Why farm livestock and not just crops?

I’ve been involved in the Twitter hashtag #farm365 for the past month. It was developed by a dairy farmer in Ontario that comitted to posting a photo on twitter every day in 2015. There has been a lot of debate under the hashtag between vegans and farmers. I am a livestock producer and I believe in raising livestock for human consumption.  My biggest frustration is when they say “Why don’t you simply quit farming livestock and switch over to crop production?” It’s just not that simple. Where would the cattle go? Do vegans really believe cattle that are left free would be better off?  Nature can be very unforgiving, between predators and extreme weather, nature isn’t all Disney woodland creatures and bright verdant pastures.

Biological systems are extremely complex and ending animal agriculture would not end animal suffering.  Every time we displace habitats whether it be for crop production or to meet the housing requirements for growing cities we affect animals.

Not all farmland can produce crops. Some land is too hilly, dry, or doesn’t get enough rainfall produce a grain crop. Most of this land though is suitable for grazing.Globally grasslands comprise 26% of total land area and 80% of agriculturally productive land. In Saskatchewan there is 33 million acres of cropland and 15 million acres of forages and grasslands. Grazing land is amazing. Grasslands capture carbon, provide habitats for wildlife and are pretty darn beautiful. When we manage our grazing lands properly, they are very productive for cattle/sheep/bison as well.

Grasslands near Maple Creek, SK

Grasslands near Maple Creek, SK

Crop production is a very important part of agriculture as well, no question. However, many times crops that are grown for food production don’t make the quality requirements and these crops are fed to livestock; 80% of the barley that grown for malting fails to meet the quality grades and up in livestock feed. Livestock and cattle in particular, are amazing. We take low quality ingredients; use them as animal feed to produce high quality protein products.  How else could one ever convert fiber heavy grass into protein rich beef? Amazing.

Simple Land Nutrient Cycle (Source: Agriculture Canada)

Simple Land Nutrient Cycle (Source: Agriculture Canada)

Did you know cow eat all sort so food byproducts?Here as a list of a few examples:

  • Distillers grains – leftovers from beer production or ethanol production for fuel
  • Potato chips  byproduct- broken, overbaked/underbaked
  • Beet Pulp – byproduct from sugar production
  • Bakers Waste- bread products that are past date etc.
  • Citrus byprodocuts – The extra pulp from your morning glass of orange juice
  • Canola Meal – left over product after pressing out the oil for consumption
  • Screenings pellets – Uses the leftover products from when grains are cleaned for human consumption

These products are not fit for human consumption but are valuable ingredients for livestock. The rumen in cattle and sheep is an amazing organ. Bacteria in it convert fiber in sugars and protein that cows can use for growth and milk production.  Using these fibrous and off quality ingredients in feed products allows the entire food production cycle more efficient and environmentally friendly, reducing the amount of waste in landfill.

Livestock Production Helps Crops. Manure is a valuable fertilizer for crop production and one of the ONLY options for organic crop producers to fertilizer their land. Livestock systems also increase diversity in crops and crop rotations. Planting nitrogen fixing legumes such as alfalfa in a crop rotation helps maintain soil fertility and is an excellent feeds source for ruminants. In many developing countries, livestock are still used for draft power as well.

interactions crop livestock herrero_0

Main interactions in crop-livestock systems

This is why we need balanced system. Crop and livestock production are complementary systems that have very complex interactions. We need both for a sustainable system.

It’s Baby Time!!!

Oh the cuteness of the fuzzy baby bull calf!

Oh the cuteness of the fuzzy baby bull calf!

On our farm our cows have their babies starting in February until April, give or take a few early birds and stragglers. So what does that mean?? How does it work?

Cows have babies once a year. We breed our cows to have their in February or so.  The cows are taken care of over winter in a pasture that is close to home and fed a diet that is formulated by my husband and myself (we are cattle nutritionists) to provide all the nutrients they need to for themselves and their babies. We also work closely with our herd veterinarian to make sure their vaccinations are all up to date. This makes for healthy babies and moms.

