Thursday, February 23, 2012

Knowing How the “Sausage is Made”

Update: August, 2013:  This editorial considers whether or not consumers really want to see where their food comes from, and this piece highlights survey results from England that indicate shoppers do want to know the source of their food. 

UPDATE: May, 2013: As a kid on the farm, I watched animals being butchered for meat consumption--as the blog below details. In this video, Temple Grandin clearly explains--and graphically shows--what happens in a hog meat plant.

Being There at Butcher Time 
     Many ag groups trumpet the idea of informing the public and helping consumers understand where their food comes from, but you know what they say about seeing “how the sausage is made.”  Some might think that culinary ignorance makes for a happy eater.
     I hope that an informed consumer makes a better friend of agriculture, but that’s tough since the vast majority of Americans never set foot on a farm. Two recent blogs examine both the “informing” and “sausage making” issues by tackling the fact that something must die if meat appears on the table. 
     In a piece from the cowboy who “ruminates from the road,” we hear a livestock producer’s view about such questions as: Do cattle understand their mortality? Are they afraid of the smell of blood? Are cattle terrified when they get to a processing plant? 
     In another commentary, Cindi Young examines the debate between livestock producers and those who advocate for improvements in animal welfare. She notes that it is worth asking whether farm animals have the ability to feel and perceive.  She also believes that livestock producers are in the best position to judge that.
     Both writers seem to appreciate the “Temple Grandin philosophy” of treating animals with respect and understanding. The “cowboy’s” piece gets specific about what happens to the animals when they take their final walk into the slaughterhouse. And for some, that’s the hard part.
     Because of my upbringing, I visited packing plants, joined in with the farm chicken butchering, and brought in plenty of veggies from the garden. I realize food has to be mass produced to nourish the burgeoning global population, but I’m still humbled by the intricate process.
     I knew early on that our hamburger and steaks did not come plastic-wrapped from the supermarket. Dad would decide our meat supply was low and a steer in the feedlot was ready, so he’d call Marv, the owner of the town meat locker. My brothers and I would climb the board fence for the big occasion, as Marv pulled into the lot with his butcher truck.
     Twenty or so steers might be in the pen, but Marv knew the chosen one.  He’d walk slowly toward it, calmly raise his rifle, and then tap on the barrel with the butcher knife he gripped with his trigger hand.  The steer would raise its head to stare at the tapping sound, and one shot between the eyes made it collapse instantly.  Marv would walk to the steer and slit its throat; the blood flowed out into a rich red puddle.  When Marv was satisfied the carcass was properly drained, he winched it into the bed of the truck and drove to his meat locker in town. A few days later, we stocked our freezer.
     Now, fifty years later, this is not the way it’s done, of course. But for every piece of meat consumed, some process occurs, and over the decades, the farmers, meat industries, and the government have worked to make products safe, nutritious, and appealing.  That doesn’t mean everyone agrees with the act of “sausage making.”  But until the day lab workers perfect test tube t-bones and science fiction sausage, it’s probably best if we all know where our meat comes from and how to keep processing it in the best ways possible for animals and consumers alike.  by dan gogerty, photo from ars

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Many “Best in Show” Dogs Live Down on the Farm

October 2014: The smartest dog in the world? The border collie profiled on Sixty Minutes certainly must be in the running, and this 13 minute video shows why many consider dogs much more intelligent than some give them credit for. Anderson Cooper meets Chaser, a dog who can identify over a thousand toys, and the scientists who are studying the brain of man's best friend 

This blog about growing up in the country with an assortment of dogs had me thinking back to the piece I wrote last year about farm dogs, mutts, and "canine members of the family."

Mutts and Strays Were Part of the Farm Family

Since leaving the home place at seventeen, I’ve only been able to enjoy farm dogs vicariously, so when I saw an article recently in the online AmericanCattlemen, I was happy to see that dogs are still an integral part of the ranch and farm scene. As the article says, “Ask a cattleman who their most entrusted employee is and the response will often be this: my dog.”

The piece goes on to profile an Iowa farmer who seems to be a living example of a Google search for “guy who knows about cattle-herding dogs.” The man’s border collie is like a canine cross between enforcer and “cow whisperer” as it sorts and moves a herd of 300 cattle. While reading about Australian blue heelers and the nineteen other recognized breeds of dogs in the herding category, I’m impressed. But I’m also at ease with the fact that the dogs of my childhood were special and useful in their own ways. And to be honest, I’m not sure what pedigree any of them were.

Every Midwest farm in the 1960s had a dog. Sparky, Bandit, or maybe Tippy. This was before names like Fifi or Pickles hit the scene. Some old codger further out from town may have had a scrawny mutt named Sickem, but traditional--not clever--names were still the mainstay then.

