Growing up a rich rancher’s kid…

I recently attended the AgChat Conference in Austin, TX and had the privilege to be on a panel with two other persons, a mom who is food writer and a local chef/restaurant owner. Then there was me, a life-long agriculturalist. While our experiences, views, and beliefs differed, I left feeling like at the end of the day we might all agree on the following message: Agriculture is important, no matter who you are or what you do – it is essential for survival!

One of the talking points that came up during the panel was a rich farmer versus a poor farmer and where the line is drawn. I have been thinking about this for several days now and I wanted to get my thoughts out.

AgChat panel. Photo source:


Growing up on a ranch we had access to horses, 4-wheelers, irrigation ditches to swim and play in, fishing holes, goose and duck hunting hot spots, and acres to learn to drive manual vehicles and ranch equipment on – it was essentially a 300-acre playground! We raised 4-H animals, our own food, sewed our own clothes, and could hunt and fish. We also believed strongly in family dinners, family projects on weekends, life celebrations, and good friends and neighbors. While we played hard, we also worked hard, very hard. We fixed our own vehicles and bought new-to-us equipment. We didn’t watch much tv, play video games, go out to dinner, or go on many vacations. In high school I could arm wrestle and beat the first-string football players and I could certainly hold my own in the weight room; all of the bale bucking and good ol fashioned hard work made me tough 🙂

I thought my childhood was awesome!

A little ranch fun: loading hay, cutting and chopping wood, feeding lambs, and replacing old fence.


At no time did I ever think my family was rich. Monetarily rich that is. Wealth isn’t necessarily measured in number of cows, acres, or amount of equipment owned. We were rich in our knowledge, skills, work ethic, family legacy (my sister and I are the 4th generation), family and community love and support, and so much more.

I was my class Salutatorian, and was banking on the fact that good grades and some money in savings from the sale of 4-H animals would get my through college. It never dawned on me that other people thought my family was rich until I started applying for college scholarships as a high school senior. Several people wondered why I would need the scholarship money, my family was “rich ranchers” and could afford to send me to college! I was shocked that was the perception others had of my family. We weren’t (and still aren’t) fancy or rich people. But in the eyes of others my family had money, and lots of it because we had land, livestock, and various vehicles and equipment. Perception is an interesting thing…

I also never thought my family was poor. In our family, and with many others in agriculture, money is tied up in land, animals, equipment, and other assets. Ranch income was spent fixing up and/or making purchases of things that had been neglected over the past year. Because in ranching, you may only get one or two paychecks a year – when the calves and any open (non-pregnant) or crippled cows are sold! Talk about budgeting. So as a kid, and still today we knew that some months would be financially tighter than others. We also knew how to differentiate between wants and needs.

So as you can see, I struggle with the rich vs poor in agriculture. I think food production is one of the hardest professions, but also one of the most rewarding. And it doesn’t matter if you have 10 acres or 10,000 acres. The time and financial commitments, the long hours, hard work, and dedication are all similar concepts just on different scales. There are certainly those who are rich in agriculture, and kudos to them for making a profit with their livelihoods. But does that mean a person who may not have much money in agriculture is poor? Not necessarily, they could be rich like my family – rich with all of things that are hard to touch, see, and measure. You see I always thought my family was rich…

Wedding Photos4 024
Married on the ranch. My family on my wedding day!



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Farm Tours: Another perspective

I can’t believe it is already the middle of August! Where has the summer gone?! I feel like mine was spent dragging a suitcase through an airport, where I got more sleep on an airplane than I did in my own bed. The good news, I have a ton of posts in my head, I just need to get them down here!

One of my job responsibilities is to provide the Saunders County Livestock Association members with an annual agricultural tour. This was their 56th annual! Pretty amazing that there is that much history and tradition within this county based association. It is also tradition for the Extension Educator who does the tour to take them to their “home” area, for me that is Western Nevada and Northern California.

The annual cap is nearly as important as the annual tour! And the red was a great color choice to find persons in our group when we were in busy public spaces.

I had 43 men sign up for the tour (the women stay home and supposedly have their own vacations while the men are away); good thing I am tough and can handle that much testosterone! Since we were flying, I had planned a six day, five night adventure out into the Wild West. We traveled via planes, boats, and buses 🙂 Below are photos from our recent trip. This was only my second tour to plan, but oh what a learning experience these have been!

You would think that since these guys see and deal with agriculture everyday, they would not want to see more of it when on vacation. But that is further from the truth – they love to see what other farmers and ranchers are doing across the county. I hope you enjoy this recap as much as the guys and I enjoyed participating in the 56th annual trip!

