Tag Archives: animal welfare

From the Rancher’s Mouth: Beef Cattle and the Environment

Confession: my husband, kids and I hardly ever eat beef. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I bought beef at the store. Not that I don’t like beef – I occasionally enjoy a good hamburger at a restaurant and when we visit my parents I often request steak because my dad cooks a good steak.  Part of the reason we don’t eat much beef is because we only eat meat about 50 percent of the time. My husband used to be a vegetarian because he believes with our growing population it’s more efficient to eat a plant-based diet instead of using resources to raise animals for us to eat. Since having kids, he’s relaxed his approach because getting protein into kids is hard enough without the added difficulty of doing it without meat. As a compromise, when I plan the weekly menu, half of it is vegetarian. When we do eat meat, we don’t usually choose beef because cows are fairly resource-intense to raise (and, frankly, it’s often more expensive than chicken.)

At least, that’s what we think. In complete fairness, I’ve not spent a lot of time looking at the data, so when a cattle rancher with a degree in Environmental Studies agreed to share her perspective on the environmental impact of raising beef cattle, I was really excited. The below guest post by Cassidy  is a bit of an introduction into the environmental conversation around raising beef. Admittedly, this is one perspective on the conversation, and I plan to come back to this issue again in the future. But it’s an important perspective from a very intelligent, well-researched source, and I learned a lot about cattle ranching that I never knew. I hope you learn something new, too. (All pictures courtesy of Cassidy.)

Cassidy lives and works with her husband and six-month-old son on a cattle ranch in east central Colorado, where they raise registered Angus, Red Angus, Hereford and Charolais cattle. She has a B.A. in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When they’re not messing with cows, horses or dogs or playing with their roly-poly kiddo, she likes to cook, read, do DIY projects, and cover as many surfaces as possible in plaid and/or glitter. 

–By Cassidy —

I’ve started and almost finished this post many times, but haven’t ever been happy with the result. I struggled with how to format it in a way that wasn’t too wordy while also being direct and informative and as unbiased as possible. The best I could come up with is a broad FAQ of sorts, because I get asked the same questions over and over. This is a very brief overview of a very complicated topic.

Just a disclaimer, I am going to be talking about beef ranching only. I’m also not going to be discussing feedlots—that’s a separate (though very much related) issue.

As a cattle rancher, how do you feel about the argument that people need to eat less beef?
I think people need to eat less (and waste less!) period, beef included. A quarter-pounder contains more than enough calories for a meal; do you really need to supersize it and add more of everything? And how much of that 16-oz steak are you going to eat, and how much are you going to throw away? This country as a whole struggles with consumerism and health, so cutting back across the board—not just in beef—seems to be a good idea to me.

But beef is the least feed-efficient animal, and they take up so many resources!

Flour the baby calf.

Flour the baby calf.

Again, true. Of the four main meat animals (fish, chicken, pigs, cattle), beef is the least feed-efficient animal; that is, it takes more pounds of feed to make one pound of meat (Johnston 2012). Cattle are larger than fish, chicken and pigs and thus take up more room and require more input just to maintain themselves. However, 85 percent of the land where cattle are raised is unsuitable for farming (Explore Beef 2009), so cows are a way to make that land work for us from a food production perspective, while maintaining natural beauty and wide-open spaces.

Another cool thing about wide-open spaces, besides the natural environment for wildlife and just seeing nature do its thing? Carbon sequestration! Grasslands, like forests, are carbon sinks, and some research shows that grasslands produce more in an environment higher in carbon dioxide (North Carolina State University 2001). Grasses require disturbance—grazing—to remain healthy, so well-managed grazing actually helps the environment; I talk more about this in the next section.

Isn’t livestock ranching bad for the environment? Ranchers only care about the bottom line, not the land.
Livestock ranching as it relates to climate change and land use is a big deal. A study by the FAO shows the impact livestock have on the environmental health of our planet (FAO 2006). As a rancher who holds a degree in Environmental Studies from CU Boulder, I get it, I really do. But no, well-managed ranching is not bad for the environment (Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2008, Explore Beef 2009). The key here is the management, and the American ranching industry has made huge leaps and bounds in the past several decades as far as management is concerned. On government lands, for instance, land health is monitored closely. In years of environmental duress or when the rangeland in question is not up to standard, the number of animals allowed on the permit may be decreased, or a rest period may be implemented (Wiles 2014).

However, it’s hard to get a real read on the nation’s rangeland health as a whole. This article explains it much better than I can.

Ranching and the environment are very closely related—they have to be! Yes, ranchers care about the bottom line. They have to; a ranch is a business. But, ranchers are also stewards of the land, and the health of the environment is often the same as the health of the bottom line. How? Well, ranchers make a large portion of their income (if not all their income) selling cattle. Good grass makes for healthy cattle that produce better milk and raise bigger calves. Since cattle that will be eaten (feeder cattle) are bought and sold by the pound, this is important. Good grass also makes for big, strong, healthy bulls and replacement heifers (yearling heifers chosen to stay in the herd to replace old or culled cattle), which will increase their value to a prospective buyer. Poor grazing management is economically counterproductive, since bad management means less or poorer quality grass which translates to less weight gained or value added.

The environment, of course, includes the water, too. The area where land and a river or stream meets is called a riparian area. Managing this area is, in my opinion, one of the weaker links, but it’s also one of the areas where improvements are being pushed the hardest. Riparian areas are hard to manage, because they’re where cows like to be. It’s cool, there’s water, and the grass is tasty, so it’s not easy to convince the girls that they don’t need to hang out by the creek all the time.

Fenced off pond.

Fenced off pond.

