Friday, March 30, 2012

Pig in a Poke: Gestation Stalls and Old-style Free Range

Companies such as Hormel, Smithfield, and Cargill have made plans to gradually end or cut back on the use of gestation stalls, and when McDonalds called on pork producers to change the system,  McShockwaves rippled through the industry. As with many ag issues, the topic is complicated.  Production techniques vary: some farmers use stalls extensively, some minimally, and some not at all.

Many say confinement production and stall use are good because pigs are protected from weather and predators, they are treated medically and fed properly, and the sows don’t roll onto and kill their babies so frequently. Detractors say such confinement is unnatural, many hogs are condemned to lives in a “straight jacket,” and the practices lead to overuse of medicines and additives.

Whatever your views on pork consumption and hog production, it is best to read a variety of insightful articles and science-based reports from all sides, as the changes in the industry will have social and economic implications. This site contains many links to articles explaining the pork producers’ perspectives.  This one explains the “natural techniques” used on a well-known American pork producer’s farm.  And this site gives an example of how pigs are raised using varied techniques on a hog farm in New Zealand

I have to admit, I didn’t give any of this much thought back when I was growing up on a small, Midwest farm.  Our pigs were basically free-range by default—sort of like they were mischievous school kids and we were caring but rather detached playground monitors.

Now that I look back, I have to agree with the common consensus that claims pigs are intelligent.  Oh sure, they would act dumb—beady eyes, gaping mouths, hours wallowing in mud and rooting in feedlot filth. But they played the game just right.  They would get us to feed them corn, bed their hog house with straw, and clean their area with pitchforks and manure spreaders. And for entertainment, they cleverly figured out how to escape and then they’d enact some type of Babe-the-squealing-pig rodeo game with us.

I can picture angry sows coming at me when I got too near their babies (this necessitated a scoop shovel or a quick hop over the fence); I recall hog droving days when we would move the herd a mile down the gravel road to Uncle Pat’s farm (pigs have a phobia about crossing bridges); and I remember when my brothers and I took care of three “runt pigs” that had been bullied to near death by the others (we raised them in a separate pen, and eventually watched them board the truck for the slaughterhouse—no Wilbur-the-terrific-pig ending).

I like pigs, but I’m happy as a hog in fresh clover that I don’t have to take care of them.  Dedicated pork producers have to be concerned shepherds, economic wizards, and medical assistants. When I was six or seven, Dad took me to a neighbor’s farm, and I watched in a trance as Doc Walker performed his vet magic by doing a cesarean and saving an ailing sow and several of the babies. A few years later, Doc was in our pasture with Dad and Uncle Pat, huddled over a dead 250 pounder. His field autopsy showed that a deadly nightshade weed had poisoned the animal.  And years later, I returned to the farm for a visit and, with my wife and two small children, we watched my brother-in-law assist a sow that was struggling to deliver 18 baby pigs.  Twelve lived.

I have a lot of respect for those who put their all into pork production, and I think farmers, food companies, and consumers will work out ways to keep hog farms safe, affordable, and humane. I’ll rely on them to figure out what’s best for the pigs.  Like I said, I agree they’re intelligent, but I did my time working with them.  As Will Rogers supposedly pointed out, "You should never try and teach a pig to read for two reasons. First, it's impossible; and secondly, it annoys the hell out of the pig!" by dan gogerty 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Would Finely Textured Beef by Any Other Name Taste the Same?

Update June 2017--"Slime" Trial Begins

The defamation lawsuit brought by a South Dakota meat processor against ABC News has begun. Five years in the making, this high-stakes case could last eight weeks or more. The jury will have to decide if the network and its reporter defamed the product known within the meat industry as lean finely textured beef (LFTB) by repeatedly referring to it as "pink slime" in numerous reports. No matter what it is called, most agree it is safe to eat.  

Some reflections from when the controversy first broke in 2012...