travel fun
We flew from Omaha, NE into Reno, NV. In route we saw Lake Mead near Las Vegas. And we saw a great bear mount in Reno.
Day 1_final
Day 1 included a trip to Seven Troughs Whiskey Distillery where we had a great catered lunch consisting of brisket and tri-tip (a west coast meat treat). We also got to see the open air fermentation process they use for their spirits. We toured a beautiful ranch where we saw some great Hereford bulls. And finally, we ended the day with a relaxing dinner cruise on Lake Tahoe. As an extra bonus, two representatives with the Nevada Department of Agriculture joined us. It was a great addition as the tour participants could ask them about all things concerning Nevada agriculture.
day 2-final
Day 2 included a trip to Jacobs Family Berry Farm where they are growing 27 different varieties of berries to determine which ones grow best in Western Nevada. We also went to Bently Ranch were they are growing their own crops for a whiskey distillery they are building. Additionally, they raise a lot of cattle and have a large human waste composting program. This stop was fun, because the Nebraska corn farmers were thrilled to see and talk corn with the Nevada cowboys. We had the chance to tour the “behind the scenes” of Topaz Lodge Casino (no photos due to sensitivity of the tour). Our last stop was a garlic farm which was in the middle of harvest. It smelled great, and accompanied dinner nicely…
My parents hosted the group for a Lamb BBQ Dinner. Some in the group were not terribly thrilled about this, as they had experienced mutton before (which is old sheep, and very different than lamb). David, the garlic tour host gave our group an entire burlap bag of garlic, so we cleaned some of it up and threw it on the grill too. I think by time the night was over the group had developed an appreciation for lamb and roasted garlic!
day 3-final
Day 3 meant heading over the Sierra Nevada Mountain range – which was hard on a few of the guys. Personally, I enjoyed being back in the mountains and enjoyed the scenic beauty. On this day the Sacramento County Farm Bureau hosted us and provided a turkey farm stop, a cutting edge dairy that has an automated calf feeding machine (which provided milk, hay, and grain every couple of hours) and a huge methane digester that we could walk on! We also went to a sturgeon caviar farm and saw the fish in various life stages. The fish also enjoyed our visit and splashed us as they showed off. We topped off the night with barrel smoked steaks at Giusti’s (locally recommended and enjoyed too). On this day my Mom also hopped on the bus with us!
Day 4 -final
Day 4 was spent in the Delta, just south of Sacramento, CA. It was a great day to see the diversity of crops grown. It was also pear harvesting season, so we enjoyed fresh pears and pear ice cream! Our Delta tour guide also made the day extra special by finding some fellow Nebraskans (i.e. Huskers) living in the area that hosted us for lunch. Come to find out one of the hosts and one of the tour participants were kin! We finished out the day at an olive tree and oil processing farm, where my tour participants were thrilled to talk wheat farming on California hills with the family! This was an eye opening day to the diversity of agriculture in the area. We also saw first hand and heard about the effects of the drought as well as the fight for water for agriculture. It will be a tough battle for California agriculture, one that we are now more sympathetic too.
day 5 final
The interesting thing about planning a tour like this is how it changes over the months (I start planning in January, and we leave in August). My original day 5 was much different than the day 5 we got, but it was an excellent day. Day 5 was a day to do and/or see the things in San Fransisco that interested you most. For some that included trolleys over the infamous hills of San Fransisco, the seals, mass at a Catholic church, and more. For me it was taking in a variety of things (and time with my Mom). I was not able to get our group tickets to tour Alcatraz (as I should have booked those in January!), so we did the next best thing – a boat ride around Alcatraz and Angel Islands and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Next a group of us took a tour up to Muir Redwoods. While it was busy, it was beautiful and peaceful. We couldn’t have asked for better weather or scenery that day.
day 6 - final
Day 6 was just a travel delay. We left San Fransisco and headed back to Omaha. The entire experience was great, there was only one bag that got lost coming back to Nebraska. Not too bad for 44 people traveling for six days!!

This tour was especially important to me, as I took everyone “home” to see the area I was born and raised in. It was very interesting to see things through 43 other sets of eyes. These tours are a lot of work, but they are also a lot of reward to see them come together.

I have heard many of the Livestock Association members reference how great the trips were when the other Educators prior to me took the group “home” – so I had big shoes to fill! I think all of the guys really enjoyed it, and it will be one they talk about for years to come. P.S. – my Mom was already invited to hop on the bus again next year!

If you would like more information about any of our tour stops, tips for planning a large tour, or are interested in participating on a farm/ranch tour – please let me know.


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Preparing animals for bad weather

Several states in the Midwest are getting ready to experience some crazy weather today.

I am a transplant to tornado country, and I don’t think I will ever get used to the danger associated with it. I can count on just a few fingers the number of times meteorologists have provided weather warnings days before the storm, and this is one of those cases.

weather map
The potential storm area.


While we can’t always prepare for natural disasters, there are times, like today, where we have a glimpse of what to expect. I want to visit with you on how to care for animals in severe weather.

Companion animals – 

– Often loud noises can scare our companion animals, and they may be more difficult to find in a time crunch if they are hiding under a bed, in a closet, or some other small space. Our companion animals can pick up on our moods and emotions, so do your best to remain calm. Your pets will probably exhibit signs of stress which may include vocalization, panting, crouching, or hiding. Be careful around pets as they may be more aggressive and inadvertently bite or scratch you in their distressed state.

– Try to have a plan if you need to evacuate or move to a safer structure. Assign the people in your home tasks. For example, one person would get the pet, another would get necessary supplies (i.e. leash, carrier, food, water, etc.), and a third would keep everyone moving in the right direction and on task.

– If you are  evacuating to a public shelter, you will need to check prior to the event to make sure your pets can come; there may be restrictions that you will need to abide by (i.e. leases, muzzles, cat carriers, current vaccination records, etc.).

– DO NOT leave your pets behind. They will not have a good chance of survival and being reunited with them after the event may not be successful.

– Have a plan in place for someone to take care for your pets if you are unable to do so or are out of town. This could be a neighbor, a friend or family member. Knowing that your pets are in good hands in a crisis situation is important and provides peace of mind.

– If your pets are outdoor animals, make sure they have a shelter to go to (i.e. shed, barn, or building). Hail can be very painful and possibly life threatening if not provided shelter. DO NOT leave them chained up, let them off the chain so they can have a chance to get to a safer location.

