Cows and climate change

Recent stories on my news feed have made bold declarations about how cattle are even bigger contributors to climate change than they previously thought (they already thought they were bad).  Their conclusions are mostly focused on greenhouse gases – how much methane cows produce, and the carbon implications of raising cattle.  I’m not a scientist, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer my opinion of the data or research they are using.  I think I can, however, point out some data points that are absent from virtually every anti-cow article I’ve ever read.

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Environmental Stewardship Award

We are honored to tell you that we were awarded the National Cattlemen’s Foundation National Winner of the Environmental Stewardship Award. Last fall, we were awarded the winner of Region VII which consists of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.  This week, as part of the Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in San Antonio, we were named the national winner.  It is hard to believe, given the caliber of the other six regional winners.  

There are many people to thank.  First and most important is our Creator for giving us the creation to care for.  We are in constant awe of all that surrounds us – its complexity, simplicity, beauty, and resiliency. We are very honored to have the privilege to care for it during our tenure in this life.

Our family:  the generations that preceded us may have done things differently than what we do today, but they still passed on a love of the land and the work ethic needed to care for it. I think they would approve of what we’re trying to accomplish, even if it isn’t “the way grandpa did it”.  Our present-day family as well, for continuing to stay connected to the land and care about what happens to it. We hope to make you proud when you tell people removed from agriculture that these are your roots.  (At least we hope not to embarrass you!)

Our neighbors and business partners: the Oxner family, the Vogele family, Jeff Marlette and Jeff and Dixie Beitelspacher, the Huber family, and the Rueb family.  Thank you for your patience and cooperation as we try new and different things to improve the land.

The agency folks at the Natural Resource Conservation Service and US Fish & Wildlife Service:  too many to name, but your technical and financial help in making improvements on our place have been a huge part of getting us to where we are.

The non-agency people who care about stewardship: SD Grasslands Coalition, World Wildlife Fund, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever.  Again, your partnership has been important in getting us here.

Our help over the years. All that fence didn’t put itself up.   There’s been a lot of people who have stayed for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months to help us get done what needed to be done. Your strong backs and willing attitude (genuine or not) have been essential to developing our infrastructure.  And you put up with us! That’s impressive in itself.

Thanks also to the sponsors of the ESAP program:
Dow AgroSciences
Natural Resources Conservation Service
US Fish & Wildlife Service
National Cattlemen’s Foundation
Tyson Foods

We are honored to receive this award and look forward to the upcoming opportunities we’ll have to advance the message of environmental stewardship and how grazing livestock are a vital part of that.

For more information on the Environmental Stewardship Program, visit

What do you know?

