Saturday, January 19, 2013

Drought and wildflowers

In January, when Arctic air grips the world in an icy fist; when chores are done in swaddled layers of clothing and still the stinging cold bites at fingertips and ears and noses; when gravid cows trade fat for survival…
A wild textile onion blooms in delicate pink and white. Click image for larger view.

In January, wildflowers are part of the future. Or perhaps, part of the past. They exist only in memory or in anticipation. Oh, the seeds and dormant plants are present, hunkered down against the winter, husbanding a tiny spark of life.

In January, wildflowers are only potential wildflowers. New roots, stems, leaves, buds, petals, staman and pistil, aroma glands, tiny seed-factory ovaries – all of these are safely locked away in molecules of DNA.

But they’re there.
Wildflowers can thrive in the most uncommon places. Click image for larger view.

Though it’s hard to remember what spring feels like when you’re chopping ice or feeding hay in sub-zero weather, the annual season of rebirth is on it’s way. Already the days are getting longer, the sun is standing higher in the southern sky each day, tickling our High Plains landscape with ever more warmth. There’s still plenty of winter left, though. As the old saying goes, “as the days lengthen, the cold will strengthen!” It takes time for even the sun to reverse a cooling trend that began late last summer.

But spring is on the way and will arrive, according to the calendar, in only 62 days. On March 20 at 5:02 a.m. to be precise.

This will be a tough spring. The drought that officially began last summer, and which really began at our place the preceding autumn (2011), has sharply depleted soil moisture. The precipitation forecast through March is up in the air. To return to “normal” soil moisture conditions, we would have to receive just over 12 inches of liquid-equivalent snow/rain by the end of March. That’s probably not going to happen.
Wild parsley and several stemless hymenoxis and several species of milkvetch grow out of tiny fissures in a siltstone berm.  Click image for larger view.

So not only the wildflowers, but the entire ecosystem will be challenged when winter passes and the spring brings warmer temperatures.
Spring is the time for rebirth. This antelope twin held remarkably still for his portrait last year. Click image for larger view.

Livestock producers will have to carefully monitor spring green-up and make herd management decisions. If an adequate green-up fails to appear, as it did in 2002, providing non-sustainable livestock forage, many producers will be faced with the choice of continuing to feed hay or to sharply reduce herd numbers.

Regardless of whether the grass greens up There will be wildflowers. If conditions remain exceptionally dry, they will be few and far between, but they will be there. It’ll be interesting to see how the shortgrass prairie ecosystem develops this spring. The EJE Ranch will be again  hosting wildlife/wildflower viewing and hikes during Nebraska Wildflower week June 1- June 8. Keep an eye out for more information as we get closer to spring.

Insects and arachnids are part of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem too. This grass spider sits in the middle of a spectacular silken web. Click image for larger view.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Animal rights groups, federal agencies under attack in court

Just on the heels of a $9.3 million settlement paid by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the defendant’s vow to pursue continuing legal action against several other so-called animal rights groups, a Roswell, N.M. meat company brought charges against the USDA.

Last August we talked about HSUS (Humane Society of the U.S.) and their lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, Inc., the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus. The suit claimed mistreatment of circus elephants. The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (ASPCA) was a co-litigant in the action, along with four other animal rights groups: the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Animal Protection Institute United with Born Free USA; and an individual, Tom Rider.

Feld Entertainment vigorously riposted. Turning the table on the animal rights groups by counter-suing, they alleged “…a litany of charges ranging from bribery to money laundering to racketeering.” Feld’s attorneys had done their homework and easily put the groups both on the defensive and in a very bad light.

Though the bumbling but well-paid HSUS/ASPCA attorneys moved to have the second case dismissed, District of Columbia Federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that the case must proceed under the RICO Statutes – statutes designed to combat Mafia gangsters, among others.

On December 28, 2012, Feld announced that “…the company has reached a legal settlement with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in connection with two federal court cases. Under the settlement, ASPCA has paid Feld Entertainment $9.3 million to settle all claims related to its part in more than a decade of manufactured litigation that attempted to outlaw elephants in the company’s Ringling Bros. ® Circus. This settlement applies only to the ASPCA.  Feld Entertainment’s legal proceedings, including its claims for litigation abuse and racketeering, will continue against the remaining defendants and the attorneys involved.”