Here and here are some other tips for caring for your pets in bad weather!

My cat, Cali, was not a fan of waiting out the last tornado warnings in our closet.


Livestock animals

– Livestock animals are tuned in to picking up changes in barometric pressure. Have you ever seen a group of cattle huddled together or running for no reason? They are usually pretty savvy that atmospheric changes are happening and they are doing what their instincts tell them. If you work livestock when they are more high strung than normal because of weather changes, it is important to move slow and remain calm as the animals may not be acting like they normally do.

– Livestock animals should have some sort of weather protection. This may be a building or covered facility or it even may be a tree grove. It is important to note that animals should not be locked into a building that cannot withstand strong winds and/or damaging hail.

– Hail can be very dangerous for livestock. Look at what it does to structures and cars. It can leave big bruises and welts on livestock, and in some situations may be life threatening. It is important to make sure your livestock can get somewhere that protects them from hail. If your livestock have been in a hail storm and they are market ready, you will need to wait to harvest them as a bruised carcass will receive significant price reductions.

– Have a disaster plan in place in case the worse case scenario happens. The time spent working on it will pay dividends.

– If you have animals in a small pen, you may want to let them into a larger area so they can have a chance to survive if necessary. If this is not possible, you may consider taking them to a facility where they would be better protected or could have access to more room.

– If your animals need to be released for survival, it is important to ensure you have a way to identify them later. This may be brands, ear notches or tattoos, ear tags, or some other means of identification that is specific to you.

Here and here are some other tips for caring for your livestock animals in bad weather!

The tree line in this photo can offer great protection from the elements.

Remember, your life is irreplaceable – do not put yourself or your family at risk to save your animals!


Give some thought to preparing for a disaster

The last 48 hours have certainly brought some interesting weather to Nebraska, and surrounding states. Parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Western Nebraska had at least a foot of snow and blowing winds, there were reports of 15 tornadoes that touched down across Nebraska alone, and Eastern Nebraska had large amounts of rain in a relatively short amount of time (anywhere from two to five inches reported so far) with loss of power for many around the Omaha metro. While Mother Nature’s fury can leave behind a mess, take us by surprise, and can be devastating – you can be a little more prepared with advance planning. Read on to see what my sister, Kellie Chichester, University of Wyoming Extension Educator and I suggest.

Whether you have 1,000 head or 5 head of livestock, you should spend time thinking and preparing a disaster plan. A disaster plan is good for people with livestock, or people with companion animals, or people who just need to prepare their homes. A few minutes of thought couple pay large dividends in the future.

Many ranches and farms spend a lot of time working on business plans, mission statements, employee training, goals, and financial management, but how many spend time discussing a disaster plan? Nebraska, along with neighboring states suffered catastrophic events in 2013; flooding, fires, blizzards, and drought. We may be on track to see more natural disasters in 2014! A disaster plan may not have saved acres of corn or numbers of cattle, but it may help people move forward, and be ready if there is a next time.

A couple of cows wait out the storm in Laramie, WY. Hard to believe this was taken on May, 12, 2014!

A disaster plan may help protect property, facilities, animals, and people. A good starting point in developing a plan is developing an emergency contact list. Some emergency numbers that you may want to include would be: employees, neighbors, veterinarians – both local and state, extension service, trucking company, brand inspector, highway patrol, insurance agent, and a contact person outside of the disaster area. It seems that we all know these numbers off of the top of our heads, but those stored in a cell phone may not be accessible; and in a high stress event, you may not be able to recall these numbers from memory. Also, think through where your livestock will go if they need to leave your premise; possible locations may include the local salebarn, the vet, or the neighbor’s place. What happens if your animals get out of the existing pens? Who will help gather and retrieve them? You also need to think about what happens in the case of serious injury or death. Will your vet be available to help may a quick diagnosis or aid in putting the animal down if needed? How will the animals be disposed of, who will do it?

You should also have access to a camera and try to document all of the damage to livestock, structures, property, vehicles, etc. During the clean-up process this important step may be forgotten and you may need those photos later.

rain gauge
Large amounts of rain came down quickly in Lincoln, NE.

A livestock emergency readiness checklist may be a useful tool to develop. Some things to consider may be a backup source of power, sufficient fuel supplies – for a generator, equipment, and vehicles, fire extinguishers, livestock water and feed (enough for two to three days), on-farm veterinary aid, and access to livestock records, land/vehicle titles, and/or insurance policies – if needed. Often times, disasters are not covered by insurance companies, unless specifically listed in the policy. This may be a good time to review your policy.

A ranch or farm map may be of benefit to first responders and neighbors. This can be a basic outline of facilities with shop or barn names. Additionally, you may want to include bodies of running water (creeks, streams, rivers, etc.), fence lines, and power lines. If you need to dispatch help and those responding do not know where the calving barn is, it will slow response times. On the map you should also include the storage locations of herbicides, pesticides, or fuel. The location of these may dictate how an emergency is responded to and with what equipment.

Once your disaster preparedness plan is in place, communication is key! It should be shared with your family, employees, and others you think may be involved if a crisis strikes. While many of these things seem simple, they can be things that are overlooked in times of high stress. Additionally, having these materials in a location where others will know where to find them enables them to carry out your wishes if you are unable to be present. You should review this plan annually to ensure the information is current and relevant.

A view from my office, no there isn’t supposed to be a body of water in the background…

Some information that may be helpful in developing a disaster plan can be found at these links or by contacting the Nebraska EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) representative.;;;

Do you have a disaster plan in place for your animals, family, or personal property?

