Friday, December 30, 2011

Wrap it up and move on | 2011 & 2012

As we wrap up 2011 and look what may happen in agriculture in 2012, I wanted to share a few excerpts I read on Corn & Soybean Digest online by David Kohl and Kent Thiesse.

2011 Year in Review by Kohl:

  • Interconnectedness and convergence
    • In the early part of 2011, it appeared that the U.S. economy was making a nice recovery. However, black swans or unusual events and the convergence of increased oil prices, Japan's natural disaster and sovereign debt issues placed a damper on the consumer, and, therefore, businesses that provide consumer services
  • Swiss Cheese
    • Swiss cheese has become a good metaphor to describe the agricultural and U.S. economies. Some areas are in the islands of prosperity, while others are experiencing a recessionary feeling.
  • Land values gone wild
    • The grain industry, while experiencing high prices, has more at stake with higher variable input costs, and rapidly increasing fixed costs in terms of cash rents, land values and overhead cost for machinery and equipment investments
  • Dairy and drought
    • In the dairy industry, there has been a rise in prices due to exports of whey and dry milk powder. These high milk prices have been offset by high grain and other input costs. The hog and poultry industries have experienced similar trends.
    • Extreme droughts in the southern plains and other areas have reduced cow and livestock numbers, which has resulted in higher prices for both cows and calves.

Looking Ahead to 2012 by Thiesse

  • Crops
    • The breakeven cost of producing corn at trend-line yields will likely be close to $5/bu. for corn for many producers in 2012, and $11/bu. for soybeans, which are increased compared to 2010 and 2011 levels. The expected 2012 breakeven prices compare to just over $3.50 for corn and near $8 for soybeans as recently as 2008.
    • Crop producers also need to pay attention to the level of cash rental rates are for 2012, and may want to consider a flexible cash lease as an alternative to a straight cash rent lease. A good flex lease adjusts the final land rental payment, based on actual crop yields and prices during the year of production.
  • Livestock
    • Profit margins in the livestock sector improved considerably in 2011, and should remain quite solid in 2012.
    • The big question mark for 2012 will be what happens to feed costs, which will likely be impacted by final 2011 crop production numbers and usage, as well as 2012 crop planting intentions.
  • Land Values
    • Land values ended the year at record levels throughout most of the Midwest, including one sale of farmland in Northwest Iowa for over $20,000/acre.
    • Excellent farm profits in 2011, continued low real estate interest rates and high demand for farmland are likely to keep land prices strong in 2012; however, a significant drop in grain prices and reduction in profitability in 2012 could cause land prices to moderate later in the year.
  • Renewable Fuels
    • 2011 was a fairly profitable year for most of the ethanol industry. However, 2012 shows signs of being a bit more unstable, with challenges related to erratic input costs, unstable fuel prices and government uncertainty.
  • Govt Programs
    • Congressional leaders made some progress on the next farm bill late in 2011. However, no agreement was reached, so farm bill discussions will likely continue well into 2012, and possibly beyond.

red cows

Cheers from Ag on the Forefront to a prosperous 2012 in agriculture!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

More young people in ag

I read an article today that made me smile: “More young people see opportunity in farming”.

That’s optimism talking. All too often in agriculture, pessimism comes out a lot stronger…

Prices are too high.

Prices are too low.

Food just isn’t safe to eat.

Meat is made in factory farms.

Costs are outrageous.

No young people are coming back to the farm.

The latter is one that I hear quite a bit, so to see this article sparked my interest to read more. The article said,

“While fresh demographic information on U.S. farmers won't be available until after the next agricultural census is done next year, there are signs more people in their 20s and 30s are going into farming: Enrollment in university agriculture programs has increased, as has interest in farmer-training programs.”

This is exciting! There is a group in Nebraska that is working hard to increase development, businesses and farming in communities across Nebraska…especially rural ones. Connecting Young Nebraskans (CYN) is a statewide network designed to connect, empower and retain young Nebraskans. CYN strives to enhance opportunities for individuals to impact their communities through networking and learning experiences. The network is a dynamic and diverse group of peers with a passion for making a difference, a willingness to learn and the desire to build important relationships to help shape the future of Nebraska.

I was able to attend their first ever conference in 2010 (I couldn’t attend this year’s…bummer!), and a key focus was bringing young Nebraskans back to their hometowns. Maybe it was for agriculture, or maybe it was for a business, but it was awesome to see this group of 20- and 30-somethings have key discussions about what really attracts young people back to their home communities…or rural communities in general.

The CYNers really have something going…check them out on Facebook and Twitter, @YoungNebraskans.

