Category Archives: Questions

How to lose an argument on food and agriculture topics

how to lose an argument in food and agriculture conversationsA few weeks back, I shared several lessons learned while sticking my neck out and engaging in discussions centered around food and agriculture topics. Today, I share a few lessons learned by failure; sometimes my own.

  1. Assuming science will give us all the answers; it only gives us some of the answers. Pick a topic, any topic. Chances are you can find “scientists” on either side of the issue. Many people in the general public do not trust science or believe it can be bought-off. Often times, questions may be more about the ethics than the science.
  2. Using economics as the justification for all of our practices. If you own a business or depend on something for your livelihood, chances are who know what makes sound economic sense. “Of course we treat our cows well or they wouldn’t produce for us,” probably doesn’t convey the right message to a non-farm consumer. Making more money and welfare of animals/environment doesn’t always go hand in hand.
  3. Assuming that you have to speak up in defense of all agricultural practices. Chances are you don’t have experience in all areas, you’ll get backed into a corner and lose all credibility. Also, not all practices are defensible. (Read more) Wait, why are we waiting to play defense?
  4. Being reactive rather than proactive. Be candid. If you know it’s a (possible) issue, be transparent now. Waiting until it meets your “trigger for action” means you’re already behind. (Read more)
  5. Assuming we can’t do better. There is always room for continual progress. Just because a practice was the best we knew how to do 10 years ago, does not make it the best available practice today. (Read more)
  6. Attacking everyone who disagrees with you in a negative, critical manner. Food is a personal issue to most folks. Many folks associate animals with their pets at home. These are emotional topics for everyone. If you get defensive and attack, you’re not contributing to productive dialogue. (Read more)
  7. Not being willing to listen because we are so busy responding. Communication is a two-way street. You have two ears and one mouth. Often times we need to stop and ask questions, listen, and hear what others are saying. (Read more)
  8. Assuming that the lunatic fringe is the general public. We spend way to much time focusing on lunatics and not working with the public. (Read more)
  9. Assuming that because someone disagrees with you they are stupid, evil or both. Good people can look at the same issue differently. Not everyone’s situation or circumstance is the same. There is more than one way of growing food and livestock. Respect that fact. (Read more)
  10. Not working to branch outside your comfort zone. Stop preaching to the choir. Engage in other conversations, seek out other perspectives. The more you learn about other perspectives, the more you’ll discover how much (or how little) you know about your own. (Read more)

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.” — Darwin

But sometimes, honestly, you just have to know how to lose gracefully. And then some will argue it’s possible to lose the argument, but win the cause.

Tips for approaching controversial subjects…

  • When possible, set the stage to avoid fear of retaliation from opposing viewpoints
  1. Listen respectfully, without interrupting
  2. Respect one another’s views
  3. Criticize ideas, not individuals
  4. Commit to learning, not debating
  5. Avoid blame and speculation
  6. Avoid inflammatory language
  • Consider your own biases or confusion surrounding the issue
  • Recognize the diversity of the group. This is an asset and can lead to authentic conversation
  • Set a framework and objectives for the discussion that lead to engagement and consideration of opposing viewpoints
  • When possible provide a foundation and context for better understanding
  • As a moderator, foster civility and prepare to deal with tense or emotional moments
  • At the end of the conversation summarize and reflect, then always leave the door open for follow-up conversations.

Read more tips for approaching controversial subjects in an earlier post.

#FoodForThought Where’s The Disconnect?

Thinking out loud here. Where’s the disconnect when it comes to food? I’ve said it many times in the past few years that most Americans are disconnected from agriculture and that we farmers, ranchers and those of us involved in agriculture need to advocate, share our stories, and work to fix that disconnect. That people need to get out and talk to a farmer to learn what actually happens on today’s farms and ranches and to learn more about where our food comes from.

But, now I want to turn the table and pose a different question. Why are farmers and ranchers and those of us involved in agriculture so disconnected from most Americans?

For example, take a millennial guy in an office in New York City. Is he disconnected from agriculture or is agriculture disconnected from him? #FoodForThought

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Calving Season – What works for your operation?

calving season

Everyone has a different calving season. Some have none at all. Some folks begin Spring calving in January, others wait until March or even May. Then you have Fall calving season that can begin in September or October. With so much difference, what’s the right answer for everyone? There isn’t one! And if someone tells you they know the calving season everyone should have, feel free to call B.S.

I  grew up on an operation when calving season for 1,200 head of cows ran February 15 to ~April 15th or May 1. By the time we got to the end of April, many of those cows would end up culling themselves as later breeders or open cows. I’ve turned out bulls in early January for Fall calving (for those of you still counting on your fingers, cows have a ~9 month gestation on average, similar to humans). I’ve also worked on operations where it was important that calves be old enough to trail out to mountain grazing pastures by the time forages were growing enough on BLM and USFS allotments.

Managing the breeding season of your cow herd, whether you have 12 or 1,200, is an important part to being able to manage the nutritional needs for your cowherd, managing those feed costs (which can be the majority of annual cow cost), and being able to market your calves or manage the replacements you retain. As simple of a choice as some may want it to be, there is no one-size-fits-all in this situation and I’ve seen a few individuals who wish to be opponents of the “status quo”, be pretty aggressive in their preaching and downcast those who dare to disagree with their opinions.

However, I can tell you that “Because we’ve always done it this way” is not a very well thought out response. Not saying that your current management is wrong, but it does deserve a little more consideration than that.