I finally broke down and joined Twitter about a month ago.  I do a lot more following than tweeting, mostly because I use it to keep up on the grain and livestock market drivers for the day.
Tonight as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I took note of a couple of statements regarding antibiotic use in livestock and GMO (genetically modified organism, in case you live in a cave) crops.  These two hot-button topics are being discussed everywhere it seems.  I'm going to settle the debate once and for all regarding both of these issues.
Do you believe me?  Good grief I hope not.  I must be the only person on the world wide web that is man enough to say "I don't know!"
So, here's my take on things.  For today I'll just tackle antibiotic usage.
Antibiotics are something I use on sick animals.  There are three or four different types that I have on hand.  Some cost more, some last longer, some act quicker, some work on certain diseases but not others.  When an animal is truly sick, I would consider it unethical to not give it something to help it heal.  Most people probably agree with me so far.  It's the same thing we do when the doc prescribes us some amoxicillin for an ear infection.
It seems the rub many people have is with the thought that livestock (even healthy ones) are mass-fed large quantities of antibiotics by greedy cattlemen to increase growth rate.  Let's dissect that idea a little bit.
Yes, cattle (I'm not venturing into other species, I'll stick with what I know) are sometimes mass-treated (meaning everybody gets it) with antibiotics.  I'll give an example.  When we ship a truckload of freshly-weaned 7-month-old calves to a feedlot, they will usually get some antibiotics in their feed for 3-5 days (depends on the formulation) sometime during the first two weeks after arrival.   In this case, antibiotics are used according to the label for "control" of a disease, to keep it from spreading.  The reason is that these calves have undergone a fair amount of stress – leaving mom, riding in a truck for a few hours, arriving at a new place with other calves from other places with other bugs they brought with them, and having a diet change (no more milk).  That's quite a bit to deal with.  The stress they are dealing with in combination with exposure to bacteria and viruses they are not used to can be too much for their immune system.  Sick calves don't eat or drink water much, compounding the problems.  Feeding an antibiotic shortly after arrival helps get the calves through likely the toughest part of their life, so they can remain healthy and enter the food chain eventually.  Nobody wants sick animals entering the food chain.  Except coyotes.  And vultures.  They are definitely anti-antibiotics.
So, what about feeding antibiotics to help them grow faster?  Well, yes that has some truth to it as well.  Don't freak out…just breathe and keep reading.  There is a class of antibiotics called ionophores.  I actually had no idea they were actually an antibiotic until recently – I've always heard them called ionophores, probably because they are used differently and have a very narrow scope compared to the others.  There are two products on the market that are being used – Bovatec (lasalocid sodium) and Rumensin (monesin).  They help cattle with feed efficiency (grow more on the same amount of feed) as well as prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic intestinal disease.   Neither lasalocid sodium or monesin, as far as I can tell, are used in human medicine.  They apparently are very safe to use, because they do not require a vet's prescription.  Many others require it.  Now, before you go tell all your friends that cattle are fed growth-promoting antibiotics, take 10 minutes and research these two drugs.  Don't take my word for it, but what I found out about monesin in particular is that it is produced naturally from the bacteria Strep cinnamonensis, and actually decreases methane emissions from cattle.
So, antibiotics have been shown to provide some really great benefits to people who raise livestock, myself included.  It isn't all roses though.  There are things we can and should be doing to reduce the need for antibiotic usage in livestock.  Reducing stress is the most important thing.  Proper vaccination protocols help, as does proper nutrition.  The thing is, these are all moving targets.  They are different for each ranch or feedlot and can be challenging to get right.  And, some things just can't be avoided.  That said, antibiotics can be an easy out for neglecting other aspects of animal husbandry.
I could go on and on about the things we can do to create healthier, more resilient animals.  And we need to get better at those things.  Some things I'm working on currently are improving my handling abilities and analyzing our mineral program.  By improving my cattle-handling skills, I can get the cattle to do what I need them to without causing them additional stress.  Regarding the mineral program, today I mailed off some hair clippings from a few healthy calves and one sick one to see if there is a mineral deficiency that might have led to the one getting sick.
My opinion about antibiotic resistance is that there is a human element involved at all levels.  Whether it be sick animals or sick people, we use them a lot.  There are some guys who subscribe to the "if a little is good, a lot is better" mentality when it comes to treating sick cattle with injectable antibiotics.  That's not a responsible (or legal) approach to using antibiotics.  The good part about antibiotic use in livestock is that they very seldom refuse to finish their doses.  It is administered through an injection or in their feed.  So, it is up to the caretaker to properly administer the drugs, use them as directed, and only after performing the proper animal husbandry.  The same is true when we use antibiotics on ourselves.  It is up to us to take care of our bodies reasonably in order to lessen the need for antibiotics; and when they are called for, to take them as directed.
 I've had to take antibiotics twice in the past year, and it was a challenge to remember to take them on schedule.  If I didn't care, and didn't know better, I would have quit before the regimen was over.  I was feeling better – why keep taking them?  It is my opinion that using antibiotics according to the label in livestock has a much smaller role in creating resistant bacteria than instances of people not finishing their oral antibiotic prescribed by their doctor.
Maybe you've got some strong feelings one way or another about this subject.  That's fine.  I encourage you to make sure you are justified in your opinion.  Do your own research.  You might find that sometimes things aren't as black-and-white as we'd like to think.
I'd be happy to answer any question you might have about how we use – or avoid using – antibiotics on our ranch.
It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.
– Will Rogers