Too Much Technology?

Growing up, I was fascinated by my dads hands. They were huge. A game we played as kids involved dropping a quarter through his wedding ring. I think dad wore a size 15 ring. Hands formed by milking cows by hand. Sometime in the 60’s they switched to a vacuum pump and bucket milkers. The time spent with each animal went down as the technology increased.

A recent run of events brought this topic to mind for me. But the topic, is one that we seem to running into headfirst.

If we make use of technology in caring for animals, does this diminish their quality of life?

The most recent catalyst for this discussion was a post that highlighted the Lely robotic milkers. Someone I respect a great deal, suggested that this would remove the basic tenets of animal husbandry. This also seems to be the charge leveled against any of today’s large farms.

Can any farm with hundreds to thousands of animals really take care of them?

What constitutes care?

This same friend offered that animals make our lives richer, and that we enrich their lives. I can’t argue that point, but does an animal need daily interaction with me to be fulfilled?

Is there a different level of interaction that each species would require? And lastly who gets to decide what that level is?

If some of the basic jobs can be done by others/machines, does that diminish what happens on the farm?

When I was growing up, one of the jobs I got, was cleaning the calf barn. With a pitchfork. You know, the manually operated kind. It took a couple of hours each week. Character building kind of work. Within two months of my taking an off the farm job, that barn was being cleaned with a skid loader. They replaced labor with capital. The trend continues today.

Today’s farmers are faced with the same issues that people everywhere face.Pay the mortgage, raise a family, and try to improve their quality of life. Growing up on a 40 cow dairy, we rarely took vacations. A week away from the farm was almost unheard of. If an opportunity came up for a day away, it could work, as long as it fit between morning and evening chores. Relief milkers were difficult to come by at best, and impossible to find at worst. The expansion of the dairy allowed for more hired help, more available labor, and more flexibility in time off.

But has animal care gone down? I’d argue that it has gotten better. The barn of yesteryear were dark dank old caves that lacked much of what we now know contributes greatly to animal welfare. People see animals in barns when on their summer vacations and wish they were out running in the pastures and meadows, but when they get out of their cars they head for the air-conditioned comfort of the motel. Today’s barns offer shade, and a great deal of animal comfort. Are they perfect? No, but producers are always on the lookout for cost effective ways to take better care of their animals.

Do farms today look like an updated version of Olde McDonald’s Farm? Nope, and most likely never will again. The robotic milkers from Lely aren’t for everyone, but may have their place. Does that automatically make us evil? Nope, it doesn’t. Although I have watched i-Robot, and they might be. 😉

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The hidden side of test-tube meat

Artificially-grown meat has been a frequent topic on our facebook page.  Today, Common Sense Agriculture published a new blog, clearing up the pros of meat produced artificially in a laboratory.  Excellent discussion there, I won’t go into further detail here.  BUT, I like to add two points which will impact the overall sustainability of these ‘test-tube’ meats tremendously.  Its production requires resources, too! In order for those cells and tissues to grow, one needs to supply 1) nutrients and 2) maintain a constant temperature.

1) These nutrients have to be in a simple form; one that is ready to be absorbed and utilized by the cells. Cells cannot convert fibers (forages/grasses), complex proteins from byproducts, or energy from grains or oilseeds into cell-usable nutrients/energy.  Animals (and humans) have these processes (digestion/metabolism of feeds) naturally.  For test-tube meats, these nutrients would have to be manufactured from ‘something’ prior to feeding  the cells.  Thus, this system would require some type of feed stock as input.  And likely, this feedstock shouldn’t compete with foods for human consumption.   Moreover, initial production and feeds and consequent manufacturing of these feeds to get nutrients for the test-tube meat require resources – fuel, land, labor, etc.  I’m curious about how this compares to just feeding cattle for meat production.

2) Cells and tissues will only grow at a very narrow range of temperature – about 98-104 F.  Thus, the facilities in which this test-tube meat is grown must be temperature-controlled – this uses energy, too. In addition, any glitch may ruin the meat products. In the current system, cattle (and all other mammals and most birds) control their body temperature by utilizing energy from their feed and the fermentenation/metabolic energy.

I don’t know whether a holistic analysis of test-tube meat production will favor it over conventional (Natural!) meat production (e.g., raising cattle, swine, sheep, etc).  But, I know that these requirements of test-tube meat production are virtually never mentioned. Likely, artificially-grown meat will draw a lot of scarce resources, such as land, fuel (energy), etc.  In the big picture, these inputs will negate (m)any of the pros presented by proponents of artificially-grown meats.  Certainly, resource requirements will make or break test-tube meat production.

Animal Welfare – A Piece in the Puzzle of Sustainable Food Production

Welfare of livestock and poultry has become a highly-publicized political issue.  And, like so many political matters in nowadays, the welfare debate has split the public into two sides and created a huge business. Animal protectionists are lobby for legislation regulating animal welfare and ownership.  Opponents of those regulations argue that these regulations are unnecessary and that rather better enforcement of current regulations and better education of animal owners and the general public are needed instead of more stringent regulations.  Moreover, they claim that 1) the proposed changes will make animal agriculture uncompetitive globally, and thus animal food production will be outsourced to countries with less animal welfare concerns, and potentially threaten food security; or, 2) cost of food production will rise considerably and food will become unaffordable for the less-fortunate in this country.  Two main arguments have emerged: one based mostly on emotions, and the other on the basis of efficiency and economics.  Not surprisingly, the result is at times a rather dirty trench war, with neither side moving an inch.

Both sides seem to ignore the true complexity of the system of food production.  Often, a discussion about animal welfare revolves around very specific issues.  Regulation of a single welfare issue will only be a band-aid and never address the complex food production system thoroughly.  I argue that, until we clearly understand the deeper ins and outs of food production, we will never deliberate on animal welfare issues in a constructive manner, let alone find acceptable solutions.  We should aim to find simplicity beyond complexity, yet over-regulation of animal welfare aims for simplicity without recognizing the complexity of food production.

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Welcome!

This all started with a Facebook page.  Three guys who are passionate about agriculture and tired of part of the story being left untold.  The Truth About Agriculture was born and for quite some time it’s been the home of some interesting dialogue about varying views on agriculture and food production.  Sometimes, status updates are not enough to share all of the information for the discussion.  So, we started this blog with the help of some friends.

Here, we will share a deeper look into the topics we discuss on our Facebook page.  We’re hoping this adds a new dimension in our efforts to encourage logical and science-based discussion about agriculture and food.  We hope the comments are a place for respectful and open-minded conversation.

Thanks for reading!