Meanwhile, as we await details of the litigation to come, another privately owned company has filed suit against the USDA for not acting on a request for inspections that would allow the company to resume slaughter of domestic horses and resume horse meat food service to foreign customers.

Valley Meat Company of Roswell alleges that USDA inaction on the company’s application has cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent months.” In addition to the USDA, the suit names Humane Society of the United States, Front Range Equine Rescue, and Animal Protection of New Mexico as plaintiffs.

At the heart of the issue is whether horses are legally pets or livestock. Lacking a legal determination, congress caved in to emotion-based pressure and withdrew funding for federal inspection of facilities slaughtering horses in 2006, effectively ending U.S. horse slaughter, a practice which had been in place throughout or nation’s history.

Horse prices bottomed out, leaving may hobby farmers in a bad situation. They couldn’t sell their horses. Feed costs continued to rise. The economy went into meltdown. No longer able to afford an expensive hobby, many had to choose between putting the animal down or opening the gate to let the animal fend for itself.

Horse rescue organizations came into being, and with the backing of activist animal rights groups, began pressuring local law enforcement to remove horses from their owners and congregate them in shelters. Few shelters were able to adequately care for their horses, leading to malnourishment and starvation.

In 2011 congress removed the bar preventing USDA inspectors in facilities where horses were slaughtered. Valley Meat Company, losing money as drought reduced cattle numbers to the smallest U.S. cow-herd in more than 60 years, decided to apply for permits to resume horse slaughter. There is both an abundance of horses (adequate supply) and a large foreign market for horse meat (adequate demand).

Company owner Rick del los Santos says the USDA encouraged the application but told him he would have to stop slaughtering cattle to qualify for horse slaughter permits. del los Santos complied, ceasing all operations and shuttering the plant. The USDA then failed to move forward with the permits, effectively stonewalling the process.

del los Santos said that in addition to animal rights groups, even the Governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, has vowed to oppose it.

Despite the emotional outcry, other organizations, including many horse rescue agencies, livestock associations and the American Quarter Horse Association, support a return to domestic horse slaughter. Increasing horse abandonment, artificially elevated horse prices, and the high cost of veterinary care – including euthanasia – are all concerns.

del los Santos said “the number of U.S. horses sent to other countries for slaughter has nearly tripled since domestic horse slaughter ceased, and a return to horse slaughter for food will be more humane than the existing policies in the rest of North America, especially in Mexico.”
Valley Meat Company is still waiting for the USDA to move forward. According to federal court official, the agency has until the end of January to respond. In the mean time, the lawsuit will proceed.

Animal rights activist groups and federal regulators seem to be under increasing attack by a public quickly tiring of scams, excuses, legal parsing, and an increasing tax and regulation burden. This backlash seems to be prompted by new and non-traditional media, which has taken up the burden of providing objective news to consumers, a product the major media can no longer deliver.

Such incremental gains bode well for the nation. As Mark Twain said, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

But it’s not impossible.

Our customers, faces and ideas

More than 90 percent of Americans live within 100 miles of the east and west coasts, in sprawling, urban/suburban swaths of densely populated humanity. Most of you who read this blog live out here in the middle of "flyover country," where the livestock outnumber the people.

Wherever we live, we're all human beings, and we all have the same needs and wants. For example, we all need to eat, and we all want to know that our food supply is safe and nutritious.

Those of us in production agriculture have a better sense of the quality of our product than those who are not farmers or ranchers. Unfortunately, as Mark Twain put it, "A lie can travel halfway 'round the world while the truth is putting on it's shoes." There's a lot of misinformation and disinformation out there, peddled to an agriculturally naive public. Our customers, those who consume our products, are naturally concerned when they hear misguided and often disingenuous horror stories about their food supply.

It's tough to get the truth out, particularly when food producers make up only one percent (or less) of the population. The good news is that, thanks largely to social and alternative media, we're getting better at presenting our side of the story.

Even better news is that American consumers, by and large, are no more likely to completely believe sensationalistic reporting on food safety.

