to planting. Today's farmers continue that practice, for several reasons:

  • To improve the bed for seed to be deposited. Most soils in this part of the world naturally compact, settle or crust over, so tilling helps break up the soil structure, allowing water to soak in and air to penetrate, which prepares the soil to better nurture the seed once it's planted.
  • To reduce the number of weeds. Turning existing weed plants under by tilling kills them without resorting to chemical weed controls, and has been the most common method of weed control for millenia. Unlike in your lawn, effective weed control isn't just a question of attractiveness; actively growing weeds compete for water and sunlight with crops and can easily overwhelm them, leaving ground less productive.
  • To incorporate fertilizer, weed killer and manure. Tilling mixes those nutrients provided by fertilizer and manure and the chemical carried in weed killers so they get beneath the surface of the soil and into the "root zone," where they do the most good. Incorporating those elements also helps prevent a heavy rain from washing them off the surface of the soil and into streams and lakes, where they can cause a pollution problem.
  • To create beds, furrows and other specific surface configurations needed to accept the plants. Planting crops in orderly arrangements helps make other productivity-enhancing practices like weeding, irrigating, covering and harvesting possible.
  • To control insects and other pests. Turning over the soil to either bury and smother pests like weed seeds or, conversely, to expose them to the surface where birds and weather can destroy them contributes to natural control of those pests that can rob fields of productivity by competing with or parasiticizing crops.

Tillage can occur anytime between harvest of the previous year's crop and spring planting. In the Corn Belt, most tillage is usually done between March and May for corn, and can be as late as early June for soybeans. Tillage is often done in the fall, after harvest, as well, either to conserve soil moisture, to take advantage of natural cycles of weeds and insects, to better use farm labor or any combination of those. The best time to till to protect the soil from erosion is immediately before planting, although wet spring weather doesn't always permit.

In recognition of some of the problems traditional soil tillage may cause--not the least of which being it is the second most energy-hogging direct practice a crop farmer engages in (surpassed only by drying grain after fall)--more and more U.S. farmers have moved from conventional tillage to so-called conservation tillage systems. Conservative tillage includes several types of revised tillage, such as "no-till" "minimum till" "ridge till" "chisel plow" and "mulch till," all of which aim to preserve some amount of the plant material from the previous season's harvest on the surface of the soil, where it works as a natural blanket to help protect the soil from erosion caused by rain and wind. Conservation tillage is basically any system that keeps at least 30 percent of the crop residue on the soil surface at the time of planting. USDA estimates that for crop year 2009, more than one-third of acres representing the vast majority of the nation's cropland had now moved to no tilling operations prior to planting. Almost half of all soybean acres and almost 30 percent of corn acres were planted with no-till in that year.

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Translating Food Technology: Why Do Farmers Do That? 'Processing' baby pigs

Why do farmers do that to baby pigs?

Several "undercover" animal-rights videos have now shown farmers appearing to mutilate baby pigs in large farms. Why do pig farmers do that to newborn pigs?

Almost all pigs raised in this country, whether in large barns or in small houses on outside lots, undergo what is commonly called "processing," usually within a week of being born. In most cases, that involves these practices:

Teeth clipping: Although not as common as it used to be, many pig farmers still routinely clip the tips off the piglet’s eight eye teeth, often appropriately referred to as “needle” teeth. Because piglets often are born into litters composed of eight, 10 and even 12 siblings, competition for space at the mother pig’s udder can be fierce. That competition often leads to fighting that can cause injury not only to the snout and face of fellow littermates, but to the sensitive teats of the mother—which can leave her reluctant to nurse, eventually depriving the young pigs of needed milk. By using either sharp sidecutters or an abrasive grinding tool, farmers remove the sharp end of the tooth to dull them and prevent their use to hurt other pigs.

Ear notching: Ear notching uses a system of shallow notches in the skin of the ear to permanently and inexpensively number baby piglets so they can be inventoried and tracked throughout their lives. Farmers typically remove one of more notches about a one-quarter-inch deep on both ears, which corresponds to a unique number for the pig and its litter, based on where the notch lies on the ear. Although little formal research has been done to try to quantify the amount of pain and distress the practice causes, farmers have traditionally compared it to ear piercing for a young girl—it does cause brief pain, which is apparent from piglets shaking their heads for several minutes after the procedure, but any longterm suffering is likely insignificant.

