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.