We manage this by giving cows other water sources, and use windmill- and solar-powered water pumps to pump water into tanks fitted with overflow floats or ground tanks so they don’t overflow and get muddy. We also fence off particularly sensitive or boggy areas—sometimes just as much for the cows’ benefit, because cows can get bogged down and stuck and will die if you don’t get to them in time, and it can be pretty dangerous and exhausting work to pull a stuck cow out of a bog. We also use salt and mineral strategically to lure cows away from creeks to water tanks that are easier to manage. When all else fails, the cowboys will ride the creek every day, and push the cows away.

If ranching were all about the bottom line, no one would do it. It’s not a job; it’s truly a lifestyle that you have to enjoy to keep at it. The hours are long and the work is hard, and it’s definitely not as romantic as it seems. My husband and I have never held hands riding off into the sunset on our horses, but we have held (gloved) hands in the pickup checking calves all night long during a blizzard.

I’ve read that cows produce a lot of methane, which is a major greenhouse gas.
Also true! Cows are ruminants and enteric fermentation (methane production) is a natural by-product of their digestive processes, enteric fermentation from beef cattle accounts for about 19 percent of annual US methane emissions (United States Environmental Protection Agency, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions 2009). That’s a big number, but it bears mentioning that while methane is the more potent greenhouse gas, it only accounts for ten percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The beef industry is working on making animals more efficient in how they process feed—more moderate-framed, high feed-efficiency cattle that don’t require as much input. Our primary goal in choosing herd sires and replacement heifers for our ranch is frame size and efficiency. Our ranch is part of a larger group of ranches, and we provide the bulls to all the other ranches. Choosing moderate-framed bulls with high feed efficiency makes a big impact across all of the ranches, since there are over 16,000 cows. This means that there are 16,000 cows annually that are going to produce a more moderate-framed calf, thus producing less methane and using fewer resources. It also means that we are choosing replacement heifers from a more moderately-sized group of calves. The end goal is to have a very moderately-sized, highly efficient herd that is effective from both an economic and environmental standpoint: smaller, more efficient cattle use fewer resources and produce less methane.

Summer grass meadow.

Summer grass meadow.

One thing to mention here though is that I often hear that grass-fed beef is the better option both health-wise and environmentally. Keep in mind that cattle that are finished on grass rather than grain not only produce more methane because grass is harder to digest (Jones 2014), but because grass-finished cattle live anywhere from 6-16 months longer (Brady 2014) because it takes them longer to reach slaughter weight. This means that they consume more grass, water and space, too.

Isn’t it unfair that one person can own so much land and not allow it to be available for public use?
The ranch that my husband and I work for is about 50 miles away from a large city, with lots of smaller towns in between, and the owner buys up land as it comes up for sale so that it doesn’t get sold to developers. This means that the ranch is not even close to being contiguous, but I think it’s pretty neat because he’s working so hard to make sure that there’s some open spaces left for our children to see.

I know that there are people who have negative opinions about private land ownership, because that land isn’t open to the public for use. While I understand that argument, I think that the end result is more important, and if private citizens have to buy land to save it from being turned into 40-acre lots for homes and subdivisions, then so be it.

What’s more environmentally friendly: 80,000 acres of open land with a herd of cattle grazing, and a handful of houses and barns, or 40-acres with a house and a barn and a shop and a cement driveway with a horse “pasture” that’s eaten down to dirt and weeds? The latter might seem extreme, but it’s what I drive past every single day on my way to the office at headquarters, and it breaks my heart to see so little respect for the environment by the same people who condemn us, their neighbors, for raising cattle.

Winter pasture.

Winter pasture.

Just a tip: if you want to hike, or ride your horse, or just see a ranch, write a letter or email to the manager (I would say call, but lots of ranches are sans reliable phone service!) and ask for access or a tour. They may say no, of course, as is their right, but it’s a better course of action than trespassing, which is not only illegal but will guarantee the denial of future access.


Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. (2008, April). Grazing Management Adjustments for Healthy Rangelands. Retrieved July 10, 2015, from ESRD: http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/grazing-range-management/documents/GrazingManagementHealthyRangelands-2008.pdf

Brady, J. (2014). Why Grass Finished Is Important. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Brady’s Idaho Beef: http://www.bradysbeef.com/grass-finished-beef.html

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. (October 2009). Enteric Fermentation Mitigation. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from Center for Climate and Energy Solutions: http://www.c2es.org/docUploads/Enteric-Fermentation-09-09.pdf

Explore Beef. (2009, April). Cattle Ranching and Environmental Stewardship. Retrieved July 15, 2015, from Explore Beef: http://www.explorebeef.org/environment.aspx

FAO. (2006, November 29). Livestock a major threat to environment. Retrieved June 15, 2015, from FAO Newsroom: http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/News/2006/1000448/index.html

Johnston, G. (2012, 2 2). Why is beef losing ground to chicken? Retrieved June 15, 2015, from Agriculture.com: http://www.agriculture.com/livestock/cattle/why-is-beef-losing-ground-to-chicken_276-ar21983

Jones, M. (2014, February). Ways to Reduce Methane Production in Cattle. Retrieved July 26, 2015, from UNL Beef: http://beef.unl.edu/reduce-methane-production-cattle

North American Meat Institute. (2011, March). The United States Meat Industry at a Glance. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from North American Meat Institute: https://www.meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=d/sp/i/47465/pid/47465

North Carolina State University. (2001, January 15). Scientists Find That Grasslands Can Act as Carbon Sinks. Retrieved August 19, 2015, from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/01/010111073831.htm

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases. Retrieved 8 2015, July, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases.html

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). Overview of Greenhouse Gases: Methane Emissions. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from EPA.gov: http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

USDA. (1996, August). Rangeland Health. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from Natural Resources Conservation Service Maryland: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/md/home/?cid=nrcs143_014218

Wiles, T. (2014, November 12). A new map shows rangeland health West-wide. Retrieved July 18, 2015, from High Country News: https://www.hcn.org/articles/BLM-rangeland-health-grazing-cattle-environment




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Farming In Focus: April – Dairy

This is my second Farming in Focus post as part of a new project where I visit at least one farm each month and do kind of a day-in-the-life of a farmer through photo essay. This month I focused on dairies – I visited three, in fact. I had an ulterior motive, though, because I’m simultaneously working on a story about milk labels (more on that later) so I wanted to sample a few different approaches to milk-production, if you will. I visited one dairy in Oregon and two dairies in Washington as part of a trip I took to Spokane for the AgChat Pacific Northwest Regional Agvocacy conference.  This is also why I’m a few days late with this post – I have too much on my plate!

