Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Student Member Spotlight Q&A: Sarah

Our members are the lifeblood of our organization. They are students, farmers, researchers, department heads, industry experts, food scientists, agronomists--the list goes on. No matter their background, we all have the same wish: to assemble, create and share credible, balanced, science-based information. 

Read about who makes up CAST in our Member Spotlight series. In this post, you will meet  Sarah, a third-year doctoral student at the University of California-Davis.

The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

Meet Sarah

A third-year doctoral student studying animal science at UC-Davis, and a 2018 CAST Science Communication Scholarship winner

What are you studying?
I am studying beef cattle sustainability and system dynamics. 

What agricultural issues are most important to you?
Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article where the first line read, “[The] city that banned plastic bags and plastic peanuts is now taking on factory farms that pump antibiotics into livestock.” This article is only one of countless articles condemning agricultural practices with little to no information regarding current animal welfare, food safety, or environmental sustainability practices. 

Furthermore, with only 2% of U.S. citizens in agriculture, the rampant stream of anti-animal agricultural media will only continue to increase, dictating the immediate need for scientific educators to broadcast the truth about the economic, social, and environmental contribution of livestock in our society. 

As a beef cattle sustainability specialist, I will utilize my scientific foundation and knowledge of beef cattle production to aid in ameliorating the agricultural education barriers to help ensure food security and sustainability.

How has CAST been a part of your life? 
Although I have been extremely fortunate to work and learn from ranchers and scientists across the country, there is still a great deal more to learn and more to do. As a CAST scholarship winner, I have been fortunate to take part in important opportunities to improve my agricultural education and outreach so I may become a better teacher, a more informed scientist, and one-day leader in agricultural sciences.

What is your current research?
Today’s consumers have become increasingly concerned regarding food animal production in relation to human health and environmental sustainability. Among many consumers, grass-fed beef is regarded as the “healthier” and more environmentally sustainable beef option as compared to traditional (grain-fed) beef production.  As such, there is now an increase in the demand for niche beef production systems, causing producers to speculate if incorporating grass-fed beef into their production system would be economically adventitious.  

Although previous research has compared grass-fed and grain-fed beef production, no empirical research has been performed to examine the validity of both consumer and producer concerns using current CA grass-fed production practices. Therefore, we are conducting research to compare the environmental footprint, economic outcomes, food safety and meat composition and food safety of three varying beef production systems in northern CA. 

For this proposal we aim to create a grass-fed beef budget tool to aid producers in grass-fed production decisions using the results of the current research trial. The three treatments include (24 steers per treatment): 

  1. Conventional or grain-fed beef (CON), 
  2. 20 month grass-fed beef (20GF) 
  3. 20 month grass-fed with a 45 day grain finishing (45G), and 
  4. 26 month grass-fed beef (26GF).   

By performing this study many consumer and producer questions will be addressed including: 

  1. What are the input and output costs of each production system given current economic and environmental conditions?, 
  2. Which production system maximizes total human edible food?, 
  3. What are the varying carbon footprints of each system on a calorie and kg of protein basis?, 
  4. What beef production system limits pathogenic E. coli production, and 
  5. What are the differing meat compositions between treatments and will consumers prefer one of the two grass-fed treatments compared to grain fed beef?

Overall, with continual interest in food sustainability within California and across the country, it is imperative that we provide a tool to answer these beef production questions so that producers, consumers, legislators, and stakeholders across the beef supply chain can make informed production decisions.

Passionate students studying an aspect of agriculture, like Sarah, will not only help advance their field through their research, but also provide the necessary communications with audiences who will be affected by this type of research.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story and how CAST has impacted your student career.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Farm Safety--Precautions, Danger, and Healing

A Quicksand of Grain

Farm Safety Week is a good time to reiterate how dangerous farming can be, and a recent article highlighted that peril in the form of two gripping episodes in Midwest grain bins. On a farm in Iowa, a young man made an "astonishing Lazarus-like emergence from the depths of a grain bin." His life was saved due to actions taken by friends, and his "whimsical" purchase of a respiratory mask at a farm show. The grain bin safety item turned out to be "the purchase of a lifetime."