During my youth, we had several dogs, and some people might take issue with our nurturing techniques, but we never mistreated them. They were generally mutts, some strays, some passed on from neighbors, but the basic routine was this:  When we were kids, a dog would be in the front yard every morning when we emerged from the house; it would slobber, yip, and tag along with us all day; it would be a member of our football team and a part of any snowball fight although it wasn’t good at throwing things; and if I could talk my younger brothers into it, the dog would take alternate licks from their tootsie roll pops as we sat on the front step in the summer heat.

Smoky was the hands-down favorite. He was part of our lives when all three of us boys were dog-dependent, and the shaggy, black-haired mutt became another playmate for us and our cousins down the road. Like most of us, he had his addictions, and his love of chasing pick-up trucks ended when an ice patch on the lane sent him sliding under the wheels.

One of our dogs made celebrity status when Dad wrote a story about Shep. We were sorting cattle in the feedlot, and a cantankerous steer charged at my younger brother. Shep intervened, Dad wrote it up, and when it came out in Farm Journal or some-such publication, Shep received plenty of kudos, and Dad received a complaint letter from a reader who was angered that we fed our dog table scraps. Fat trimmed from sirloin steak, gravy scraped from the frying pan, and leftover crust bits from Mom’s homemade bread: That dog was eating high on the hog.

Further family lore includes a collie named Stubbie. I wasn’t around then, but apparently, my four-year-old sister went walkabout, and a frantic search first turned up one of her socks floating in the creek that runs under the bridge on our lane.  Soon after, the search party saw Stubbie bounding about in the pasture, and, sure enough, my sister was by his side, shoeless but having fun.

Neighbors had more accomplished canines: coon dogs that howled on late night hunts along the South Minerva Creek; dogs trained to help guide huge Belgian horses hitched to classic circus wagons; and farmers with dogs that would guard open gates, help sort cattle, and ride along in the front seat of farm pickups.

Which brings me back to the article in the online magazine. As the cattle farmer says, “No way I could get Tess to be a house dog.” Our dogs slept in the garage or in a barn loft above the livestock for heat in the winter. They ran free, rolled in the dust, collected cockle burrs and skunk smell in their fur, and occasionally did something criminal like chase the neighbor’s sheep. But a farm dog was another member of the family. Whether it’s a high-priced herding dog or a front porch mutt, many ranchers and farmers still think of their dog as Best in Show.
by dan gogerty (photo:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

If Only We’d Had an App for That (App Update Version)

Note: Since posting this commentary, several more good App lists have digitally floated our way:
*** Apps about nutrient removal and grain marketing from Ag Web.
*** A variety of possibilities from Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog.
*** A list from an interesting source, the Renegade Farmer site. 
*** Ten useful App recommendations from a business writer.  
*** And my favorite: an amusing parody list of pseudo Apps for farmers.
I guess we need an App to keep us up with new ag Apps--and then an App to clear our heads for a while as the digital cloud gets thicker. Speaking of--this is last week's posting:
Farmers and ag-related folks are taking to smart phones and Apps in increasing numbers, and those of us with dumb phones slowly slide into App Envy—an anxiety complex that comes when you think everyone else is digitally tuned into the newest thing, while you’re still trying to remember your password to access voice mail messages on your archaic cell phone.
But no matter which digital wave you are surfing on, Apps and smart phones are transforming food production, as this article from AgProfessional explains. The App topics range from soil testing data to seed analysis to voice-activated email. Many farmers now keep up with markets and the weather using Apps. Here are two of the many sample lists available online: 20 Best Mobile Apps for Agriculture; seven Apps recommended from the North Dakota State University Extension Office.

If only these Apps had been available when I was growing up on the farm.  On warm summer afternoons, my brothers, cousins, and I would roam the back pastures looking for trees to climb and spots in the creek where we could build dams.  No smart phones for parents to call and remind us when to get home and do chores; no stream water quality App to scare us about the toxins in the water we played in; and the only “angry birds” were the red-winged black birds that attacked us whenever we came anywhere near their nests.

When we started taking on farm jobs, we didn’t have a GPS system to guide our tractors around the fields.  We either learned driving skills or we tore out a few rows of young soybean plants while we cultivated.  During breaks while baling hay, we didn’t have text messaging to keep us occupied, so we listened to embellished yarns or semi-rude jokes the farmer might come up with when he handed us ice water and homemade cookies. And during evening baseball games, we didn’t even have tweets to read, so we had no idea what our friends were eating at the drive-in or buying at the record shop. We actually had to concentrate on playing the game and interacting with our friends who were there with us in person.

The digital revolution is changing agriculture for the better, but I have a feeling somewhere there is a farmer who walks out of his house unarmed, with no cell phone, Blackberry, or iPod in tow.  He pets his ten-year old collie as he walks to the feedlot to check on the cattle.  After getting a few buckets of grain for the new calves, he looks over the farm while standing in the shade of the oak tree that has anchored the place for 130 years. A summer breeze ripples through the tasseling corn, a red-tailed hawk hovers over the back grove looking for mice, and the newly baled hay stacked in the nearby shed still has that intoxicating alfalfa-clover aroma. I doubt if there is an App for that. by dan gogerty