What is humanely raised/labeled?

To continue the meat labeling discussion, I want to discuss what humanely raised/labeled means.

As a refresher, you can catch up on the other labeling discussions: grain-fed and grass-fed, organic and natural programs, and no added hormones and no antibiotics.

As I searched for a true definition of what “humanely raised” is, I had a hard time finding a clear and accurate definition for all humanely labeled certification programs. I was able to gather, from several sources, a list of possible criterion that a livestock farmer or rancher would need to provide to his/her livestock to be considered “humanely raised”.

Humanely raised can be:
– Produced in an ethical and humane fashion
– Raised with minimal stress
– Access to ample feed and water
– No antibiotics
– No additional hormones
– Are not fed animal products/byproducts
– Anything that doesn’t come from a factory farm
– Animals raised on pastures
– Animals allowed to act naturally
– Product traceability back to the farmer
– Certified by a trustworthy, independent organization
– Processed in a conscientious manner

Heifers enjoying the good life…

First, the humane label varies in its definition from program to program. These labels are not regulated under any USDA programs. This means that humane certification programs are provided through third-party, independent verifications – and the standards of each of these programs vary and are frequently arbitrary. The established standards for each of these programs are generally created, reviewed, and updated by an advisory committee. The members of this advisory committee are persons who may or may not be “experts” in food production, animal health, animal behavior, and/or animal care. Again, this advisory committee is chosen at the discretion of each humane certification program. Each of the humane certification programs should list and provide more information on the scientific advisory committee members; it is always advisable to investigate members and what organizations they represent. Are they from a university (in which they should be providing research based, unbiased information) or are they from an industry group? Some of the humane certification programs have used the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” to guide their standards.

Chicken breasts with several labeling claims.

To be enrolled in a voluntary humane labeling program the livestock producer will pay a fee for the humane certification program organization to come out and conduct audits/site visits on his/her farm or ranch. The humane labeling program may provide feedback and guidance to the producer on ways they can better meet the standards. A follow-up audit or visit may be necessary before the livestock farmer or rancher receives official “humane labeling” capabilities. Additionally, the farmer or rancher may have audits/farm visits at regular intervals to ensure he/she is staying in compliance to the program standards.

Turkey breast meat with a humanely raised claim.

The programs are so numerous I won’t explore all of the possible programs, their standards, fees, and criterion here as there are many of them. But I do want to highlight a couple of the ones I thought provided interesting or useful information.

The American Humane Association claims to be the first welfare certification program in the U.S. to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals, with history dating back to 1877! Not only do they protect farm animals from abuse and neglect, they also protect children and pets.

Certified Humane has actually done a pretty good job of comparing some of the standards for chicken beef, and pigs in comparison to other organizations. They have also provided one that is unique to just laying hens. These can be handy tools as there can be a large number of organizations offering humanely labeled certifications, making it a daunting task to compare and contrast the benefits of each.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is responsible for verifying the humane treatment of livestock in harvest (slaughter) facilities. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) was originally passed in 1958; in 1978 the USDA’s FSIS passed the Humane Slaughter Act. This Act requires the proper treatment and humane handling of all food animals harvested in USDA inspected slaughter plants. However, it does not apply to chickens or other birds.

Salami with labeling claims.

You may be thinking why don’t all livestock farmers or ranchers enroll in a humane certification program? Some livestock farmers or ranchers choose to enroll in a voluntary, fee-based humane certification program to be able to offer a choice to consumers at the meat counter. As with most other special labeling claims, there is usually a price difference in meat products with the humane label versus meat products without the humane label. If “humanely raised” is important to you, you have the choice to purchase that product.

The important thing you should know is that all livestock farmers and ranchers do their very best to provide humane care to their animals. Unfortunately, there are rare occasions when a livestock farmer is not humane to the animals he/she is raising. That is not ok and not acceptable! I may be bold in saying this, but we hope all parents who are responsible for raising children do not intentionally harm those children, but we know that is not always the case, and some children do get mistreated. Some pet owners do not provide the best care for their pets. While it may be drastic to compare livestock animals, children, and pets to one another, the common theme is the majority of them have wonderful lives where they are well cared for, humanely raised, and loved by the people providing for them. When cases of abuse or neglect occur, we can all agree it is not ok and should not be tolerated – no matter if it is farm animals, children, or pets.

Calf with ear warmers by cow
A baby calf receiving humane treatment in cold temperatures!

Other meat labeling articles you may be interested in include: grain-fed and grass-fed, organic and natural, and no added hormones and no antibiotics.

Antibiotic Resistance…Part 3

Antibiotic resistance is a big topic, hence the reason I decided to break this blog post into four pieces. In case you have missed them, check out Part 1 which provides a little overview of feeding antibiotics to cattle, Part 2 talks about what else is regularly fed to cattle. Today, in Part 3 I will go over who monitors the livestock antibiotic world, and why that is important to you and I.

Feedlot cattle

Who monitors antibiotic and drug use in livestock?

All antibiotics used to treat animals have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is responsible for protecting public health by assuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. FDA is also responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make medicines more effective, safer, and more affordable and by helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to maintain and improve their health.

Did you know that the Food Safety and Inspection Service National Residue Program (FSIS NRP) (yes, there is an entire division dedicated to monitoring drug resistance!!) tests all domestic and international meat, milk, and egg products for antibiotic residue? The U.S. government says that NO (meaning zero tolerance) beef (as well as other species including pork, poultry, etc.) with antibiotic residues exceeding the FDA standards will be allowed in the food supply!