I saw a great video the other day, posted on a colleagues web site. A tip of the hat to Amanda Radke at

The video was a production of  America’s Farmers, an advocacy campaign that showcases American farmers. Partly funded by Monsanto, the campaign is part of  a wide ranging effort to begin a conversation with our non-ag citizens. The idea is to show off the faces of real American farmers – what we do, how we do it, why we do it – in essence, to tell our story. This idea seems to be just one of many grass roots outreach efforts springing up in the ag community.

The America’s Farmers campaign does more than put up a web site with stories and videos. They do some impressive outreach and education and are even sponsoring the development of non-profit rural community groups through their America’s Farmers Grow Communities challenge.

The video was a sample of the outreach and education done by America’s Farmers. Using the famous ‘roving camera and mike’ technique, they roved the urban environment, asking people, “How much do you really know about Agriculture?” In several cities – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – included, they asked questions about the number of jobs U.S. agriculture supports, the number of people a single farmer can feed, and other good questions. The answers were enlightening.

And not because few – if any – of them could come close to answering correctly. They’re city folks, removed in both distance and in genealogical time from farming. How could they possibly have detailed agricultural knowledge at the tips of their fingers?

The thing that struck me about their answers was that they were all – or nearly all – quite thoughtful. And you could tell that all of them – or again, nearly all of them – were thinking hard about the questions. I could see the struggle play out across their expressions as they began to think about a subject they don’t often think about.

A New Yorker, when told how many people each American farmer feeds, was astonished. “One farmer feeds – feeds – 155 people? That’s amazing! You know, here in New York we’re so disconnected from stuff like this that, well, it’s hard to believe.”

When told how much food a growing world  population will need in the next 50 years, the same fellow said “…the United States, perhaps we should be exporting some of our technology and farming practices to other countries, to help them be more productive.”

The fact that he didn’t know that the U.S. has been exporting agricultural  technologies and techniques for more than a century, isn’t so important, in my mind. The fact that he was willing to think about the question and share an idea was, to me, exciting.

That’s another think I noticed. With the exception of one or two folks who already knew everything, the interviewees in this video seemed to be captivated by the ag facts and the story of modern farming, and several said they were going to start “looking things up.” I got the sense that they were excited about agriculture.

The same fellow quoted above said, “You know what, since you’ve told me all this, I think I’m going to have to spend a little more time and educate myself about this.”

Another fellow said, “I can’t imagine how hard they (farmers) must work.” A woman said, regarding the number of people each farmer feeds, “A hundred and fifty-five? I couldn’t make one dinner for that many.”

For me, as an ag producer, it was fun to see the faces and hear the ideas of a few of my city “customers.” It was exciting to see how open minded and willing to think about the questions these folks were. And it was good to see that despite the consistent anti-ag narrative embraced by much of the major media, some – perhaps even most – people are too smart to fall for the over-hyped and sensationalized reporting they are exposed to.

To see the video go to youtube and search “How much do people really know about agriculture?”

Check out America’s Farmers at

As I hauled cattle this morning I thought about the video and about how different my life is than that of an urbanite. I chucked a bit about the fellow who “can’t imagine” how hard I work.

I don’t think my work is so much hard as it is different. The vast majority of the population has never been exposed to farm work, but that doesn’t mean that they work less hard than I.

We farmers and ranchers have become widely dispersed experts in growing food. In that sense, though, we’re more generalists than specialists. My day started just before dawn with checking cows and breaking stock tank ice. Then I loaded cattle on the trailer and hauled them to Colorado and returned. Along the way a wheel bearing seized on the trailer. I pulled the wheel off, “triked” the trailer home, and dropped it off to be repaired. Then I finished this story so I could get it sent off by deadline. In a few hours I’ll check cows again.
A bad wheel bearing interrupted a cattle hauling trip Tuesday. Click image for a larger view.

Some parts of my job are physically demanding, some require a lot of discipline, some take a lot of intellectual reasoning. Rare indeed would be the city-dweller who could seamlessly step into my boots tomorrow. But the reverse is also true. I’d struggle mightily learning a new skill set and adapting to a different environment.

We’re all just people, and seeing a video affirmation of that fact was delightful.