Monday, August 15, 2011

GMO Soybeans: Roundup Weeded Out the Bean Walkers Too

April 2013 UPDATE: As I wrote below, a few years ago I thought the GMO debate was too convoluted, so instead of taking sides, I wrote about GMO crops, weeds, and jobs. Now that I've read scores of articles and listened to varied opinions, I'm still baffled--I need a genetically modified brain to take it all in. However, many websites offer interesting articles, and one blogger did quite a job of pulling information together--and of course she gives her views, although she seems to be really trying to think it all out.  Her blog entry, "What I Learned About GMOs from 9 Farmers, a Monsanto Employee, and a Whold Bunch of Reading," includes many links and articles. In the meantime, you can still read below about life in BBT--Before BioTech. 

Genetically modified plants? Roundup ready soybeans? I’ll leave the debate to others, but it’s a fact: The soybeans grown in my home state of Iowa are at least 90% GMO, and that’s not likely to change soon.  Fields look like English gardens, with precision rows and soft breezes rippling along the tops of weedless soybean plants. In one respect, it’s a shame. In the pre-GMO days, soybean fields had personality.
The classy ones were neat and orderly, with maybe a few weeds along the fence rows and waterways. The owners kept their cultivators sharpened, and they pounced when weeds showed above the bean rows, especially if drivers could see them from the road.
The casual soybean fields were mixed but salvageable. Wayward stalks of corn would shoot up, cocklebur patches hovered low and menacing, and sections of off-green buttonweeds tried to hide among the soybeans. Farmers usually battled these weeds, with varying results.
A few fields were fashion disasters. Clumps of volunteer corn dotted the rows, burrs and buttonweeds took over sections of the field, and iron weeds looked like sapling trees. Occasionally, thistle patches would get so out of control, somebody would just have to post an “Enter at your own risk” sign.
In the 1960s, soybean fields made for good talking points. By June it was obvious which would need to be “walked”—weeded by stoop laborers…or teenagers…or us. Farmers would hire youngsters to go row-by-row to pull weeds. My brothers, cousins, and I started walking beans on the home place about as soon as we were potty-trained, but Dad let us hire out to neighbors by the time we were 12 or so. Child labor laws were flexible then, and the 50 cents an hour wage that first year didn’t bring the IRS down on us.
We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ sneakers, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like outer space triffids. Heat, thirst, and blow flies were irritating, but mud clod fights with a cousin eight rows over could be dangerous.  It was satisfying to see the field get “clean and tidy” several rows at a time, but we were really after pocket money to buy a top-40 vinyl record or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.
I’m not blaming the GMO crowd, but soybean fields are soul-less now—bland and beautiful, like some type of cloned fields of dreams. As I said, I’ll let others debate the ethics of genetically modifying plants, but I do know that you should be careful of what you wish for. Today’s soybean fields are what we worked so hard to get back when we were doing hand-to-hand combat with cockleburs, thistles, and “stink weeds.” Roundup weeded us bean walkers out too. 
Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Editor
Note: Click here to listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of using GMO crops. Experts and callers give varying opinions.   
Note: Click here to access the 2009 CAST Special Publication, Sustainability of U.S. Soybean Production: Conventional, Transgenic, and Organic Production Systems.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Slow is Fast When Handling Cattle

May 2014:  Slow is Fast When Moving Cattle--this report from Texas A&M experts outlines the need for smart techniques when dealing with cattle. A few key points:
  • Cattle want to see you-- “Understanding their vision is foundational to handler positioning and cattle response.”
  • Cattle want to go around you-- “This allows you to position yourself such that when they do go around you, they are pointed at the intended gate or destination. They’ll think it was their idea to go there.”
  • Cattle want to be with and will go to other cattle-- “A herding instinct is natural and we can take advantage of this  as we work from the front of the cattle.”
  • Cattle want to return to where they have been-- “The natural instinct of a cow is to return to the last known safe or comfortable place. Low stress handlers use this to their advantage when sorting and moving cattle from one corral to another.”
  • Cattle can only process one main thought at a time-- “If cattle are thinking about anything other what you are asking them to do, change their focus before putting pressure on them.”
Cattle on the Lam (related blog)

I always figured pigs are smart. Those beady eyes and that “what, me worry?” look made me think they were up to something.  But cows? Cud-chewing and a lot of standing around near the water tank. So when I saw a short video about Daisy the bovine genius, it took me back to the times I had to round up cattle that had been clever enough to get loose.
Daisy can unlock gates with her tongue.

During my teenage summers on the farm, I would occasionally grab a sleeping bag and spend the night in the yard.  I’d drift off to the sound of waves as the night breeze flowed across cornfields and broke gently against the boughs of the nearby cottonwood tree. 

Late one night, I woke knowing something had invaded my space.  Fifteen or twenty cows moved through the lawn, their zombie eyes gleaming, their steady plodding a sign that they were on a mission.  When cattle escape, they generally are after food, and in this case, they were headed toward the open fields. I can’t remember the scene that followed, but I imagine I woke the rest of the family, we shut a few gates, opened others, and stepped around cow pies as we herded them back in the light of daybreak.

During the ensuing forty years, it seems that cattle have made some type of escape on the farm at least once a year, and I happened to be there for the latest. Last week, I visited the farm to see my folks and harvest sweet corn, but as I walked out the front door, six escapee steers were scrummed up in the lane.  At my urging, five turned around, but there is always a rebel, and he and I played stare down for a spell.  Dad opened a nearby gate, and with a bit of luck, we persuaded the renegade steer to gallop back in. By this time, the others were in an adjacent pasture, a thistle lined paddock with a basically useless fence.  Mom was the smart one of the bunch; she called neighbors, and with their help, we corralled all but one that leaped the fence and bolted through the soybean field. Cousin Tim, the cow hand among us, was philosophical about it: “That steer will be back this evening.” He was right.

Tim has had plenty of experience with cows on the lam. During one large bovine jailbreak last spring, he had help from a neighbor with a pickup, several relatives on foot, and two Amish ranchers on horseback. Watching Tim help us this week reminded me that cattle are best persuaded not bullied. They will more likely end up back in the pen if the methods include slow movements, smart tactics, and firm but measured persuasion. Maybe it’s the Temple Grandin approach.  

When I drove off, the cattle were standing around the water tank, chewing their cuds. But I’m not fooled. I know there’s a Houdini in the bunch hatching another plot.  (Dan Gogerty, CAST Communications Editor)

Note:  A recent clinic focused on Stress-free Cattle Handling looked at topics such as moving herds with control, putting cattle through gates, loading cattle onto a truck, pasture loading without facilities, and working with dogs and horses.
Note:  For a humorous take on herding animals, check out this classic ad from a few years ago: Herding Cats