Dr. Dee Griffin, DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) says that in addition to these samples, a USDA veterinarian will take samples of “suspicious” animals at the packing plant. “Suspicious” animals may include animals with a disease lesion, or animals that look like they have been treated for illness recently. If the tissue from these animals tests positive for drug residue the carcass will be condemned and NOT allowed in the food supply! Interestingly, in 2012, approximately 200,000 tissue samples were taken from beef alone! Of those less than 1,000 tested positive for a residue, that is one half of one percent testing positive for a residue. And while we hope to get that number to zero someday, we are thrilled that testing is occurring, and those that do test positive are being condemned and not allowed in the food chain!

The Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) regulates the manufacture and distribution of food additives and drugs that will be given to animals. These include animals from which human foods are derived, as well as food additives and drugs for pet (or companion) animals. The CVM is also responsible for regulating drugs, devices, and food additives given to, or used on, over one hundred million companion animals, plus millions of poultry, cattle, swine, and minor animal species.

Have you ever heard of the Generic Animal Drug and Patent Restoration Act? This Act requires that each sponsor of an approved animal drug must submit to the FDA certain information regarding patents held for the animal drug or its method of use. The Act also requires that this information, as well as a list of all animal drug products approved for safety and effectiveness, be made available to the public. This list must be updated monthly under the provisions of the Act. The list, known as the “Green Book,” was first published in January 1989. Updates have been added monthly since then. Each January, the list is published in its entirety.

Finally, did you know that Veterinarians have to take an oath? Yes, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) the oath states:

Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge. I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics. I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.”

I think it is clear and maybe we can all begin to agree there are many regulatory bodies in place to protect us and our food supply.

Sneaking in for a little snack.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final (for now) installment of the antibiotic resistance discussion tomorrow.

Sustainable – More than meets the eye

McDonald’s recently announced that they would commit to buying sustainable beef by 2016. Additionally, meat processor JBS recently introduced more sustainable hamburger with Wal-Mart in Brazil. When one hears these stories they question what do they mean by sustainable? Commonly when people talk sustainability they think “green”, if it’s green it is good for the environment – it must be sustainable. However the concept of sustainability encompasses more than just the environment and its natural resources. Fellow UNL Extension Educator, Jessica Jones, at Insights for Sustainability, and I invite you to explore what sustainable means to you.

Sustainable? I think it is safe to say we all think we know what sustainable means. Does your definition include green, healthy, organic, or all-natural? What about stable, viable, generational, profitable?  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sustainability is defined as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (International Institute for Sustainable Development).

People need natural, financial, and human resources to meet their needs. Natural resources help to meet our basic needs like air, water, food, and shelter. Financial resources in our society provide us the ability to buy needed goods and services. While human resources provide us knowledge needed to meet our needs and the social interaction needed in our lives. These resource types form the three components necessary for sustainability: environmental, economic, and social.

To think about sustainability one must think about the world in which we live as a system that includes intertwined environmental, economic, and social parts that interact. The goal of being sustainable is having a healthy system which functions infinitely without detrimental changes to its health. Preserving the system’s health means protecting the quality and quantity of the natural resources, providing opportunities for people to prosper, and growing vibrant and resilient communities.

Below are three examples of farm and ranch families continuing to work towards sustainability. 

Kelli Loos, 5th generation rancher

Kelli Loos: As a fifth generation rancher, sustainability is important for our family and has been for years. While the term and its definition are often controversial, they take on different meanings depending on the particular agenda of the person you are talking to.

I don’t think that regulations and government infringement on personal property rights are the way to achieve real sustainability. I believe that since the day ranchers built fences and had to feed their cattle on the grass inside their fence, they have been continually working to improve that natural resource. As a kid I remember the hours we spent with Dad in our pastures chopping musk thistle and cedar trees to keep our pastures clean and able to grow good grass because we had a neighbor that didn’t control his weeds. My Dad carefully managed the moving of the cattle so no area was never over-grazed. He wanted to make sure that grass would come back even better the next year. While I probably didn’t understand at the time why he was so meticulous about these practices, it all makes sense now. He wanted to make sure that the land was better when he passed it to his kids than it was when he got it from my Grandpa.

Pasture management is much the same but also very different than it was 100 years ago. As stewards of the land, we continue to learn and develop the tools we have to make the best use of our resources not only for the short-term but for years into the future. Thanks to careful management, many ranchers have been able to maintain their cow herds even through drought years because they have planned ahead and developed strategies to address these challenges of Mother Nature. It is not just our way of life, it is our living and our legacy. It means that much to us!

Ranchers aren’t the best stewards of their God-given natural resources because of any law or government program. They do it so that the land and legacy they pass on to their children is one that will continue for generations that far outlive them.

Kelli’s parents and her daughters.

Lacey – both her Mom and Dad came from farming and cattle families.

Lacey Heddlesten: Sustainability is a fantastic “trendy” word that is being heavily used in the marketing industry in this day and age. However, when you ask a farmer or rancher what that word means, you might get various responses, but they all boil down to one common theme. It’s our way of life; it’s just what we do. Coming from a multi-generational farming operation in Western KS, Lindsay asked me to write a little bit for her blog about sustainability.  I feel as though I’m one of those “lucky kids”, I grew up with farming all around me as far as the eye could see. Both sides of my family (Mom and Dad) were involved in farming and cattle operations, both were multi-generational, going into the 4th generations. Both sides of my family have changed with the times when they deemed it necessary, but the core values of what the farm was founded on, and the type of work ethic, financial responsibility and moral obligation to uphold that Farmer’s code has never changed. 