The government is doing something about this too. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called for 100,000 new farmers within the next few years, and Congress has responded with proposals that would provide young farmers with improved access to USDA support and loan programs. Now, this doesn’t come without hard work and a lot of people in ag have to have more than one source of income to sustain them, but it is rewarding.

Do you have a resource in your state for young people returning back to their rural communities? I’d love to hear more!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Healthy food: Eat less dark-green, more orange

I want to point out an article from Feedstuffs FoodLink about the cost of healthy foods and what we can expect to pay this year for healthy food.

The article states that diets normally are a diverse makeup of foods -- some that are more healthful and some that are not as healthful -- and if the less-healthful foods are less expensive, individuals may have an economic incentive to consume the latter.

Three economists explored whether healthful foods cost more than less-healthful foods and if price differences vary across the country. Their examination looked at several food groups:

  • (1) whole grains versus refined grains
  • (2) dark-green vegetables and orange vegetables versus starchy vegetables
  • (3) whole fruits versus commercially prepared fruit snacks
  • (4) 1% and skim milk versus 2% and whole milk
  • (5) fruit juices versus fruit drinks
  • (6) bottled water versus carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages. They then compared prices per 3.5 oz. serving.

As expected, some healthful foods were more expensive than less-healthful choices, but in other cases, healthful foods were less expensive, the economists said. The full study is available at

Time Study

Regardless of which foods they eat, Americans spend a lot of time eating.

More research found that Americans 15 years old and up spend 2.5 hours every day engaged in eating and drinking activities (Figure).

Slightly less than half of this time (67 minutes) was spent in "primary" eating activities like meals, and the rest was spent in "secondary" eating activities while driving, grooming, working, watching television, actually preparing or cleaning up after meals and in other primary activities, according to the research.

The complete study is available at

Weight study

The number of children who are considered overweight has tripled over the past 30 years, and one factor influencing children's diet and weight is likely food prices.

Food prices "have small but statistically significant effects on children's BMI," they said, noting that lower prices for more healthful foods such as dark-green vegetables and low-fat milk are associated with decreases in children's BMI, while lower prices for less-healthful choices such as starchy vegetables, sweet snacks and sodas are associated with increases in BMI.

Specifically, a 10% decrease in prices for dark-green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach were associated with a 0.28% decrease in children's BMI three months later, a 10% decrease in prices for low-fat milk were associated with a 0.35% decrease in BMI and lower prices for sweet snacks were associated with a 0.27% increase in BMI.

A 10% increase in prices for sodas and a 10% increase in prices for starchy vegetables were associated with a 0.42% and 0.3% decrease in BMI one year later.

The full report is available at

Children's issue

The food industry is taking major steps toward improving not only the healthfulness of today's food but how it's promoted to children.

For instance, GMA said the industry has decreased the calories, sodium and sugar in more than 20,000 products in recent years, pledged to remove 1.5 trillion calories from the food supply by 2015 and set standards for advertising based on "strict nutrition criteria."

Moreover, GMA said the number of food and beverage commercials on shows viewed primarily by children has decreased 50% since 2004, with commercials for cookies and sodas down 96% and for frozen pizzas, candy and chewing gum down at least 70%. At the same time, GMA said commercials for cereals, dairy products and fruit juices have increased.

The Point

THREE new studies have pointed to problems Americans are having adhering to balanced and healthful diets and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and weight.

One problem is that there's often -- but not always -- a trade-off between eating healthful foods and the higher costs of those foods. However, consumers can make up for this with strategies such as eating fewer dark-green vegetables, which are healthful but more expensive than starchy vegetables, and eating more orange vegetables, which also are healthful but not as expensive.

It should also be noted that the costs of healthful foods are coming down as food producers focus on making them more competitive and, therefore, available.

Indeed, it's known that as the costs of healthful foods come down, so does a person's body mass index; unfortunately, the converse is true in that less expensive foods like fruit drinks and sweet snacks are associated with increased indexes.

Nevertheless, food producers are making foods healthier, with fewer calories and less sodium and sugar.

Another problem is that Americans may spend too much time eating -- up to 4.5 hours per day -- and eating in the wrong ways, such as eating while watching television or even while preparing or cleaning up after meals.

Accordingly, consumers need to make conscientious decisions not only about what to eat but when and where.