Tail docking: For reasons animal scientists still don’t quite understand, older pigs will occasionally fall into the vice of biting the tails of their pen-mates. If it becomes excessive enough to cause an open wound to the tail of the bitten pig, it can then escalate into a destructive “feeding frenzy” in which most or all pigs in the pen are attracted to repeat the habit. In severe cases, it can lead to infections, spinal abscess, paralysis and even death among the victimized pigs. So a common practice to help prevent tailbiting is to dock the tail while the baby pig is young--much as the tails of some breeds of young dogs are docked. Is it painful? Again, common sense would suggest it probably is, but researchers aren’t certain as to the degree. The entire tail does have developed nerves, even in the youngest pig, so it's apparent some pain may be felt. Docked piglets can be seen wagging the tail stump or clamping it between their back legs for a few moments afterward, which scientists believe does indicate a pain response. However, most pigs return to normal feeding almost immediately after the procedure, which farmers take to indicate as the best sign it causes no longterm consequence.

Castration: Almost all pork farmers carry out the longstanding practice of surgically removing the testicles of male pigs to prevent the tainting of pork with foul odors and off flavors, as well as to reduce aggressiveness of older boars. The vast majority still do it by cutting open the scrotum and cutting or pulling out the testes--without anaesthesia. Until fairly recently, it was assumed by farmers that young animals did not have as highly developed nervous systems as older animals, so they felt less pain when the process is done at a young age--the same rationale for circumsicing young boys without anasthesia. As with the other practices, some are now questioning that assumption. However, most farmers still concur in the belief that castrating before weaning causes much less stress than waiting until pigs are older, and the behavioral indications--eating, returning to interacting with the group, ceasing to squeal immediately after they're returned to the security of their mother and littermates--all indicate little or no long-term suffering.

Each of these common procedures can be performed in a matter of minutes--even seconds--by a farm-hand experienced in husbandry. What may look to the untrained eye as a flurry of knives, pliers and needles punctuated by screams of "terror" is a well-orchestrated execution of necessary procedures that, although they may cause short-term pain or distress to the confused piglet, benefit the animal over the long term.

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Translating Food Technology: Global Ag Productivity May Be on the Ebb, Nebraska Study Warns

Is agricultural productivity maxing out?

New University of Nebraska report suggests productivity gains will come more slowly than often predicted

We often hear the comment repeated that the food system will need to double its food output by the middle of this century to keep up with world demand. Are we up to it? Newly published research by University of Nebraska crop scientists raises a grim warning. They suggest the fields across the world in which almost a third of the rice, wheat and corn is raised have likely either peaked in their productivity or may actually be declining.

“Previous projections of food security are often more optimistic than what historical yield trends would support,” the researchers, Nebraska Agronomists Patricio Grassini and Kent Eskridge, write in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Many of those projections of farm productivity in the future assume the rates of gain in crop yields will compound, rather than simply grow in a straight line. But history doesn’t bear that assumption out, they believe. They challenged the assumption by testing six statistical models that are widely used in the economics literature for describing trends in crop yields over time. Using their framework to characterize past yield trends, the Nebraska researchers argue that straight-line increases are much more likely. Therefore, even though production can be expected to continue to increase, the relative rate of increase will slow over time, leaving production far below the levels the more optimistic compounded predictions suggest.

In fact, they believe, good evidence suggests crop yields have already either leveled off or actually fallen in some of the world’s major cereal-producing regions. Although their study did not specifically take on the task of predicting why those plateaus have happened, they suggest any farm will naturally face a productivity wall at some point due to limits of biology unique to the region, climate and crop.

“As farmers’ yields move up towards the yield potential threshold, it becomes more difficult to sustain further yield gain because it requires fine tuning of many different facets of management in the production system,” they write. “Such fine tuning is often difficult to achieve in farmer’s fields, and the associated marginal costs, labor requirements, risks and environmental impacts may outweigh the benefits.”

They believe that situation is now happening in the high-yield cropping systems for rice in China, Korea and Japan; wheat in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and India; and corn in Italy and France. Other factors could also be at work, they suggest, including changes in weather cycles, land degradation, a shift in where crops are produced to regions with poorer soils and climate, policies that restrict the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and reduced or poorly targeted investment in agricultural research and development.

For example, they say, ag R&D in China increased by three times from 1981 to 2000, but the rates of increase in crop yields there remained constant for wheat, actually fell relatively by 64 percent for corn and has been only negligible for rice. Similarly, in the United States, despite a 58 percent increase in both public and private investment in agricultural R&D in the United States for the same time period, the rate of increase for corn yields has only been linear, not compounded.

The overall implication? In order to keep up with expected increased demand, future grain production will require large increases in average crop yields in countries where current yield gaps are large—the countries that have the poorest access to technology, infrastructure and capital required for agricultural development. At the same time, continuing to improve the rate of gain on farms in developed nations will require adoption of technology that wrings even more productivity out of existing land, water and fertilizer. Such technology is often under attack today by opponents of modern, high-technology agriculture in the guise of such marketing schemes as "GMO-free," "natural," "antibiotic- and hormone-free" and even organic.

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