First I visited Cloud Cap Farms, an organic dairy in Boring, Oregon. (It’s really not all that boring, though, it was really interesting.)CloudCap Farm-1Melissa Collman is a fourth generation dairy farmer. Her family’s  dairy has been in business since 1924 and chose to go organic in 2004 as a way to financially stabilize their business. Organic dairies get paid a contracted price for their milk, where most conventional dairies get paid a fluctuating price based on current market value. Part of being organic means they are unable to treat their cows with antibiotics. One way that they reduce the need for antibiotics is to “hutch” raise their calves (each calf in it’s own hutch with an outdoor paddock) instead of “mob” raise them (all together). This way if one calf gets sick, they don’t all get sick. After about 60-90 days, they are moved to a group environment. If a cow does get sick, they try to use alternatives to antibiotics, but in the event that a cow gets something like pneumonia that can only be treated with antibiotics, they either treat with antibiotics and sell the cow to a conventional dairy or, very rarely, euthanize the cow.

CloudCap Farm-2One difference Collman has noticed since they went organic is that they feed their cows less than they used to, and as a result the calves are smaller and require less assistance in birth and the cows have fewer Displaced Abomasum (DA) or twisted stomachs. As a downside to not feeding the cows so much, they produce less milk. Part of that difference is because the components of the feed is different – for example, they can’t feed cottonseed or beet pulp because they can’t source it organically, and even if they could it would be cost-prohibitive. They currently feed their cows a forage-based feed with about ten percent grain, whereas when they were conventional they feed them about 25 percent grain. While the contracted price they get for their milk stays the same, they do suffer fluctuations in feed costs.  “It’s been a rough few years for us, I’m not going to lie,” Collman said. “The cost of feed is going up and not going down – the drought in California is hurting farmers. I really feel for my conventional counterparts who don’t get that contracted milk price.”

CloudCap Farm-3Something that really surprised me as I was walking around all three dairies is the amount that cows poop. Seriously, non-stop pooping. They poop where they lay, eat, sleep. They poop when they get up, they poop while they’re laying down. It sounded like someone continually dumping bags of oranges on the ground (and I’m not even going to talk about the pee-faucet those cows turn on.) So, what to do with all that poop? Most dairies have a lagoon to which they move all the manure. On Collman’s dairy, they flush manure water down these chutes and out into the lagoon. They separate the “solids” into a compost that they use to fertilize their alfalfa fields and re-circulate the manure water to wash out the barn. Stinky, but efficient.

CloudCap Farm-4One requirement for organic dairies is the cows must be on pasture, but Collman’s dairy was pasture-based before they went organic, so that made it a little easier for them. “I still thought we were amazing farmers as conventional farmers,” said Collman. She noted that she doesn’t believe organic is just a marketing ploy, that they truly believe in what they do and this production method is a good fit for  her family. “But what’s best practice on our farm isn’t necessarily best practice on another farm,” she said.


Next I visited Stauffer Dairy, about an  hour north of Spokane, Washington.

Stauffer farm-1

Brandon and his wife Krista milk about 150 cows on their first-generation dairy they started in 2009. They also have three young kids who were dashing about the whole time I was there, climbing on fences, hanging on Krista and trying to coerce me into coming to see their baby chicks. They seemed immensely happy to be there and to show me their way of life. Part of that way of life is to rake out and level the stalls twice a day, as Brandon is doing here. All the stalls get new pine shavings weekly. The heifers were moved from outside to be checked by their veterinarian before being moved to summer pasture and in this photo are in a corner of the freestall barn that isn’t normally used for milk cows. Krista also pointed out that some of the stalls need to be repaired. “Cow size stalls  and young heifers do not mix well. As you can see they made a mess and it is a work out to clean up after them.” Summer pasturing provides a welcome break for that particular chore.

Stauffer farm-2

While the cows were in the parlor being milked, Brandon was cleaning out the barn. (I like to think of him as a manure management engineer.)He drove this tractor equipped with what looked to me like a reverse-snow plow and shoveled those massive amounts of manure I mentioned before into their lagoon. Unlike Collman, their dairy is not set up to flush the manure into the lagoon, so they must push it out manually. Yes, those wheels are covered in cow manure and yes,  he’s smiling about it. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Props to him, though, he didn’t bat an eye. The tractor scrapes all the manure to a slot that then transfers it to the lagoon. All the Stuaffers’ manure is used as fertilizer for feed that is grown for their farm as well as a neighboring dairy farm.