Information on the healthfulness and safety of the U.S. food supply is available at

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Stockmanship = taking care of cattle

Part 10:
IMG_0859Finally, the final post to this series of the 10 Greatest Beef Innovations, originally posted by Farm Progress in their Beef Producer section.
I saved this one for last because I believe it rings clearer today than ever before: Stockmanship.
At least it should. Our not-so-much-friends from the animal rights groups are pointing this out more and more everyday which makes us as beef producers become communicators along with ranchers. We have to share the story and have that conversation about the true meaning of stockmanship vs. what is really happening. And I’m glad that the majority of of these farmers and ranchers can attest that true stockmanship is what they are really doing – even if it is an old-fashioned word.
Read the full history by Alan Newport here.
Stockmanship Is Leaping Forward Good animal handling has never been mastered, still a growing edge.
By Alan Newport

Some people say they once knew an old cowboy who was a "real stockman," or maybe their grandpa was a good stockman.
Sadly, we nearly let the knowledge of stockmanship - what little we ever had on this continent - lapse completely into the past tense.
Burt Smith says we let technology and perhaps laziness get the worst of us. Smith was an early advocate for managed grazing and gentle animal handling skills nearly 20 years ago. He wrote a book called "Moving 'Em: A Guide to Low-Stress Animal Handling."
"There were and still are excellent herders. Unfortunately, we are rapidly losing these skills due to an over-reliance on 'high-tech' gimmicks, expensive equipment and the unfounded belief that any job worth doing must be done as fast as physically possible," Smith wrote in his 1998 book.
Smith says America has always struggled with the clash of two old but somewhat broken livestock cultures: the overemphasis on the single animal from the English/German small-farm, limited-animal model vs. the machismo domination and de-emphasis on individual animals from the Spanish/Iberian big-herd model.
Despite Smith's reputation as an innovator, he admits that after he saw the light in an in­cident with a particular troublemaking cow on the Nevada range, one of his first acts was to attend a Bud Williams stockmanship school.
It was about 1989 when Williams went public with his amazing stories and demonstrations of how a real stockman, a person who really understands herding animals, can gather animals, put them anywhere and even make them stay there. He showed he could lower veterinary bills. He could make cows better mothers. He could keep cowboys and herders from getting hurt. He could even herd semi-wild reindeer and wild-but-captive elk.
Williams' teaching was the beginning of the rebirth of stockmanship, perhaps even a renaissance in the way we see and treat our animals - and therefore how we treat ourselves in the end.
Today, even though Williams and wife Eunice still teach stockmanship schools, many of their students and protégés also teach schools and instruct their neighbors and friends.
Williams has said many times he learned how to herd livestock from watching border collies. He explains some of what he uses and teaches is a controlled method of the tactics used by predators. But clearly, Williams is one of those rare observers who doesn't have to do things the way someone taught him. He saw alternatives and sought change.
There exists in our past a long history with various types of herding, or at least the genesis of it. Smith reminds us herding was used by human hunters to drive bison off cliffs here, and perhaps to drive eland off cliffs in Africa.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Consistency in Beef

Part 9:
I find this beef innovation particularly interesting and important – mostly because I enjoy a great, juicy steak and am glad I can rely on the grading system of beef to provide that!
From the beginning, beef was more about protein than pleasure and used as draft animals or for milk until they couldn’t be used anymore which would be used then for meat. But when did cattle become specific for beef protein and where did our grading quality system come from? Read below or for the full history by Alan Newport, click here.
Uniform Grading Set Parity, Reportability 100-year-old standards changed many times, but not much in the essence.
By Alan Newport

