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Sunday February 18, 2018

Why put cattle in feedlots?

Of the more than 33 million calves U.S. farmers will raise this year, three out of four will eventually end up in fenced pens or feedlots, where they will be fed rations of grain and crop surpluses that average from 70 percent to 90 percent grain. Three-fourths of those animals will be fed on feedlots that sell 5,000 or more animals in a year. Why do farmers crowd beef cattle into these large feedlots, rather than just leaving them to graze?

The concept of taking a beef calf weighing from 500 to 700 pounds off pasture and putting it into a confined pen to add weight dates back to colonial New England, by some accounts. But what we know today as the feedlot system began in earnest just before the Civil War, when cottonseed-mill owners of the South discovered they could use their waste meal and hulls as cattle feed rather than simply dump it. Coupled with improved transportation and steady supplies of cattle, by the end of the Great Depression, large commercial cattle-feeding operations were common throughout the Great Plains. Meanwhile, by the early 1900s, smaller Midwest farmers were beginning to buy calves and year-old beef cattle in the fall, once the grass was no longer good for grazing, and "wintering them" on stored corn silage. As researchers began to discover the value of corn for improving the efficiency and quality of beef cattle by the 1950s, those farmers began using cattle feeding as a method to add value to their corn, moving corn-king Iowa to top the list as the nation's largest cattle feeder. Once large-scale irrigated corn production began to shift the heart of corn country south and west from Iowa, Texas eventually took over that distinction. Eventually, the packing plants followed the ready cattle supply. Today, 85 percent of fed cattle come from either Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado or Nebraska.

As important as the availabity of cheap feed is to the development of feedlots as the standard, it's important not to underestimate the impact of another unappreciated factor: consumer demand. By using confined feeding to bring calves to market at a younger age, standardize and control their diets, and group cattle by type and size, the quality of beef improved as well as the predictably of that quality. Those demand factors can't be under-stated in the importance of concentrating beef feeding into the system we consider the norm today.

Today, most U.S. cattle are  raised on range or pasture land for most of their lives and then transported to a feedlot for finishing at anywhere from 6- to 18-months old. There, they typically spend about three to six months on feed, growing between 2.5 and 4 pounds per day on specially made feed rations customized to their age, body type, breed and climate. That feed is delivered on a set schedule--usually twice daily--by trucks that present it in long concrete feeders, or "bunks." That kind of control over feed and feeding, the most expensive fraction of the total cost of raising beef, is simply not attainable when cattle are roaming on open ground.

In addition, because they are contained within a space of only about 125 to 250 square feet per animal, the cattle can be more closely monitored daily by professional cowboys, known as "pen riders," who are trained and experienced in the science and art of spotting animals that may be getting sick or are not eating sufficiently. Those animals can be quickly moved to "hospital pens" if needed, where they can be medicated and given special rations to encourage their return to health.

Many of the cattle fed in large commercial feedlots are still owned by the ranchers who run the ranch on which they were originally born. Like a hotel for cattle, the commercial feedlot cares for and feeds the rancher's "retained ownership" cattle, in return for a fee for the feed, medicine and a daily "yardage" fee. The feedlot then typically arranges for sale or delivery of the cattle to a beef packer based on the packer's needs and the quality level of the cattle.

Grouping the cattle into pens for finishing permits a degree of predictable growth and production that is reflected in the relatively cheaper price grain-finished costs compared to pasture-finished beef. If grocers were forced to rely on a completely pasture-based finishing system, as some advocate, the beef meatcase as we know it would be extinct.

Why do farmers do that?

Q Yet another "undercover" farm video shot by a group with politically motivated animal-rights concerns has hit the Internet and news media. Created to gin up public outrage against farmers and food suppliers, it once again is not only likely to cause your shoppers to have questions about why farmers do what they do, but also illustrates the reality that what they see in those sensationalized videos is not always as it seems. Case in point: Why are the dairy workers in this video “forcing” sick cows to stand, as the video claims. Why would any humane farmer do that?

A The inexcusable beating of the cattle by some of the workers on the video aside, what consumers are seeing in the case of the heavy equipment hoisting cattle off the ground is likely actually a good-faith attempt to save the lives of these “downer cows.” Downer cows are animals that for one reason or another—most typically either a temporary, short-term nutritional imbalance, a foot or leg injury, or weakness or nerve damage related to giving birth—has caused them to lie down and refuse to get back up. Survey data from USDA have estimated that just over 1 percent of mature dairy cows face this condition. Other estimates have put that number as high as 2.5 percent of cows.

But what the average viewer may not understand is that, in contrast to humans who are comforted by lying down, such inability to get up is often not only uncomfortable to the large cow that's evolved to live its life on its feet, it is actually dangerous. Left unchecked, it can actually make their chances of recovering from what could be a simple condition worse, leading to unnecessary death. The longer cattle remain down and not walking, the more muscle and nerve damage occurs, damage that decreases their likelihood of ever recovering. Research has suggested a farmer or vet has a threshold of only about three to six hours to get a downer back on its feet. Therefore, dairy farmers who understand the issue always treat cattle that can’t rise as medical emergencies.

Seen in that light, the use of heavy equipment like a forklift or front-end loader, as the dairy worker in the activist video does, is less about being cruel to the animal than it is about responding to that emergency. In most cases, the lift appears to be used properly: Either lifting the animal just high enough for it to bring its front feet underneath it for support, or using it to move the animal a short distance to a trailer without dragging it along the ground--a practice that would be considered cruelly unacceptable.