Being raised the way I was, has 100% affected the person I am today.  I’ve seen my share of family farms disappearing around our area as well, so how did my family survive this trend of family farms drying up? How were they able to be “sustainable”?  These are my thoughts. Although, it seems farmers and cattleman get a bad rap in social media as being a bunch of rednecks wearing overalls and sideways caps and a piece of straw in their mouth, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well maybe the overall part (right Grandpa?).  Farmers in this day and age that are part of a multi-generational farming operation have mastered the art of sustainability. Farmers are individuals with incredible passion for what they do, and they are 100% aware that the agricultural industry has no choice but to be sustainable in order to make the world go round, in order for life to continue to survive and thrive. Farmers have to be incredible businessman to maintain their farms through the years of extreme hardship, because not every year do they end up “in the black”.  They have to be able to stretch a dollar to where it needs to be. They have to be able to make their own decisions and not rely on others to do that for them.  Farmers do look out for #1, but you can bet your life’s savings that if you were in need, they would be right there to help you out too. The network that a farmer builds within his or her lifetime is a big one, and a tight one.

These are just a few of the “big” points that have made my family’s farm “sustainable”.  Now, I will admit, I’m not currently out working on the farm alongside my mom and dad, but I can tell you I’m still in the agriculture industry, I’m still applying those lessons learned to my current job.  And I’m currently working like hell to get my family moved back out to the farm so my son and daughter can be raised in that “farming community” just as I was.

Wheat Harvest 2013 040 (2)
Wheat harvest in Western Kansas featuring four generations!

Getting my hands dirty with a little gardening.

 Lindsay Chichester: In my personal definition of sustainable, I would certainly include the word generational. The ranch I was born and raised on in Northern California has been in my family since the early 1900’s! My sister and I are the 4th generation, while neither of us live there now, I know we will continue the tradition. While many things have changed over the years, like fences, facilities, efficiency of waterways, and the kind and type of livestock raised, there are some things that have not changed. Those things are work ethic, family values, responsibility, and resource management. A 15 hour work day was not uncommon; dinner at the table as a family was expected; feeding and caring for your livestock before you ate was the norm; conserving water, responsibly applying pesticides when needed, and managing livestock grazing systems were essential traits to learn as stewards of the land.

While I worked harder than most kids growing up, could beat most of the boys at arm wrestling, and regularly had manure on my shoes I would not change a thing. It was and still is a wonderful lifestyle and I hope to raise my children with the same ethics and values, as well as love and responsibility to the land and the livestock instilled in me on the family ranch.

Wedding Photos3 134
Family photo on my wedding day. Nothing more scenic that an outdoor wedding at the family ranch.

I hope these examples have provided you with a wider viewpoint of sustainability – maybe sustainability from 10,000 feet? It is more than just a buzzword for local, green, or natural, but also includes family, values, generations, and stewards of the land. Next time you see a farmer or rancher, see what sustainability mean to them. I think it may surprise you!

Organic vs. Natural Programs – meat labeling terms (2)

(Updated March 2017)

Yesterday I shared with you the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed. My former colleague, Carrie Schneider-Miller, MS, RD, in the Nebraska Extension Food, Nutrition, and Health focus area also recently discussed Is Grass-fed beef better?

Today, in part two of the great Meat Labeling Terms series, we will discuss the differences between organic, all-natural, and naturally raised.

Calves on pasture.


Sales of organic products continue to grow, especially organic food products. Organic products now make up just over 4% of total U.S. food sales (USDA:ERS, 2016).

Organically labeled meat means that the animal’s diet can consist of any grain or forage product as long as those feed items are certified organic. This program is the most strict with the most guidelines, and is governed by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). To be certified organic, a grain or forage resource must not have had synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation applied, and/or had genetically engineered products produced on that ground in three or more years. Additionally, the livestock CANNOT receive antibiotics or additional growth hormones (USDA, 2013) (many hormones are naturally occurring in the animal, but no additional hormones are given by producers in this program).

What organic does not certify or guarantee — The important thing to keep in mind here is that organic only refers to what the animal has consumed. The NOP does not regulate or govern what happens to the meat during processing. Meaning that the meat may have additional colorants or products (spices, sauces, marinades, etc.) added to the final product, unlike all-natural meats.

Research has indicated that organic foods are NOT considered to be healthier or better for you than conventionally raised foods. However, people who may have food allergies, chemical allergies, or intolerance to preservatives may prefer organic food products. Additionally, organically produced strawberries, corn, and marionberries may be higher in antioxidants than the conventionally raised form. Research has also indicated that because there is no preservative use, organically grown products may be more susceptible to bacteria, parasites, and pathogen contamination (Natural and Organic Foods, n.d.).

It is also important to note that just because it is organic, does not mean it is pesticide or chemical free. Organic producers use natural chemicals versus synthetic chemicals. For more information read this.

How can you tell if the meat you are purchasing is organic? Look at the label. If a product is organic it will have the USDA organic seal. This indicates the product is certified organic and has 95% or more organic content. For multi-ingredient products such as bread or soup, if the label claims that it is made with specified organic ingredients, you can be confident that those specific ingredients have been certified organic (National Organic Program, 2012). If someone is claiming that a product is organic, but they are not certified, be cautious – the NOP says that a product cannot be marketed as organic unless it is certified. The only exemption is if a producer sells $5,000 or less in goods annually, then they are not required to become certified (Labeling Organic Products, 2012).