The first couple of hundred years in this country, beef was more about protein than pleasure.
Cattle were usually draft animals first, or milk cows. They became food when they quit producing, or sometimes when things got hard enough they began to look like roasts to their owners.
Eventually, however, we began to emu­late our British cousins, who had begun early in the industrial revolution to pro­duce real beef animals specifically for meat to feed the masses of workers in the indus­trialized cities.
So in 1902, Herbert Mumford at the University of Illinois wrote a series of bulletins he titled "Market Classes and Grades of Cattle with Suggestions for Interpreting Market Quotations."
Mumford said there was a need for the public press to be able to report market conditions based on some uniform system. He also said such a system would aid beef cattle breeders in production and feeding efforts.
He laid out five market classes of cattle and the seven quality grades still par­tially intact: Prime, Choice, Select, Good, Medium, Common, Cutter and Canner.
Congress funded a study of uniform grades and market reporting in 1914, and in 1916 passed a law establishing the National Livestock Market News Service. That same year, USDA began developing its official grading system.
By 1923, the agency began publishing these standards, and by 1927, the grading system for beef cattle was made official by USDA as a voluntary, one-year trial pro­gram. After that, it was continued for sev­eral years on a voluntary, fee basis.
Grades for hogs and sheep were also being developed at this time but lagged behind beef cattle by up to five years.
Federal price-control programs during World War II made USDA grading of beef mandatory. The experience of smaller packers with this system was apparently a positive one, says a group of Texas A&M University animal scientists in their paper on the U.S. grading system.
"Regional and local packers discovered that by selling Prime, Choice and Good grade beef, they could compete with na­tional packer 'house grades,' " they wrote.
Soon, Congress autho­rized the mandatory grading of ag products through the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946.
The system evolved through several changes, including uniform descriptions for steer, heifer and cow beef; the elimina­tion of fat color terminology; rolling Good grade into the Choice and Commercial grade categories; and a few other changes. One of those was the change of cutability grades to yield grades in 1973.
In 1975 several changes were made decreasing the importance of maturity in some quality grades, and conformation was eliminated from all quality grades. Some people say this was the time beef quality, as measured by marbling, was downgraded significantly.
In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, the minimum marbling require­ments for all such beef were revised to be the same as previously required for the very youngest beef in each of these grades. For the Good grade, the minimum marbling requirements for the very youngest beef were increased one-half degree.
In the Prime, Choice and Standard grades, this reduction was one full degree. Among other things, this meant a consid­erable amount of beef that was formerly Good became Choice.
Two more notable changes came in 1987 and 1989 when the quality grade Good was changed to Select, and when yield and quality grades were uncoupled.
In January 1997, the grading system was changed again to restrict the Select grade to A maturity only and to raise the marbling degree required for Choice to "minimum modest" throughout B matu­rity. USDA says the changes were made to improve the uniformity and consistency of Choice and Select beef.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A “Screwy” Success Story

Part 8:


A part of history that is not as common – or not talked about much – is the eradication of the screwworm that caused a lot of damage to the cattle herd (and humans!) in the past. For all of the reasons listed below, the story of screwworm eradication is one of the great success stories of science and of cooperation among farmers and governments.

I will post portions of the article here, but you can find out more of the history by Alan Newport, full story here.

The Most Hideous Creature
Screwworm eradication great story of science and solidarity.
By Alan Newport

The screwworm, for most people who remember it, was one of the most insidious and grotesque creatures the Creator put on this earth. For those unfamiliar with this now-eradicated pest, the maggot eats only live flesh.

Knife castrations had to be treated with pine tar oil and watched closely.

Young animals born during fly season almost universally needed their navels treated to prevent screwworm infestation.

Threats came from all sides: sheep and goat shearing, dehorning, ear wounds from Gulf Coast ticks, wounds from rough handling or shoddy corrals, branding, dog or predator bites.

By 1950 the screwworm had spread as far north as South Dakota via infested livestock.

Sometimes even people would be infested, often through their sinus cavities.

In the 1930s, Agricultural Research Service scientists Edward F. Knipling and Raymond C. Bushland concluded reducing or eliminating the screwworm fly population was a better solution than treating the pests topically after entry into hosts via skin wounds.

The Southeast U.S. was declared free of screwworms in 1959, and the Southwest in 1966. Texas remained partially infested until 1982. In 1991 Mexico was declared screwworm-free. The project kept pushing south, and in 2000 Costa Rica was declared screwworm-free.

Fast reproduction
The screwworm fly is native to tropical America. A blue-green blowfly with three dark stripes on its back, it looks a lot like the other blow­flies on this continent. The difference is, the screwworm fly only lays eggs in living flesh.

A female can lay 3,000 eggs in her two-month life span. Those eggs hatch in nine to 24 hours, and the maggots begin burrowing into and eating the host animal's flesh. In five to seven days, the maggots are full grown and leave the wound, dropping to the ground and burrowing into the soil. They turn rapidly into a reddish-brown pupae and stay in the soil for seven to 14 days.

When the adults hatch, they crawl up on vegetation to dry and harden, and then fly out looking for prey. The progeny of a single female can mount to thousands of new flies and mag­gots in a few months.

Treatment woes
Treating wounds in early years required cleaning them and then pouring in commercial benzol or chloroform. After that, the recommendation was to put a cotton ball dampened with benzol into the wound and leave it there to drop out on its own. The area around the wound was also to be treated with pine tar oil to discourage adult screwworm flies from landing there.

In 1938 USDA developed Smear 62, a thin paste formed from a combination of diphenylamine, benzol, turkey red oil and lampblack. It was an improvement but still required diligence in treatment and in watching animals for wounds and infestation.