“No method of moving or handling downers is fast and simple, yet getting them up off the ground quickly gives their best chance of survival,” California veterinary professor John Madigan, a specialist in animal emergy response and rescue equipment, has said in the past.

Faced with coaxing to its feet an animal weighing on average three-quarters of a ton, farmers usually have little recourse than to lift them. In the case of the activist video, the worker is using a set of hip clamps or Bagshaw hoists, equipment made specifically to do exactly what’s being done. Although, in fairness, there is some argument, particularly between U.S. veterinarians and European veterinarians, whether the use of such hips lifts are the best tool, they are still a common means to get downed animals back on their feet as quickly and efficiently as possible in U.S. dairies. And despite the video narrator’s contention the animals are being loaded in a trailer “to be killed offsite,” it’s just as likely they are being moved to more hospitable housing where they can be tended to.

Some data on modern egg-producing farms

"Industrial animal agriculture," writes world-famous agriculture critic Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, "depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert your eyes on the part of everyone else. From everything I’ve read, egg and hog operations are the worst."

But how accurate are accounts like Pollan's that paint egg farms as corporate-run factories that sicken and kill birds without regard to their well-being? USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System just released the first in a series of reports to come about the health and management practices of the nation's table-egg farms. The agency surveyed poultry farms from the 19 states that account for more than three-fourths of all U.S. egg farms with 3,200 or more layers and nearly nine out of 10 of the largest farms. Some of the findings include:

Ownership and control. Although more than half the farms in the western United States are now completely owned by vertically integrated egg companies, the majority of farms in the other regions--including the Central region which includes Nebraska--are "contract farms." Contract farms remain owned by the farmer, although the birds may be owned by a company, or eggs may be sold on contract to a company that does the marketing.


Who owns the egg farms?


Productivity. Overall, about three out of every 10 farms produced 90 or more eggs for every 100 hens each day.  A lower percentage of the largest farms--those managing 100,000 or more laying hends--produced at that high level compared with small farms--those with less than 30,000 hens, and medium farms--those with between 30,000 and 100,000 hens.


Who owns the egg farms?


Hen housing. High-visibility controversy notwithstanding about the need for "enriched" hen housing, or housing that gives hens access to the ability to roost and scratch, no farms in the Central region report using that type housing. At the same time, more than half of all farms in the Central region reported some use of cage-free housing. For the country as a whole, 27.6 percent of farms had at least one cage-free (certified organic) house, and 12.6 percent of houses were cage-free (certified organic).


Who owns the egg farms?


Health status. USDA's study points out the reality regarding one widespread misconception about poultry farms: Hens on the largest are not necessarily less healthy than birds on smaller farms. Smaller farms and largers farms shared nearly equal rates of some of the most common health problems hens experience. Meanwhile, hens on the smallest farms experienced higher levels of parasitism.


Who owns the egg farms?


Deathloss. The rate of loss to death didn't vary significantly among size groups, USDA reported, even though a lower percentage of small farms than large farms administered antibiotics to birds in order to either treat disease, prevent disease, or improve the productivity of hens.

Who owns the egg farms?


Why do farmers do that?

Q Why do farmers just leave their corn to whither and die in the fields? Shouldn't they be harvesting it while it's still green and lush?

A Of the corn your consumers see as they drive the state’s highways, roughly 99.3 percent of it is not the sweet corn they’re familiar with from your produce section, but the “yellow dent corn” used in livestock feed, processed foods and ethanol. That distinction is important because unlike sweet corn, which is harvested while the corn stalk is still green and the corn is immature and juicy, yellow corn is harvested only after the kernel has dried and hardened to a starchy stage. What appears to the average consumer as dead standing cornstalks in the field are actually considered mature, harvest-ready stalks by the farmer.

Yellow corn actually reaches that physiologically mature stage weeks before harvest begins. However, because much of the billions of bushels of corn American farmers grow is stored for months to years before it’s sold or used, it usually must be dried in order to prevent spoiling while in storage. Corn can be reliably stored at about 15 percent moisture without suffering quality losses. Corn standing in the field in mid to late September is typically about 35 percent moisture. So, farmers must dry that corn before storing it.

They have generally one of two ways to do that drying: One, they can use grain dryers that are in effect huge fans that heat air using propane and blow it through the grain one large batch at a time, drying the corn much as a blow dryer dries your hair. Or, they can let Mother Nature dry it for them—depending on weather conditions—by leaving it standing in the field for several weeks to months after it reaches maturity.

Typically, farmers use some combination of those two methods to dry corn before storage, and, as with many farming practices, it’s often a delicate balancing act that’s refined through years of experience and much research. Naturally, it’s in the farmer’s best interest to leave the corn standing in the field as long as possible, to take advantage of the natural drying and save on costly propane. However, it can be a huge gamble that risks an entire year’s crop. As the corn kernels are drying, so is the stalk that holds those ears of corn. As they dry, they become brittle. That brittleness brings the potential for valuable ears to fall to the ground, where they can no longer be practically picked up by today’s modern harvesting equipment, and thus go to waste. Fall and early winter winds also pose a risk to a standing field of corn, as does sudden rain and snow that prevents the heavy equipment from being able to get into the field.

So, farmers use a number of tools to help even out the demands for drying time, including different seed varieties that dry at different rates, different marketing tools that allow differing levels of moisture, and different combinations of artificial drying, natural drying and storage options—all based on the anticipated weather conditions for the season. Hitting the “sweet spot” is a good example of how, despite all its science, profitable farming remains an art form, as well.

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.


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The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

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The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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