Stauffer farm-3

After filling up with feed, Brandon feeds the heifers in a transition pin (a heifer is a young female cow that has not yet had a calf.) The heifers stay in this transition pen for a short period after they are weaned off milk to be monitored for health, and checked by the veterinarian to make sure all is well. Then they are vaccinated for bangs (Brucellosis, a reproductive disease) and moved to pasture.  Stauffer farm-4The Stauffers purchase all of their feed – they feed a combination of alfalfa hay and silage, mixed with grass, barley and corn. Hay is dried forage like grass or alfalfa where silage is fermented forage.  I mentioned to Krista that Cloud Cap Farms has experienced fewer assisted births and DAs since they went organic. I asked her if they felt like conventional dairies suffered more in that regard than organic dairies. She told me, “Each farm is different. On our farm, we rarely have a DA, maybe once a year. As far as pulling calves, it is not common practice on our farm.”stauffer-6The Stauffers have 25 calves on whole milk right now. The feed changes as they get older, but one thing that remains constant is that they are feed alfalfa hay and/or silage as well as barley for their grain.


The last farm I visited was Douglas Falls Creamery and Barton Hay in Colville, Washington.

Barton farm-1Angie Barton and her husband, Dennis, own Douglas Falls Creamery, a certified raw milk micro-dairy on 470 acres two hours north of Spokane. They can only farm 80 of those acres (the rest are mountainous) but they lease an additional 100 acres  for a total of 180 acres to grow alfalfa, alfalfa/grass hay and barley or oat hay for the local goat, horse and family cow market. Barton is an animal expert with 40 years of experience  – she started working with goats when she was five years old. On their farm they have horses, Jersey cows, Icelandic and Friesian sheep, Alpine goats, one donkey, one pony, one llama, guinea pigs, two pot-bellied pigs, Blue Slate turkeys, laying hens, banty chickens, ring-necked doves, Japanese quail, emus (seen in this image), geese, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons and two dogs. They also have Barton’s four children and her niece living with them on their farm.

Barton farm-2I’ll freely admit that I’m not a morning person (and my husband will back me up on this) but I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take pictures of Barton’s twin daughters, Ellie (seen here) and Claire doing the morning chores. I said to Claire, “You do this every single morning?” and she said, “Yes. And every evening.” I said, “How do you go on vacation?” and she said, “We haven’t gone on vacation all together since we got cows.” Twice a day from March through November Ellie hand milks six to eight goats. And it was 30 degrees out there!

Barton farm-3 Barton got certified to sell raw milk in September of 2012 and they sell approximately 75 gallons a month at $4 per half gallon, the rest they mix with grain to feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and about five butcher hogs per year. In order to sell raw milk, you must have a small herd – Claire milks between three and five cows twice a day. They fully recognize the risk associated with raw milk and Barton told me they only do it for the taste, she doesn’t believe there is a nutritional advantage. “Jerseys have higher butterfat which we skim off mostly, but the milk is sweeter,” she said. “I’m not sure if it is because of the Jersey breed or not being heated or what we feed them, but I always say it’s like a fresh peach off the tree compared to canned peaches. I continue to tell my customers that pasteurized milk is the safest and that we don’t drink it for any other reason than the taste and that we know we can do a safe job, but there is always that risk.”

Barton farm-4

Barton says selling the milk provides them with enough to pay the costs of feed and a little extra, but they also have a hay business and Dennis has a seasonal full-time job. Dennis grew up on a dairy farm and has been in the haying business all his life. She says between all that, it’s enough to get by. “Although we don’t make our living entirely by farming, it just seems to be what we were meant to do and I can’t imagine living and raising a family any other way. I am so thankful that we have this opportunity.”

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.3: Feed/Supplements and Certifiers

Last time I outlined how the chickens live, but there are also labels that talk about what they eat and with what they are supplemented. (I know, right? Man, that’s a lot of labels.) Chicken feed is primarily grain-based (corn, soy, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), but can include animal protein like meat and bone meal, and also includes supplemental vitamins and minerals.

Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet. As I said before, chickens are naturally omnivores, they eat egg in hay-1meat. This is the single most mystifying label to me. Why would you feed a chicken a vegetarian diet? “It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the diet of the hen,” Satrum told me. “However, the Internet has done a good job of scaring people about animal proteins. Meat and bone meal is a by-product from slaughter houses and it’s a very good product. It’s cooked, it’s cleaned, it has lots of protein, phosphorous, and calcium. If it wasn’t used as an animal feed it would probably be in a landfill somewhere. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t do it for the bird; we do it because it makes the marketing easier.” You heard that right, from a third-generation chicken farmer, his answer was basically: because the Internet told them so. So how do farmers make sure these chickens get the proper nutrition from a vegetarian diet? Satrum told me they supplement with non-animal derived protein often from soybean meal and mined calcium and phosphorus. Instead of feeding the chickens an existing product that has lots of the nutrition they need, we put it in a landfill and feed them stuff we have to mine out of the earth … OK, then.

Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that have been fed a diet supplemented with things like flax seed, marine algae or fish meal to increase omega-3 levels. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the bottom line is that they are believed to play an important role in your health: normal blood clotting, brain function, prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases.   Chhatriwalla told me that several studies have shown that the supplementation of chicken feed with omega-3 fatty acids will produce eggs significantly higher in omega-3’s, some as much as a 40 fold increase. “That being said,” she said, “levels that high would not taste good due to the fishy aroma of omega-3’s.”  All eggs naturally contain about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, supplemented eggs around 100-200 mg. The tricky part, Chhatriwalla pointed out, is that no one really knows how much omega-3 you need.  Health experts recommend one serving of omega-3 rich foods per day (around 1000 – 1500 mg).  You can get that through about a serving of fatty fish like salmon, a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed. You would have to eat six to seven omega-3 enriched eggs to get that requirement.