Organic ground beef. Notice the label has the organic seal, it also says that no additional hormones or antibiotics have been added.


It is estimated that 375,000 to 425,000 head of cattle are produced under an all-natural regime (Natural Beef Profile, 2012); this would be a large portion of meat in the meat case. Meat, poultry, and eggs that carry the “natural” label CANNOT be altered during processing; this would include the addition of artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, sauces, etc.), the addition of colorants, the additional of chemical preservatives, making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013; Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2015). It should be noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to define “natural”, as the above criterion that applied may now be outdated. It was being explored to consider how agricultural technologies (i.e. pesticides, thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation) play into this discussion. Meat labeled as all-natural can come from an animal that has consumed any grain or forage product, organic or not. All-natural does NOT include any standards regarding farm practices; which means an animal can receive additional growth hormones or antibiotics. Additionally, there are no regulations on what the animal can or cannot consume.

Unlike organically labeled meats, there is no governing body for all-natural meat products. Again, it is a common myth the animals cannot receive growth hormones or antibiotics. This is false, each individual producer can decide if their animals can/need to receive growth hormones and/or antibiotics (USDA Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms, 2011). If you want to purchase meat from animals that have not received growth hormones or antibiotics then make sure you purchase your meat from a producer or retailer (look at the label) that you trust to provide meat that meets your requirements.

All-natural ground bison. Notice the all-natural labeling and that it was raised without antibiotics or added hormones. As should be in the natural programs – it was minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients.

Naturally raised:

Naturally raised did have a certification program and all products were certified by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) (Today’s Beef Choices, 2003). On January 12, 2016 the AMS agency withdrew the Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard.

However, prior to this change, all-natural and naturally raised should not have been used interchangeably – they are NOT the same thing. The naturally raised marketing claim indicated that livestock used for the production of meat and meat products had been raised entirely WITHOUT additional growth promotants, antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control), or animal by-products (no longer a common practice).

Since naturally raised does carry the “natural” label, the meat does not contain any artificial ingredients (spices, marinades, etc.), colorants, chemical ingredients, or other synthetic ingredients – making the meat minimally processed (does not fundamentally alter the product) (Natural beef, 2013).

bulls eating from bunk
Young bulls eating from a bunk feeder.

When trying to decide which meat option is best for you, it is important to purchase meats that support your values and beliefs, as well as meats that fit into your budget. Shopping around is always advisable too. You have many options when it comes to purchasing meat, you may be able to purchase meat directly from a producer, a small or local butcher shop, your local retailer, a Farmer’s Market, or a bulk retailer. Finally, you may decide you prefer the taste of one of the meat types over another, and purchase based on taste and family preference.

Other labeling articles you may find interesting include: Grain-fed and grass-fed, no added hormones and no antibiotics, and humanely raised.

A day in the life of a sheep rancher…Fun Fact Friday

This morning on my drive to the office I called my folks. My Mom was filling me in on the adventures of her lambing. Lambing is what it is called when the ewes (pronounced “you”) have their babies. My Mom has about 70 head of ewes, and a ewe is a female sheep. A ewe can be bred to have babies at eight to 10 months of age. Her gestation length is five months. A baby sheep is called a lamb.

sleeping lambs
A set of twins (not the ones I will tell you about) sleeping on a warm straw bed under a heat lamp.

Yesterday a ewe had twins (which is very common for sheep), but they were born outside, and the ewe didn’t clean them off very good (when an animal has babies they lick them to remove all of the embryonic fluid and dry them, while doing this they also “talk” to them by making low noises, which stimulates them to stand and nurse), and the lambs got very cold. So the lambs were taken into the lambing barn and put under heat lamps. It is VERY important for all baby animals to receive the “first milk”, which is called colostrum. Colostrum contains proteins, peptides, and high levels of antibodies (these are the highest in the first milking), which aid in building a strong immune system enabling babies to fight possible infections. A new born baby does not carry antibodies since they do not pass through mother’s bloodstream into the placenta, but the lamb (or any other baby) can get these antibodies in the colostrum!

A lamb tuber with a very soft latex tube – used to feed colostrum.

Since the lambs were not yet strong enough to stand and nurse on their own, the ewe was milked out by hand. The lambs were then tubed. In the sheep world, the feeding tube is a large disposable syringe that has a very soft latex tube that is slid down the lamb’s throat, past the esophagus, and into their stomach. This would look very much like a feeding tube that a human would have, but this is not permanent. The colostrum is put into the syringe and then once the tube is in the lamb’s stomach, the milk is dispensed and the tube is removed. This causes them no pain. Ensuring that the colostrum gets into the lamb’s system as soon as possible can mean the difference between life and death! A newborn baby may need to be tubed several times before it is strong enough to stand and nurse on its own. While the mother’s milk is ideal, sometimes a powder replacement is used or colostrum that has come from another ewe can be used ( it can be frozen and slowly thawed for later use).

The lambs didn’t show much improvement after receiving colostrum, so they were taken into the house, yes the house that my parents live in, and put in front of the wood burning fireplace to warm up. This can be a common occurrence for livestock ranchers. Just like people, animals can get chilled to the bone and have a hard time warming up, so a toasty fireplace is a good place to go. We have had many lambs and calves (baby cows) in the house growing up. This is just what you do when a baby has gotten really cold or just isn’t getting off to the start you hoped it would. I can remember several times when we brought calves into the house, and after coming back in when chores were done we have found the calf has gotten up and has been walking around the living room!