 "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Shakespeare

Now that several large supermarket chains have banned any beef containing lean finely textured meat trimmings, the pink slime issue has become even more “finely textured,” or maybe it's "slimy."
One side, led by Jamie Oliver and ABC Nightly News investigations, indicates that the meat by-product is possibly dangerous, probably treated by a suspect ammonia process, and definitely in need of being labeled whenever it is sold. They say a subtle meat industry practice has forced pseudo beef onto the consumer.
The other side, backed by numerous companies and scientists, claims the product is safe and approved. They say a slur campaign is going to result in wasted products, higher costs, and the abandonment of a perfectly useful food.
Maybe one thing all sides would agree on is that the “pink slime” term was a master stroke in connotative maneuvering. The pejorative phrase has been around for months, but it caught fire in the media bonfire during the past few weeks, and at least for now, many consumers are calling for slime-free (non-textured) meat.
The meat industry was caught off guard. If they could have come up with a Madison Avenue term for the product early on, the outcry may have been muted. A tough task though, considering what they had to work with: Lean Finely Textured Beef. Hmmm. The acronym sounds more like a school club: LFTB. Adding the word “trimmings” allows for an alliteration like “textured trimmings,” or using truncated words could make something like Fine Tex Beef, but that could be stretching things a bit.
Maybe the industry should have changed the term completely like other food products have done. Not many would order Slimehead from the fish menu, but its replacement name, Orange Roughy, has worked out fine. Fatty Goose Liver is not in demand, but French food lovers go for foie gras. And no need to elaborate about the term Rocky Mountain Oysters.
So, a new name. How about something like “pink protein” or “the other pink meat”? If the color is the problem, then they could try “lean trim protein.” That has a healthy sound to it, although it might be too wordy for the Twitter world.
Names aside, the important factors for agricultural products are health, nutrition, and economics. In the New Digital World, communication about these factors is key. Food producers and consumers need to communicate, and the media can be the means or it can be the message--clear or distorted.  For 45 years, CAST has promoted its mission to assemble, interpret, and communicate credible science-based information.  

by dan gogerty (top photo courtesy of ars/usda and bottom from

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Zombie Weeds: Plants Become Vicious Again

Update December 2014:

Farmers engaged in an epic struggle with “superweeds” are looking for help from a new super chemical that’s about to hit the market--but some concerns are still tough to weed out.

Update October 2014: Superweed Facts and Myths   

This article from the Weed Science Society of America provides a new fact sheet touproot common misconceptions about superweeds– a catchall term used by many to describe weeds resistant to herbicides. 
Updates July 2014
  *** This Des Moines Register article looks at the "super weed" problem, and this editorial asks, “Who ya gonna call when the weed busters no longer work?” 

Palmer amaranth can shoot up as high as 7 feet, and just one plant can produce up to a million seeds. Herbicide is increasingly futile against it, and weed scientists are sounding the alarm because the plant can cause deep losses in corn and soybean yields. 
Experts warn U.S. crop producers that herbicide-resistant weeds are aggressively taking hold in many parts of the country and pose a significant threat to U.S. crop productivity and profitability. 

My earlier blog looks at the...

Return of the Weeds from Hell

Some researchers refer to herbicide resistant pests as potential horror stories. Considering recent articles about herbicide resistant weeds, you might assume Hollywood will soon be remaking The Day of the Triffids or Little Shop of Horrors with waterhemp, marestail, and pigweeds auditioning for leading roles.  Coming soon to a field near you: Dawn of the Glyphosate Resistant Weed and Silence of the Lambsquarter.
Ag services and chemical companies are making recommendations regarding how to fight the resurgent weeds, as some farmers vary herbicides, rotate crops, or use old-fashion tilling techniques. The ultimate back-to-the-future move would be if soybean farmers reverted to the ancient practice of walking beans.  Only a select group of old timers in the Midwest would know the joys of weeding beans, but for the uninitiated, just picture Mike Rowe arriving for a “Dirty Jobs” segment carrying gloves, a hoe, and his usual big-bill cap .
In the early ‘60s, 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 either.
We’d often start early to beat the heat; dew-drenched, with mud sticking to our Keds’ tennis shoes, we’d trudge along, pulling most weeds, chopping some, and basically wrestling with the ones that seemed more like small pine trees. 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 single or admission to the roller skating rink a farm family had set up in a nearby converted hog barn.
The move to bio tech soybeans turned the fields into English gardens devoid of that old weedy character; they became bland and beautiful, like cloned fields of dreams. Considering my age, I hope companies and farmers figure out safe, effective ways to fight the weed comeback that seems to be growing.  My days of doing hand-to-hand combat with cockleburrs, buttonweeds, and Canadian thistles are over.
Note: CAST’s influential Issue Paper, Herbicide-resistant Weeds Threaten Soil Conservation Gains: Finding a Balance for Soil and Farm Sustainability, examines the impact of certain weed management practices on soil conservation objectives and addresses ways to mitigate negative effects. 
by dan gogerty (photo courtesy of Jack Bacheler and Communication Sevices, N.C. State Univ. in Perspectives, the Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, NCSU, Winter 2009)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Water, Water Everywhere, but for Some, Not a Drop to Drink