We manage our cattle so the first time mom gives birth a few weeks earlier than the rest of the herd. This gives us time to pay special attention to them, the barn is the cleanest so they have the lowest disease threat and it gives them more time to recover before breeding time in the spring/summer and more time for the babies to be at their side before the calves are weaned in the fall.

We move the cows into specific groups – first time moms, special attention groups and by how close to calving they are. As they get closer to having their calves, we move these cows up to our yard into pen and when they are very close into our covered shed and barn to calving. We are very careful when moving the cows, a fall for a pregnant mom could be disastrous.

We monitor our cows by video surveillance 24 hours a day to check on the cows. If a cow needs assistance in birthing, we bring her into our barn and will assist or have the veterinarian come for more complicated cases.

The cow in the front has just calved (baby between her front legs) and was moved into the barn shortly after this was taken.

The cow in the front has just calved (baby between her front legs) and was moved into the barn shortly after this was taken.

Once baby arrives, we put the cow and calf into a maternity pen. Calves generally stand up very soon after birth (within 10 minutes) and cows lick off the calves. Licking the calf actually dries the calf and stimulate them to get moving. We make sure the calf nurses from the mother as soon as possible. A cows first milk is called colostrum and it is rich in nutrients and immune stimulating compounds that help the calf fend off illness until its own immune system further develops.  Cows and caves stay in the barn for a day or two until they pass health checks and we confident they are bonded.

Baby Calf Incubator. It has a heater, fan and vents to warm up a calf quickly so he can be reunited with mama ASAP.

Baby Calf Incubator. It has a heater, fan and vents to warm up a calf quickly so he can be reunited with mama ASAP.

We also have an incubator in our barn in case a calf is born out in the extreme cold. Calves are warmed up and dried off in this unit for about an hour and reunited with their mothers as soon as possible.

Cows and calves in  open front shed.

Cows and calves in open front shed.

Afterward the pairs are put into pens where we have  shelters for the calves to rest away from the elements. After about a month or so, the calves are big enough to head back out to our pasture field where we have wind fences and bedding for shelter. And finally in May they head out to pasture for grazing.

I’m back! Here’s what the farm has been up to.

I’ve taken a long hiatus from blogging over the fall/winter. Why? New job, lots of farm work, too many excuses, but I’m looking forward to writing more this year.  So my fall in pictures to bring you up to speed 🙂

New Job! 

I got a sweet new job as an Awareness Specialist, so I spend a LOT of time working with Agvocate. Pretty sweet!

I got a sweet new job as an Awareness Specialist, so I spend a LOT of time working with Agvocate. Pretty sweet!

Harvest

This fall’s harvest was especially trying. We had 12 inches of rain in September alone! That’s more than we usually get in one summer. So it really tough to get the crops dry enough to harvest and a lot of our crops (and most other farmers) have higher levels of disease than normal. Thankfully we are farmers, so we are looking forward to a better year next year. Optimism in non-negotiable 🙂

 

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And we're off! #harvest14

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Fall Cattle Shows

My family spent a lot of time on the road showing and promoting our cattle in preparation a very big sale we had this year. And the Saskatchewanderer came back for another visit.

 

 

Our First Ever Female Sale

We took a leap and decided to sell half of our bred heifers for the first time. It was a lot of work and a wee bit risky to market 40+ animal in one sale, but we did it! It was a great experience and we fortunate to have a fantastic sale that exceeded our expectations.

Donation heifers

The ladies for sale.

 

We had a full house on Sale Day!

We had a full house on Sale Day!

 

We set up a scholarship in memory of my Sister In Law

My sister in law passed away after a brief battle with breast cancer in August 2013. To honor her memory, my family has set up a scholarship for Youth with a farm background pursuing science. We auctioned off one of the heifers at the sale and were blown away by the support of the cattle industry. Farmers are truly compassionate and caring people. We will be awarding the scholarship this spring/summer.

In memory of an amazing individual: Tanya.

In memory of an amazing individual: Tanya.

 

Babies& Bull Sale Prep, the Best Time of the Year!

That brings us to January – we are busy business planning, prepping for our annual bull sale and the cows are having babies. So much excitement and anticipation!

Oh the cuteness of the fuzzy baby bull calf!