Hormone-free eggs are quite possibly the most blatantly misleading label, because there aren’t any eggs that have added hormones. The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in poultry production. This is so misleading that the FDA requires any label making claims about no added hormones include a statement that says, “Hormones are not used in the production of shell eggs” in order to prevent consumers from thinking some eggs do contain added hormones. That’s not roundabout at all…

IMG_20140628_111548178Antibiotic-free labels are also a little misleading because all eggs in the US are antibiotic free, even if they don’t say so, because by FDA regulation, any eggs produced by hens being treated with antibiotics for illness would not be sold for human consumption. “In general antibiotics are used rarely in commercial egg production, because pullets, young hens, are vaccinated for appropriate diseases and management conditions keep the vectors of disease away from the birds,” said Hermes. “Stated simply, commercial layers raised indoors rarely get sick.” He also pointed out that in organic production, any medicated birds, young or old, must be removed from the organic stream, none of their eggs can be labeled organic. I found that part particularly interesting. So what happens to the “organic” hen when she’s recovered and off antibiotics? Can she be moved to a non-organic stream? “That is what is supposed to happen,” said Hermes, “however that assumes that the organic producer has a place to put these now ‘non-organic’ birds and an outlet for non-organic eggs.  The large commercial producers with some dedicated non-organic production could do this, however the logistics are difficult in these cases. The small producer with a few dozen or even a few hundred hens may not have an outlet.  In most cases I suspect that these birds are euthanized.” That right there is a reason, in my opinion, to not buy organic or antibiotic-free eggs. If you needed a reason.

Organic eggs come from hens that have been fed an organic diet without any direct-fed animal protein (but I think they can still eat bugs if they catch them.) I’m including this in the food and supplements section because the organic feed part is the only thing that really differentiates these eggs. Certified organic eggs are verified by third-party certifiers as mandated by the National Organic Program and must also meet other requirements: they have to be cage-free, they have to have access to the outdoors (but amount, duration and quality is undefined – for example it could be a parking lot and the birds may not even use it) and the use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited (the hormone part is redundant since it’s prohibited in all poultry production, organic or not.) We’ve already discussed all those other elements, so the only thing new is the certified organic feed.  You’re probably already familiar with my thoughts on organic, but if not, see here and here.  To sum it up, you’re not limiting your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way by eating organic eggs, and there is no substantial nutritional difference.

Third-party certifiers

chicks-1Oh yes, there’s more. If just the different ways of raising hens and what they’re fed isn’t enough, there are also claims on labels that talk about the third-party certifiers. It seems this is a way to make it easier for the consumer to know if they’re getting what they think they’re getting; a voluntary accountability system, so to speak. That would be fine if there weren’t a handful of different ways to get certified, making it even more complicated than before. Each certification system has different requirements for the duration and quality of indoor/outdoor systems, how much space each bird gets, what they eat, etc. I asked both Karcher and Hermes if they could recommend one certification system that they thought did it best. They both agreed they’re just variations on a theme. In fact, when I asked Karcher which one he could recommend that could help a regular person feel like they’re doing the “right thing” without getting duped he said, “Ha! When you find the answer to this one, please share!! Seriously though, every third party certification is, in my opinion, a one-up from the other one to entice the consumer to believe that this particular certification is the best. If consumers take the time to read the certification programs, they would find slight differences amongst them. Depending on what a ‘regular’ person believes, will ultimately dictate which program is the best.”

At the very least, most of the third party certifiers have definitions for what free-range and pasture-raised means, so that’s something. I’m not going to go more into the specifications of all the certification systems because it’s too lengthy, and I had a difficult time finding a good scientific source that listed each certification system without disparaging the others.  Eighty percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced under the United Egg Producers certified guidelines, so that’s a good place to start. Others to look into are: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified.

One very last point that’s worth noting: it’s easy for consumers to change their opinions on how laying hens should be raised. It’s not so easy for producers – they have already committed significant amounts of money to certain production systems. Imagine that you’ve already got millions of dollars dedicated to conventional housing systems and then California voters decide they don’t like your system. You can’t make that change quickly or easily, and, ironically, if you’re a small producer it might be financially impossible. It’s going to take time, and as consumers, we have to appreciate that. “In my experience of nearly 27 years in Poultry Extension,” said Hermes, “the poultry and egg industries are committed to producing safe, high quality products for their consumers, while being dedicated to the welfare of the birds.  So while public opinion in recent years has decided that caging is bad for hens, even though the science favors cages for their physical well-being, industry can’t make sweeping changes that cost millions of dollars over night.”

That’s it! That’s all I think you need to know on eggs. Now I’m off to have an omelet. I hope this helps you use your Momsense to make informed decisions as well. Stay tuned for the next in this Breaking Down the Labels Series: a look into labels for the actual poultry we eat.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Eggs Part 1.2: Housing Systems

Last time I gave you my conclusion, today I’ll talk about housing systems.

But before we get to that, let’s settle the egg shell color debate: brown versus white. This has nothing to do with the inside of the egg; it is completely dependent on the kind of hen who laid the egg. Different breeds lay different colored eggs, but the inside is exactly the same. brown vs white eggsBrown eggs come from red-brown feathered breeds that tend to be larger than other breeds and require more food, which could explain why they’re more expensive. The inside of the egg is only affected by what the hen eats. (Laying hens require a high-protein diet but will eat just about anything they can find or scratch from the ground: bugs, grass, seeds, fruit, etc. Commercially-produced chickens generally eat a grain-based diet.)