     In the classic science fiction novel Dune, water is so scarce that the inhabitants of the planet Arrakis have adopted techniques to save every possible drop.  Shedding a tear for someone is considered an ultimate gift.  On today’s Earth, some are shedding a tear for the condition of water sources in many parts of the world.  Access to clean water is not only a topic for symposiums and research papers, it is a matter of life and death for those in critically affected areas.
     From the Iowa Water Conference in Ames to international symposiums at the United Nations, experts are tackling this issue, and if the U.N. statistics are true, effective programs are needed immediately.  Check this website for some basic information from the United Nations regarding the use of water around the world.
     On a national level, the U.S. Congress is apparently considering legislation in a farm bill that might include regulations about water use and agricultural management. The issues can be thorny as different interest groups consider water rights, food production, environmental impact, and the needs of a growing population. Experts also argue about the influence of climate change, and this new research is one opinion about the strain climate change could put on the quality and availability of groundwater.
      At the regional level, the recent Iowa Water Conference addressed many of these concerns, and CAST was directly involved with the presentation of its latest publication, Assessing the Health of Streams in Agricultural Landscapes: The Impacts of Land Management Change on Water Quality.  The paper will also be featured at three rollout events (EPA, the Senate, and the House) in Washington, D.C., on March 26.
      Many of us were lucky enough to grow up not worrying about fresh drinking water. As a matter of fact, my family members thought the bored well on our central Iowa farm in the 1960s made the absolute best coffee and tea in the pre-Starbuck’s era. And the creeks that flowed through our pastures were not just pastoral backdrops for the grazing cattle; they were playgrounds where youngsters went swimming, fishing, and dam building. If agricultural run-off or poorly engineered feedlots pumped toxins into the streams, it didn’t register with us. We may have noticed if cattle crossed the creek just above where we were wading for minnows, but the poison ivy on the bank and bumble bees in the clover concerned us much more.
     Before we were old enough for skating and hockey, the winter creek seemed like an icy highway ready for exploration.  On one below-freezing afternoon, a few of us decided our parents had become unreasonable. They had probably given us an early curfew or told us we weren’t old enough to watch Gunsmoke.  Whatever the reason, we decided to run away, and the creek was our escape route.  After thirty minutes or so of walking upstream, we reached the tile culvert that fed the tributary of our farm’s stream.  We had gone the wrong way and run out of creek.  Huck Finn would not be impressed.
     Now we realize that the little capillary streams on our farm are part of the arteries that form the lifeblood of our state. Water that flows under the bridge on the lane eventually joins the Mississippi River and flows on to the Gulf of Mexico. We’re all part of the world’s circulatory system.
     Farmers, agri-business employees, government officials, and scientists are a big part of the efforts to secure safe, plentiful water for the world. I was heartened this week to see representatives from all those sectors at the Iowa Water Conference, where experts could discuss problems and solutions. Let’s hope they and others can commit to having a world where everyone can access clean drinking water—and where maybe youngsters can continue to wade into rural streams on a hot summer day to build sod dams and race homemade stick boats. by dan gogerty (photo acquired from Shutterstock)