So what is the right calving season for you?

Where I grew up in Arkansas, it was important to have calves early enough so that cows could be rebred before summer heat and humidity took a huge toll on fertility and successful pregnancy rates. This meant having calves in February and having to deal with a handful of winter weather events during early calving. In Montana, many ranchers need their calves old enough to trail out to summer pastures due to a limited window for grazing season. These producers may also have to consider that grazing areas are far from facilities or access to roads should cows need assistance with calving. Then there are predators like cats, wolves, or bears to consider. You have farmers who have livestock along with crops and often these folks need to wrap up calving season before spring planting. Or you might have folks in areas/situations where weather and forage supply make every bit of sense to wait until May for calving. The point is, every situation is different.

So what are the factors to consider when planning a window for your calving season? Not in any particular order:

  • When is forage available to feed cows at the maximal nutrient requirement period (post calving to peak lactation)?
  • How does the environment influence accessibility of cow herd during calving when/if assistance is needed? How can that be managed?
  • How does calving window influence labor/facility costs?
  • Does weather/nutrient supply influence fertility and ability to have a successful breeding season?
  • When does the calf crop need to be marketed? (Is there an ability to retain and stocker calves to manage this marketing window despite calving season?)

These are just the start of several questions that can be asked when considering the calving season suitable for your operation. What addition questions can you add to this list? What calving season is right for your situation?

How are antibiotics used in cattle? What room is there for improvement?

“Who would want to eat beef, especially when you consider all the antibiotics and growth hormones used in raising the cattle.”

Actual comment that represents many online article comments.

General consumer sentiment on beef today? Yes or No?

Antibiotic Use in Livestock and Resistance
Image via: The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation

If so, what can we do to change this? And I’m not looking for the easy “Buy Local” or “Know Your Farmer” statements because 1) that’s an easy answer, 2) local food doesn’t always determine quality of farming/ranching practices, and 3) I firmly believe the use of antibiotics, hormones and other tools is mispercieved by the non-ag public.

This isn’t me denying that improvements in antibiotic or hormone use can be made, but honestly I’m kinda sick and tired of seeing all the negativity directed toward the livestock industries for this subject. To take a closer look at it, I spent much of my Christmas week at home working with my dad and we had a few conversations about antibiotic use in our family’s cattle auction. My dad does use antibiotics frequently in our yearling cattle that travel through the auction barn. It is a high-stress environment where many cattle arrive not weaned, are sometimes hauled in poor or cold/hot weather conditions, and are co-mingled with many other cattle while at the barn. When an animal comes in that has not been exposed to other animals, there’s not a whole lot we can do to keep those germs from spreading when other cattle come in contact with that animal or the pen it was in. It’s kind of like bringing a group of kids together for a kindergarten class.

My dad does spend a fair amount of time encouraging and trying to educate farmers in our market area on the importance of Best Management Practices to improve cattle immune system health – which include a sound vaccination program, proper nutrition and mineral supplement programs and low stress weaning strategies. But we cannot make those farmers implement those management practices, even when we do explain the economic advantages to better animal care. It’s their business and their management decisions.

Our business is not just a cattle auction. My dad turns cattle out on the several hundred acres of pastures we have leased in the area. He or people who he has hired, check on the cattle every single day, feeding them hay or feed as needed, and making sure they are healthy. The cattle will remain on pasture until they are at a weight large enough to send out West to the feedlots where they will be fed to a finish weight for slaughter.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the cattle my dad receives have endured stressful conditions, whether it be from weaning, transport in poor weather conditions, or co-mingling with new cattle. When this is the case, he may utilize an antibiotic treatment in a metaphylactic method – meaning animals in a group designated as high-risk for getting sick or experiencing an illness outbreak will receive a proper dose of an antibiotic as prescribed by the veterinarian who my dad talks to on a regular basis. This is not unlike the program I followed when working at the feedlots in Texas.

Giving these animals, who have been identified as high-risk for getting sick, a proactive treatment, eliminates the need for most antibiotic treatments in the weeks following. That significantly reduces the number of cattle that get sick later, which reduces the overall amount of antibiotics my dad must use on his cattle. The cattle recover more quickly from the previous stresses and get off to a healthier and better start in the next phase of their life. This reduces the amount of time my dad must spend handling the cattle and allows him to do more taking care of the other cattle, land, and help others do the same.

What would happen if the use of metaphylactic antibiotic treatment was removed from my dad’s farming operation? He might have to adjust his management style to reduce more stress on the animals, but he only has limited control on what happens to the cattle prior to receiving them from other farmers. He would likely have more cattle become chronically sick and die by not being able to proactively manage illness in the cattle he receives. We also need more cattle owners to understand the importance of and implement BMPs to reduce the stress on animals or to ensure they have a strong immune system.

Are there ways other than metaphylactic antibiotics to manage illness my dad’s cattle? Yes. But he uses far less antibiotics than what is perceived in the sentiment described at the top of this post. We all need to make adjustments in our management tools to continue being progressive, but we need to be sure and look at the larger picture and find out the reality of what actually happens before we start pointing fingers. Antibiotic usage can be reduced in livestock operations, but we do not need to let the pendulum swing too far to the other side due to strong emotions and fear marketing from journalists.

(And yes, this is a very simplistic view of the topic. But it is just one perspective in a much larger conversation)

To learn more about the use of antibiotics in livestock and the effect on meat safety, check out these links:


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