Housing (sources for label definitions: Egg Nutrition Center)

There are two primary differences between how hens are raised: they’re either in a house their whole lives, or they’re outside for all or some of their lives. You can imagine why a farmer (and a consumer) would want to put chickens in a house  – it makes it easier to control what the chickens eat and collect the eggs, and it protects the birds from predators, parasites and disease. On the flip side, it may restrict some or all of the birds’ natural tendencies, like the ability to spread their wings, forage, dust-bathe, nest and perch.  Within the house, birds can either be in a cage or not. Cages allow easy collection of eggs and help keep the house clean and the birds healthy – one of the major obstacles in raising chickens is managing the manure. Cages allow a conveyer-belt system to continually remove the manure. Obviously, the size of the cage can greatly restrict birds’ natural behaviors, and many cages don’t allow birds to turn around. That being said, caged chickens have the lowest mortality rate of any of the systems. Cage-free systems have increased hen-to-hen aggression and incidence of broken bones that both contribute to higher mortality rates. While cage-free systems definitely allow the birds to perform many more natural behaviors, they are inherently dirtier because manure cannot be removed as well or as often.

Conventional eggs (those that don’t have a label saying anything about the housing of the chickens) come from hens that have spent their whole lives inside a cage inside a house. It is the most restrictive production system as far as space for the bird, but also the most affordable system.

  • Pros of this system: lowest mortality, cleanest houses, lowest cost.
  • Cons of this system: least amount of natural behavior for the chicken, some feather and foot issues due to cage confinement.

Enriched-colony eggs are a newer development. This is in-between conventional and cage-free – a few birds together in a bigger cage with areas for natural behaviors. Satrum is working on converting some of his operation to enriched-colony housing. “It’s a cage but it’s a much larger cage, like a big condo cage, with nesting and perching and scratching areas – kind of cage-free but in a caged environment.” This change is largely driven by economics – the most affordable eggs are from conventional systems. Enriched colony is lower-cost than cage-free but with some of the benefits of cage-free.  Larger cages have been in the news lately. In 2008 California passed Proposition 2 which mandates that by January 1, 2015 all egg producers in California and all eggs being importer to California come from hens that can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely (this isn’t exactly the same as enriched-colony, but similar.) California is currently battling a lawsuit over Prop 2 from other states that fear future restrictions on livestock production as part of the slippery slope California may have started.  In 2012, the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society attempted to pass the Egg Bill that would have set national standards for egg production making enriched-colony housing the norm. That bill met fierce opposition from the meat industry for the same reason California is currently being sued and never passed. Despite resistance from the meat industry, I would bet that enriched-colony will soon be the standard for egg production.

  • Pros of this system: very low mortality, hens are able to perform some natural behaviors in a limited way, less disease and injury compared to cage-free and pastured, and affordable production cost.
  • Cons of this system: not many. The only I can come up with is that the hens are still caged.

cage free cartonCage-free or free-roaming (not to be confused with free-range) are eggs from hens that live inside a house for their entire lives, and may not have access to the outdoors, but don’t live in a caged confinement inside the house so they get to engage in some natural behaviors like perching and nesting. Some farmers may choose to also give these hens limited access to the outdoors, but they don’t have to and you can’t assume that simply based on the label – the label only means they’re not inside a cage.

  • Pros of this system: birds get to perform lots of natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher mortality, broken bones and injuries, increased respiratory problems due to dust, and higher hen-to-hen aggression. Preliminary results from a recent study indicate that ammonia and particulate matter is considerably higher in cage-free systems, and workers are inhaling more particulate matter from manure and litter on the floor. This system also requires more labor for egg collection and manure removal.

(Here is a good resource to see and compare conventional, enriched-colony, and cage-free.)

Free-range eggs are from hens that have been allowed access to the outside. This is a bit misleading, because there are no government regulated standards for free-range, meaning these birds could be living an identical life to a cage-free bird, with the addition of a door that leads outside. Because there are no regulations about the length, duration or quality of outside access, this “outside access” could just as easily be a parking lot as it could be a grass pasture. The birds may not know the door is there, or use it, but they have access to it, so they qualify. To be fair, they could also be spending a large amount of time outside, but you don’t know that simply by reading the “free-range” label.

  • Pros of this system:  the same as for cage-free with potential for additional freedom if done correctly.
  • Cons of this system: the same as for cage-free, with the addition that it has the potential to be intentionally misleading. To avoid this, see the section on third-party certifiers.

Pasture-Raised Eggs

hens nestingThere is a lot of hype about pasture-raised eggs these days. It seems like the end-all-be-all for the foodies, so I decided to give it some extra discussion. I have a feeling that when people choose to buy cage-free/free-roaming or free-range eggs, they think they’re getting pasture-raised, but they’re not. Pasture-raised eggs come from hens that are actually living on a pasture, in a barnyard-like setting, not in a house or cage. These hens are allowed to forage for grass, bugs and whatever else they can find, but likely their diet is supplemented with a grain-based feed because there simply is not enough forage to provide an adequate diet.  The birds are provided a nesting house where they go at night and to lay eggs.  There are no regulations for pastured eggs, the USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs and there are no standards. If you’re buying pastured eggs (at about $6-$8 for 12 eggs compared to the $2.50 for 18 eggs I pay for conventional eggs) you should make certain you’re getting what you pay for. Visit the farm, or at least contact the producer.

Like I said, I visited a farm that raises pasture-fed chickens.  It was a beautiful farm and I learned a lot, but I’m not going to name it here because the owner and I have a difference of opinions on organic and GMO and he preferred to go un-named. I understand that, and I’m ok with it – there is room in agriculture for multiple approaches, and that’s what enables choice. His operation utilized a rotation and multi-species model that moves chickens, pigs, sheep and cows around the pasture on a schedule that allows the animals to feed on the pasture without ruining it. After a tour of the farm, I was blown away at how much attention is paid to the soil and how much work goes into making sure the animals don’t over-use the pasture. Unlike a conventional chicken farmer who might only need to be an expert in chickens, he has to be an expert in chickens, cows, sheep, pigs, and grass and soil science. It was a cool system, to say the least. My husband and I got to taste-test the eggs that my kids collected while we were on the farm (after visiting the egg-washing room).