Yesterday afternoon the lambs were taken back out and put back into the heat lamp and straw warmed pen with their mom. Additionally, the ewes put off a lot of heat since they have a thick wool coat! My Mom shared they both made it through the night! Yay. Today the lambs will receive help standing and may need assistance in finding the ewe’s teat to nurse, and they may even need to be tubed again just to make sure they are still receiving the nutrients needed to be healthy and out of the danger zone.

Most lambs are born with no problems and never need the extra assistance from us as their caregivers. But if they do need that extra attention we are always there to provide it, both in and out doors!

A lamb sleeping in its mom’s hay tub!

Caring for livestock in cold temperatures

As the majority of our county is enveloped in extremely cold temperatures, which are plummeting into many degrees BELOW zero, you may be wondering how ranchers and farmers care for their livestock.

The temperature in Lincoln, Nebraska this morning.

As temperatures drop it is important to remember that not all livestock need or want to be indoors! Unlike us or even our pets, they have extremely thick hair and wool coats that are very warm (sometimes water resistant), enabling them to withstand cold temperatures. Additionally, it is usually not feasible to provide shelter for all the animals on a ranch or farm (some animals like pigs, poultry, or rabbits may need shelter), as that could be for hundreds of animals, and providing enough space for them all to lay down and clean bedding would be quite the task!

And animals are interesting, even if you provide them with shelter, they do not always go into it. It is like that saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”‘ you can provide shelter, but you can’t make livestock use it.

Animal Barn – Many people believe this is how livestock animals are housed. But let me share more feasible alternatives with you.


Have you ever seen a row of trees in a pasture? These are called windbreaks. Windbreaks vary from a single row of trees to multiple rows of various trees and shrubs. It may look random, but they are usually strategically placed to be in an area that blocks the winds and blowing snow. Pastured animals quickly learn that if they stand on the opposite side of the windbreak they will get a break from the weather! Additionally, farmers and ranchers will move livestock to more protected pastures (such as the one in the photo below) in the winter where they can be fed and have their offspring in the best possible location.

Cows being fed near a windbreak

Windbreaks are also used to protect homes and other buildings from blowing winds, snow, and even dust.

A home with a windbreak

Windbreaks do not always have to be in the form of trees and/or shrubs. They can also be wooden or metal fence/panels to provide a weather break for livestock.

A permanent wooden windbreak
A portable wooden windbreak
Windbreak (2)
A metal windbreak

Sometimes windbreaks may be just a roof and no sides, which offers a place to get out of wet weather, and also provides shade on hot days.

An above-head windbreak
A windscreen
Portable shelter


Livestock may be provided straw, corn stalks, wood chips, or other types of bedding to lay on in the cold winter months. If animals are sheltered indoors, these are great and warm for just a couple of days until they become soiled with feces and urine, and need to be changed (which can be very labor intensive and expensive). If these are provided outdoors they may get wet and stomped into the ground, and fresh bedding would need to be provided as needed. If no bedding is provided, livestock will generally lay on any leftover forage feedstuffs they waste during the eating process.

An example of cattle laying the hay they wasted

Livestock will most commonly be brought in from pasture and put on bedding when they are about to give birth. This helps the babies stay warm and dry and get off to a good start in life. When the babies have nursed and are strong, they will be moved back out to the pasture (which may be anywhere from one to four days – or more if needed).

FHR-11052-01047-743 - © - FLPA/Andrew Linscott
Lambs in straw
D - Just minutes before the dairy farm tour this calf was born_Tracy Behnken
A newborn calf on wood-chips from my friend Tracy


As I mentioned, it is usually not feasible to offer shelter to all livestock animals. But sometimes ranchers and farmers will make a shelter for just the babies to get out of the weather. This gives them a warm, dry place to go when the weather gets really bad. These structures are usually just small enough for the babies to go into, leaving the mamas outside, where they are more equipped to handle the colder temperatures.

Calves enjoying a warm shelter

Remember, in the cold winter months livestock have very thick hair coats (that is why they looks so fuzzy) and wool pelts to keep them warm!


When temperatures drop and it stays cold for long periods of time, or if rain or snow events occur, livestock may need to be given additional feed. Some sort of forage (hay) that was put up in the summer months with the intentions of being used during the winter months is an excellent option. When it is cold, livestock use more energy to keep and stay warm, if they cannot get enough feed during this time you may see them drop condition or become thinner. You may see ranchers and farmers feeding their livestock at least once a day, and maybe twice a day when weather gets really bad. During winter months the quality of the grass in a pasture is not very good, so additional hay during those times is important.

Here is a picture of me feeding hay to some hungry cows

Livestock always need access to fresh, clean water – regardless of the time of year or weather conditions. In the winter this may mean that ranchers and farmers will need to break a lot of ice, deal with frozen pipes, or haul water. Livestock cannot get enough of their daily water requirements from just eating snow, and if forced to do so will become dehydrated.

Chopping ice – The Pioneer Woman provides a great blog post on it

So on these very cold days, be thankful that the ranchers and farmers raising livestock for our consumption are such good stewards of their animals and the land. And know that the livestock in their care are being taken care of properly. Being outside all day, everyday in these elements is not for the faint of heart!

Disclaimer: I am not promoting a company or product, the photos used are meant to only provide an example or illustration of a specific event and provide an example.


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