When it comes to food, I want to be well informed. And I don’t want to buy food that could harm the health of my family. Like most concerned parents, I have researched the differences between organic and conventional food to help figure out what is the best food. Recently, I decided that research alone was not going to get me the answers that I longed for. I wanted to meet the people responsible for growing our food.
Enter Illinois Farm Families, an organization committed to introducing urban moms to the people responsible for growing our food. Four times a year, Illinois farm families invite a group of “Field Moms” to visit their farms, take pictures, and in my case, ask questions about farming.
Last month, we visited the Larson Family Farms, which specializes in cattle management or “finishing.” I learned that most cattle are raised on range or pasture land for at least a year. They are then transported to a feedlot where the animals are fed a grain ration. As I had never been to this type of farm, I came armed with a host of questions and got some great answers:
- Why are most cattle in the US grain fed instead of field or grass fed?
Michael Martz, head livestock operator, explained that grain-fed beef tastes better than grass-fed. In fact, most Americans prefer the tenderness and a rich flavor of grain-fed beef. Economics also plays a huge role in a rancher deciding how to finish the cattle. Right now, there is an abundance of feed corn in the United States. Thus the cost of turning it into grain is minimal. Also, it takes longer for an animal to reach market weight if they are grass-fed. Therefore the cost of finishing grass-fed cattle is much higher.
- Why are cattle given antibiotics and hormones?
Antibiotics are used for disease management: both to prevent disease and to treat it. The human GI tract naturally produces antibiotics every day. After all, an antibiotic is a natural bacterial self-defense mechanism. We need to differentiate between an antibiotic and a probiotic. Antibiotics are “bad” because they kill bacteria and probiotics are “good” because they favor certain bacteria. Both are needed by animals (including humans) to stay healthy.
Mike told me that when an animal is ill and requires medication, it is removed from the herd (to prevent disease from spreading,) treated and cannot be sold for processing for a specific amount of time (the medication must pass through the animal’s system.) The FDA has strict guidelines regarding both milk and meat withdrawal after treatment of any medicine. Milk and meat are both extensively tested to ensure guidelines are followed. Violators lose their ability to sell milk or meat. One need only look on the FDA website to see a list of violators. Clearly, this is not a list on which any livestock producer wants his name associated.
Mike answered specific questions about how added hormones aid in processing the meat. He noted that 98 percent of cattle are given “growth promoting” products that contain hormones like estrogen, which is naturally occurring and found in both plants and animals. In fact, these hormones are produced by the human body in amounts hundreds of thousands of times greater than that used for growth promotion in cattle.
- Are antibiotics administered to animals that aren’t sick? Many proponents of organic farming state that they are to promote growth and food absorption. Is that accurate? How do antibiotics help? Or are they only given to animals that are sick?
Yes, sometimes antibiotics are administered to improve overall well being or to make the production system more efficient. Farmers are committed to having healthy animals. After all, for Mike Martz, a livestock operator, healthy cows are at the heart of his family’s business. Animals in confinement are well treated because their health is an economic advantage to the owner.
- Let’s talk manure. There’s a lot of it. You can’t possibly be using it all on your fields. So, where does it go?
The Larson Family Farm is a great example of effective recycling through farming. Manure is typically applied to the fields, absorbed by the soil and then used to grow a crop. The crop is sold for processing, and the cows eat the feed, make manure and then the manure spread on field to grow feed and the process continues. Of course, with large feedlots, like the Larson’s farm, there is always some concern about the over-abundance of manure. Interestingly, state regulations and soil nutrient levels define even the over-application. These levels are actually well-regulated.
Over the past few weeks, I have given the cattle processing tour some thoughts. I have learned a number of terms like CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,) Smart Stacks and test weight. I have spoken with the “organic” farmers about why they chose to farm using organic methods. And, of course, I have spent plenty of time speaking with those who successfully farm more conventionally. Despite what many proponents in the organic food industry have declared, neither farming technique has been proven more superior.
Now, after spending so much time considering questions about food production, I feel that I have actually gone full circle in my opinions about what is the best food to buy for my family. Sure, I am better informed about where my food comes from and how it is grown, but I don’t think that my purchasing decisions have changed: I am going to buy both “organic” and “gmo-based” food. Why will I buy organic food? To be honest, because it makes me “feel better.”
There I said it. But I also know that just because I am willing to buy organic and support my local farmer does not necessarily mean that I am helping society and the world (i.e. the environment) be a better place. If my organic food is coming from 2000 miles away, for instance, then I haven’t helped the environment. To be a conscientious consumer, it is important to consider and support growing methods that will continue to efficiently feed the rapidly growing global population. It is myopic to simply concentrate on the wants and needs of the local community when there is so much want in the world. I guess it really is time to “Think Locally and Act Globally” to make sure that everyone, not just my family, has access to good food. And that makes me feel even better.