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Conventional egg on the left, pastured egg on the right.

Could we see the tell-tale pasture-raised orange yolk that indicates a diet rich in fatty bugs? Yes. Could we taste a difference? Yes: they were definitely richer tasting than our conventional eggs. Enough so that we would pay $6 per dozen? No – like I said, we eat a lot of eggs. But maybe we would if you could make an argument that this approach is better for the environment or more nutritious.

So is it more nutritious? Chhatriwalla told me that unfortunately there aren’t very many studies that have analyzed the nutritional content of eggs from pasture-raised hens. There are a few and one concludes that while the fat and beta-carotene content were higher in range-produced eggs, the authors noted that it was not great enough to prove a true nutritional advantage of one egg type over the other. What about an environmental advantage? While at first glance it might seem this approach seems more in-line with the way nature intended, it doesn’t seem to be the most efficient use of resources. “Pasture-raised is fine for specialty,” said Satrum. “It’s difficult to do true pasture-raised on a large scale.  As long as you have a small production and lots of land and a warm climate, it can be done just fine. For a commercial producer, you need lots of space. You won’t find commercial producers doing a pasture production, it’s very rare.” As I noted in the beginning, the natural way comes with the good and the bad, including higher incidence of mortality, disease, worms and predation. These downsides do reduce efficiency (and increases cost), and it requires a lot of land that could be producing more for people to eat. If we didn’t have a growing population that needs to eat and finite resources, it would be fine. But we do. And frankly, not everyone can afford to pay a dollar an egg for something that’s pretty much nutritionally the same.

  • Pros of this system: best opportunity for the birds to perform natural behaviors.
  • Cons of this system: higher incidence of mortality and morbidity, reduced resource efficiency, highest cost, no USDA recognized label definition and no standards.

What else should you know about housing systems?

chicken-1So which is better: caged or uncaged? “Anything that adds stress is a negative to the welfare of the chicken,” Satrum said. “Air quality and cleanliness of the house is going to impact the hen. There’s always a little bit of trade-off with the different systems. In the traditional cage systems, the more modern ones are very clean, they have very good air quality, there is very little dust in the house and that’s beneficial for the hens. Cage-free has more space and exercise per hen, but it’s a maybe a little dirtier environment. A lot of it comes down to the management of the farm and the design of the buildings, none of that you can really tell from a label unless the farmer’s being very transparent.” Satrum mentioned that the equipment for cage-free is also more expensive and the labor costs are higher,  which translates to a higher cost to the consumer.  “In terms of animal welfare,” Satrum said, “It’s probably going to vary from farm to farm. Generally as we get more experienced at cage free, we’re getting better at it.” He told me that the mortality rate was initially pretty high in cage free, it’s improved a lot, but typically there is still a higher hen mortality rate in cage-free production. Of course, there are ways to manage that. You’ve heard of a pecking order, right? That’s a real thing. In large groups chickens have to establish a social order of bonds and to do that, they peck at each other. There are ways to deal with hen-to-hen aggression, one of which is to alter the beak of the bird. I read a lot of terrible things about beak-cutting online, but you can’t always believe what you read. “Beak trimming/cutting is pretty much a thing of the past,” said Satrum. “Today the tips of the chicks’ beaks are actually precision laser treated at the hatchery right after being hatched.  This one time treatment makes it so that the tip of the beak does not grow a long sharp hook on the end but still maintains a completely natural appearance and function.” Karcher and Hermes also agreed that beak-trimming can be ok when done correctly. “A few moments of discomfort during the trimming process results in much less injury due to normal hen aggression later,” Hermes said. He also noted that work is being done to breed hens that wouldn’t need beak trimming. Another thing to note is that beak trimming is not unique to cage-free production, it’s standard practice in laying hens regardless of the housing system.  Beak trimming is not the only way to control hen pecking; Satrum mentioned special lighting and proper nutrition can also limit pecking.

Another controversial issue is forced-molting. “Molting is a natural process, generally occurring in the fall,” Hermes said. “All adult birds molt so that damaged feathers can be replaced.  During the molt process, energy and nutrition are used for growing feathers rather than producing eggs, so cessation of egg production also occurs.”  Forced-molting is basically imitating that process in an indoor setting.  Again, reading online give you the impression that producers force-molt by starvation, but that doesn’t seem to be the industry standard. “Feed withdrawal molting is not endorsed as a practice in the industry,” said Karcher. “The common practice is a non-feed withdrawal molt where hens are provided a diet that has sufficient nutrition to maintain her, but doesn’t provide the nutrition needed to produce eggs. At the same time the diet is changed, the lights are reduced from approximately 16 hours to 8 hours which signals her physiologically to stop producing eggs.” It’s a natural process that will happen anyway, it’s simply enhanced in a production setting.

My next post will talk about feed and supplements and third-party certifiers.

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Breaking Down the Labels Series – Part 1: Eggs

chickenThis is the first story in my first ever series. Get ready, people. A series! It’s a big commitment, so I’m going to be vague on how many stories there will be and on how long it will be in between stories.  This summer (read: 24/7 children in my personal space) has wreaked havoc on my research and writing time; I’ve literally been working on this story since June.  Side note: how long will it be until my children stop yelling “MOMMY!” in an emergency-sounding voice from across the house to ask un-emergency questions like if it’s true that girls have more taste buds than boys? It’s OK, school starts soon.