Oh the cuteness of the fuzzy baby bull calf!

Yearling bull

One of our feature bulls all prettied up and ready for his photo shoot.

 

 

 

The Sadder Side of Farming

Some days farming is rough. This weekend was a portrait in frustration.

We have been waiting since May to have a tractor fixed.

2 months is a long delay!

2 months is a long delay!

It was fine for seeding and spraying to work the land and cattle without our big tractor, but we need this bad boy to get our silage off. The problem is it’s a less common brand of tractor and we have a heck of a time finding mechanics to fix it. We found one such mechanic but he took a month to come see the tractor. Then it has been 3 weeks waiting for parts…all the while our crop has matured and matured and matured to the point where we are pretty desperate to get going.

And then I ran over the family dog this weekend.

Sandy Dog

“Sandy Dog” as my kids called her.

Yep. I backed over our 14 year old, sweetest dog you can ever find. She didn’t die from the run over, she actually got up and walked away. Unfortunately though, she had a large mass in her mouth that wasn’t responding to our vet’s treatment, so it was time so say good-bye to our beloved Sandy.

And when, it rains it pours, we also euthanized one our horses; Graylie. She was a super well tempered girl but was lame in two legs and also not recovering. It sucks to put down a horse that is otherwise healthy. In terms of welfare, it was 100% the right thing to do, but it still felt very wrong.

So, yes I raise cattle for meat production, but no one on our farm enjoys death. We lost a couple of very dear members of the farm this weekend.

 

 

 

Beef Terminology 101

Image

So I get it. Cattle terminology can be a wee bit confusing. I put together a mini-dictionary of cattle terms. What cow terms do you want to know more about?

Calf– Baby cow

Cow– Momma cow

Bull– Male cow used for breeding

Heifer– Girl cow that hasn’t had a baby yet.

Steer– Castrated (Neutuered) male calf that will be grown for meat.

Dairy Cow– Type of cow used for milk product. Pretty much all the dairy cows in Canada are Holsteins – the black and white cows.

Beef Cow– breed of cow that is used for meat production.

Purebred Cattle– Cattle that are purebred and registered with their associated breed organization. Similar to pured dogs, horses etc. The cow in the picture above is purebred Red Angus Cow

Common Cattle BreedsThere are piles of different breeds, but the main breeds in Canada are Angus, Charolais, Hereford & Simmental.  Angus- Can be black or red. Charolais- Usually all white but can be tan to red.Hereford-They have a  white face and red body. Simmental – Black or Red can have a white face

Commercial cattle- Cattle that are cross bred usually a mix of 2-3 breeds. This gives the calves what is called “Hybrid Vigor” which makes them hardier. The tan colored calf in the picture above is a commercial calf, she’s half Angus, half Charolais.

Cow/Calf Producer– This if a farmer that has a herd of cows that producers calves. The calves stay with their mom’s all summer. They are weaned in the fall and then sent into the backgrounder lots.

Backgrounder Lot– A farm where calves are fed over the winter a diet that’s mostly hay/silage (ie. grass) before they are put on pasture again in the summer.

Finisher Feedlot- This is the final part of the beef cycle before the cattle are slaughtered. Cattle are feed for anywhere from 100-180 days on a diet that is a mix of silage, grain and supplement.

Silage- Grass that is harvested and fermented to be fed over the winter. In Canada we can’t keep the cattle on pasture year round due to snow, so we stock pile feed for the cattle over the winter.

Hay- Dried and baled grass. These are the green bales. Again, we harvest the grass and stockpile it to feed over the winter.

Straw- Dried and baled stalks from harvested grain. These are the yellow bales. This is used for bedding for the cattle. It’s a pretty neat part of the agriculture system where we used the grain from wheat or barley for human food and the left over stalk from the plant is used in the livestock industry, so we get the most use out of the land possible.

Supplement– Feed that is manufactured in mills to add to forages and grains. This commonly is a mineral/vitamin pack and a protein source that is a byproduct from another part of food production. Common supplement ingredients are canola meal (by product from canola oil extraction), wheat middlings (flour by products), distillers grains (malting by product)