A good and brief history of the screwworm and the eradication program is available online HERE.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Branding Cattle in Colorado


I’ve had some questions about branding cattle, so I thought I would share some facts along with pictures from our recent branding cattle work with weaned calves.

What is a brand for?
A brand is a permanent identification marker. Each ranch or cattle-owner has their own unique brand to identify their cattle.

My state doesn’t brand cattle.
Branding is not required in all states, but it is a State Law in Colorado. You can search by state here. In order to sell an animal in Colorado, it must have a brand. Brand Inspectors must certify that the shipper or seller is the legal owner of the livestock prior to issuing a brand certificate.

Ranchers still brand cattle?
Branding is still the best way to permanently mark your cattle to be able to identify them. Of course, we use ear tags with number and an e-ID (electronic identification), but those seem to fall out all of the time – or someone stealing the cattle could easily cut them off if they were to steal an animal.

Aren’t their more “modern” ways to identify cattle?
There is a lot of great technology out there for permanent identification like retina scanners that scan the animal’s eyes – which are like fingerprints – and are unique to each animal. However, a lot of ranchers and brand inspectors don’t have the technology, and it makes it very difficult to scan through a herd of animals looking for a specific animal. Even though branding is a great tradition on many ranches, I would love the opportunity to use an updated technology that permanently identifies cattle when it becomes available.

Does branding scare the calf?
Once explained to me: cattle don’t know happy or sad, they just know comfort and discomfort. Yes, the cattle are in some discomfort, but just like if we burned our finger on the stove, we would treat it and take some ibuprofen. When we brand, we give the calves vaccinations to keep them healthy and a shot that will help with the discomfort. As soon as we were done branding, we fed the calves and they looked healthy and comfortable – ready to eat!

Thanks for the questions and feel free to ask more! Here are some pictures of our family working cattle…it truly is a “family production”! Feel free to check out more on our Facebook page.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Squeeze Chutes | Stone to Steel

Part 7:
I know that squeeze chutes make cattle work more efficient and less stressful for the cattle we are handling. Just this Thanksgiving, my family branded and doctored over 200 head in a few hours and this was possible because of our squeeze chute.
Temple Grandin will also tell you the animals prefer this method of handling. Enjoy this short and interesting history by Alan Newport, full story here.
Squeeze Chutes: From Stone to Steel Modern manufacturing made the squeeze chute better and affordable.
By Alan Newport

The modern American squeeze chute with its all-steel construction and hydraulics actually began as wooden or stone stalls in Europe - sort of a freestanding framework into which animals were led and tethered for treatment.
Often they were known as "stocks" or "crushes." These stocks or crushes were typically either community property or belonged to the local blacksmith, and it's certain from their design that the technology modern squeeze chutes largely replaced - that is ropes - were an important part of beef production even then.
European stocks were most often manu­factured from heavy wood timbers. Stone appears to have been less common.
Only a few had stanchions of sorts for holding the head of the animal, whether horse or bovine. Some had slings. Some had devices to hold up legs for hoof care.
But none of them actually caught and squeezed the animal for control and operator safety. That seems to have been developed in this country, or perhaps simultaneously here, in Europe and in Australia.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about squeeze chutes and head gates is nearly anyone with cattle in this relatively affluent nation can afford one.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky developed enterprise budgets for 50-cow herds with a $5,000 investment in handling facilities that included a head gate and chute. They projected a return over variable costs of a little more than $20 per head due to a higher calving percentage, higher weaning weights, and lower death loss for both cows and calves. That is enough to pay for the facilities in five years.

Veggies intruding your mail

imagePamela Anderson is on a postage stamp. But it’s not for what you think.

According to Drovers, back in September, the U.S. Postal Service announced that living people would now be eligible to be featured on stamps. The Postmaster General said, “This change will enable us to pay tribute to individuals for their achievements while they are still alive to enjoy the honor.”

So PETA (People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals), got on the ball – or the propaganda – the announced this week that they will host a limited edition line of postage stamps featuring 20 famous vegetarians. The media event to kick-off their campaign, was held in Hollywood, outside the post office of the stars, and Anderson was on hand for photo ops with 88-year-old Bob Barker.

Along with Anderson and Barker, the stamps also feature some long-dead vegetarians such as Pythagoras, Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy and Leonardo da Vinci. Some very-much-alive promoters of vegetarianism included in the group are Paul McCartney, Woody Harrelson, Ellen De Generes, Joan Jett and a comedian named Steve-O.

So as you’re getting ready to send out Christmas cards this year, turn your preference to the fun Holiday Stamps instead of the veggie ones.