In Wisconsin, a long-time farmer was "lulled to sleep" by the sea of corn he stepped into. Once again friends, family, and--as in many cases--emergency workers helped to free him. Purdue University’s Bill Field is an authority on grain bin accidents, and he emphasizes the dangers of delay following the critical moments of an accident. “Every second is crucial.”         

National Farm Safety Week

Farming ranks high on the list of dangerous professions, and every year we read about tractor accidents, grain bin deaths, and other tragedies. Using technology, education, and safety awareness, the agriculture community is working hard to change the grim statistics. 

Each year since 1944, the third week of September has been recognized as National Farm Safety and Health Week. This annual promotion--initiated by the National Safety Council--has been proclaimed as such by each sitting U.S. President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The development and dissemination of National Farm Safety and Health Week is led by the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety, the agricultural partner of the National Safety Council. 

It's What Farmers Do

This archived blog includes many links regarding farm safety incidents, procedures, and statistics. One aspect the statistics can't show is the way rural communities respond to tragedy. As the final story in this blog shows, accidents occur way too often, and "danger in the fields" is always lurking--but friends and family are there to create a bond of healing.  

by dan gogerty (top photo from and bottom graphic from usda)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Can Video Games Help Mitigate Agricultural Risks?

Recently, my boyfriend dusted off his Playstation 1 and popped in the oldie-but-goodie farm simulation game Harvest Moon (originally released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the late 1990s). 

I watched him laboriously build his farm, plant crops, and take care of livestock. One animal that gave him particular trouble was Rusty, a clever, mischievous horse that somehow managed to escape the barn whenever it rained. My boyfriend spent 20 minutes chasing that horse into the barn so the darn thing wouldn’t get sick. Ironically, it was my boyfriend’s character (not the horse) that ended up in the hospital because he overworked himself.

Testing Risk in a “Safe” Space
While the game is quite simple, some of its objectives and outcomes seem pretty realistic. And those components of the game have only advanced since the 90s--so much so that real-life farmers are playing the latest farm simulation games to test out authentic equipment, operations, and scenarios based on their real-world equivalents. 

For example, Farming Simulator boasts their 2019 update includes “300 authentic vehicles and machines now including John Deere - but also Case IH, New Holland, Challenger, Fendt, Massey Ferguson, Valtra, Krone, Deutz-Fahr, and many more.” (By the way, the game’s fan base has grown so much, there’s a convention dedicated to it, and the game can now be played competitively.) 

This game allows players to dive into agriculture and use different equipment and strategies that they may not have access to in the real world. Essentially, they can take on as much risk as they want and suffer only virtual, game-based consequences, not real ones (except in my boyfriend's case, where he suffered from short-term annoyance).

Testing risk and risk management of farmers seems to be a theme in 2019. For example, a University of Vermont study used video games to better understand risk management practices of farmers through different scenarios. Based on the scenarios introduced, players changed their behaviors in the game to reduce risks. The study found that the smallest behavior changes dramatically impacted the outcome of preventing a risk, which can be used to create more effective strategies in real-world situations.

Another study released this year argues that “serious gaming” (i.e., games that aren’t played for entertainment purposes) should be considered as a communication strategy in agriculture to open up “new ways of thinking” about critical issues, such as climate change, and help provide new adaptive strategies.

Research of the Future?
Testing human behavior and attitude change via video games is becoming more popular because of the digital era we live in. And it’s a safe, controllable place to test strategies aimed at preventing serious risks such as the spread of livestock diseases (see the UVM study above). 

It will be interesting to see how this intersection of agricultural and psychological research progresses in the coming years as scientists work out new ways to prevent risk and mitigate issues such as climate change and African swine flu outbreaks. 

By Kim
Illustration made in Canva