Anyway, the goal of this series is to talk about what some of the labels on our food actually mean. I read an opinion piece in the Oregonian recently that said, “Our marketplace is literally drowning in labels, most of which have little meaning except to promote the sales of some products over others.” There is a LOT of marketing going on at the grocery store, and it’s often really hard to know if something you read on a package truly says something about that product’s health or environmental benefit or if someone is trying to take advantage of your desire to feed healthy food to your family. Take the word “natural” for example. That means virtually nothing because the FDA has not defined what “natural” means. In fact, Consumer Reports recently launched a campaign to ban the natural label from food because it is so misleading.

So with that in mind, in this series I plan to get out and talk to people in the field that can help us understand what some of these labels mean. At the end of the day, I hope these articles help you (and me!) go to the grocery store without feeling like you need a cheat sheet to figure out what to buy.eggsI’ve decided to start the series with eggs for a selfish reason. My family eats a lot of eggs and every time I buy eggs I’m flabbergasted by the choices. Brown eggs, white eggs, eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet, or a diet high in omega-3, cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, organic, natural, farm-fresh, hand-gathered, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and on and on and on.  Most of the time I just buy the cheapest eggs because there are simply too many choices and I promise myself I’ll look into what they mean later. So now I’m doing just that. In order to write this article, I:  visited a local farm that sells pasture-raised chickens and eggs (among other things); interviewed Greg Satrum, third-generation egg farmer and owner of Oregon’s largest commercial egg farm, Willamette Egg Farms; consulted with registered dietician Emily Chhatriwalla based in Kansas City, MO; and consulted with two extension poultry experts: Dr. James Hermes at Oregon State University and Dr. Darrin Karcher at Michigan State University.

Why are there so many choices, anyway? I asked Satrum this exact thing because he would know, his operation produces many varieties:  conventional, cage-free, omega-3, organic and vegetarian-fed eggs. I asked him why he would do that and he gave me a straight answer: it’s all about a marketing advantage. “It’s basically driven by consumer preference. Most major producers have the whole line of products. If you’re not producing specialty eggs, it can work against you in the selling of conventional eggs. Retailers prefer to deal with a limited number of suppliers; if they have a whole bunch of suppliers it becomes difficult. So producing the whole line of products gives you an advantage.” Satrum admitted it’s tough for a consumer, “you almost need a half-hour tour” to figure it all out, he said.

I know not everyone is going to want to read my 5,000 word treatise on eggs – the labels are so complex it’s hard to be concise, and as we know, I’m not particularly good at that anyway. I decided to break this “first post” into three individual posts to make it more digestible. This post will give you my conclusion first and then if you want to know more about why I reached this conclusion, you can read the next two posts.

My Momsense Conclusion Up Front

My conclusion is that it really depends on what matters most to you. Each system has pros and cons, and depending on what’s the most important to you, you’re going to come to a different conclusion than me. For my family, I think enriched-colony is the best production system. Remember, though, eggs are a great source of nutrition for you and your family; they’re high in vitamins and minerals, quality protein and antioxidants. Don’t let marketing and fear-tactics scare you away from eating them. Worry more about making sure to include eggs in your diet, and worry less about the details, especially if you’re concerned about your budget.

Because there is no clear winner, I’ve broken it down by what I think the consumer’s end goal is. Below is my guideline for choosing eggs based on research and interviews.

  • pastured eggsBird Welfare:  This is really complicated. What is “best” for the bird is debatable. Is it better that they have the most freedom with the complications that come with it (increased mortality, disease, parasites, predators), or is it better that they give up some of that freedom in return for better health? If it’s the first, then you need to seek out eggs from pasture-raised production. Don’t buy eggs labeled organic, cage-free or free-range and think you’re getting that, you’re not. Go to your local farmers market, find a producer who claims pasture-raised, ask him or her questions about what that means, and visit the farm to verify it. The USDA does not recognize a label definition for pastured eggs, and there are no standards, so you must take it upon yourself to verify. If the health of the bird is more important to you, I think the best solution is enriched-colony housing. Go online and find a local producer who is using enriched-colony (like Willamette Egg Farms in Oregon.) If you can’t find that, go with cage-free, but look for a producer that meets standards set by a third-party certifier. Take a look at the different certifiers and find one that you think makes the most sense. Don’t get worried if you feel like you can’t distinguish between them, experts told me it’s just variations on the same theme. Just pick one you think sounds good to you.
  • egg cartons on shelf-1Nutrition:  Do you not so much care about how much the bird can do natural behaviors, but you just want the most nutritious eggs at a good cost? Buy conventional eggs. They’re just as nutritious as the rest. Chhatriwalla’s conclusion was that she couldn’t recommend one type of egg over the other based on nutrition alone. Don’t concern yourself with claims about added something-or-other. If you want to add omega-3 to your diet, find a direct source like flaxseed meal, soy or canola oil, or fatty fish. Organic eggs also aren’t better for your health – I’ve written previously on why organic isn’t going to limit your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way. As for safety against food-borne illness, the best thing you can do is to store and cook your eggs properly. See here for more on that.  Use the money you saved on not buying nutrient-enhanced eggs to buy more vegetables.
  • Environmental Impact:  Do you just want to make sure it’s best for the environment? Based on my cursory look at this and preliminary results from a recent study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, I think it makes sense to buy enriched-colony or conventional eggs, as they seem to be the most efficient use of land and resources with the smallest impact to the environment. To adequately make this call, I’d have to talk to an environmental scientist who is an expert in this area so we can consider all the inputs needed to raise chickens and properly look at it from all sides. I will save that for another time, because this would be an interesting comparison for more than just eggs. I’ve also previously outlined that I don’t think buying organic is better for the environment, and none of the other egg production systems seem to offer an environmental advantage either.

The two main categories of information found on labels relate to how the chickens are housed and what goes into the chickens’ body (feed and supplements). The other main label component is third party certification which is a way of defining what the first two categories mean.

Tune in next time for a discussion on housing systems.

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