Buffett highlights continuous improvementWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Arlington, Va. – USDA’s 92nd Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum was held in Arlington, Va. on Feb. 25-26, built on the theme of transforming agriculture – blending technology and tradition.
One of the featured speakers was Howard G. Buffett, chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a private, charitable foundation that invests in global food security and conflict mitigation.
Buffett encouraged forum attendees to put more emphasis on conservation agriculture, while acknowledging the challenges of changing human behavior.
Challenge of change
“Changing people’s behavior is one of the hardest things to do,” Buffett stated. “We have to get information out there, and then, people have to decide they’re going to try it.”
Producers should also give new techniques a chance, since they may take time to develop into fully successful practices.
“We all have challenges in everything we do, but we can’t just quit,” he noted.
Buffett continued, “Most of us don’t like it when someone tells us how we are going to do something.”
However, he encouraged producers to make choices about how things will change, before changes are forced.
“If we want to maintain flexibility, we have to determine what our solutions are going to be, and we have to show the world that we are willing to use those,” he explained.
Alternative practices can be difficult to implement and it takes some time to learn about new systems, for example, what kinds of equipment are necessary in no-till fields.
Transferring techniques between different scales of operations can also be challenging, since some practices will have to be adjusted.
“It is easier for someone who is just starting out. When I got into no-till, one of the biggest challenges was making a change in my equipment,” Buffett commented, adding that there is usually less equipment for a no-till system, so there should be a net gain financially.
“I got to be very good friends with the IRS. I found out that when someone auctions off all of their equipment, they pay a lot of taxes,” he remarked.
However, Buffett took advantage of his chance to start over, learning about what equipment was best and how to use it.
“Number one, we have to get set up right. If we do it right, we’re going to make more money,” he said.
To encourage producers to consider alternate options on their places, he asked, “If we use conservation ag in difficult times to save money, why would we give away money in good times?”
In good times, producers are not always forced to look at their operations critically to determine where things can be improved, but applying the same critical thinking when things are going well has the potential to make more money.
“There is nothing I have done in 30 years of farming that has been easy,” commented Buffett. “I don’t think no-till is any more difficult than anything else. It just takes the right equipment, knowledge and support.”
Through his organization, Buffett works with agriculture in many different countries, and he praised some of the programs available to producers in the United States. Although he acknowledged that university research can at times be bitter-sweet, he gave a lot of credit to the advantages of Extension programs and land-grant universities.
“There is no way the American farmer would be where we are today without the land-grant university system,” he stated.
Private sector research has also been beneficial, according to Buffett, who emphasized the importance of research related to agriculture.
He also noted that the USDA and government programs have an important role in the progress of agriculture because government support can provide the resources producers need to move toward better practices.
“USDA has to be a leader,” he said.
Buffett told the audience that USDA programs have set a new standard for conservation, and more producers are starting to understand that soil is a living ecosystem all by itself.
“If we treat it like dirt, that is what we will get,” he remarked.
Farms and ranches are ultimately businesses, and USDA also has the potential to contribute to the success of sustainability from an economic standpoint, Buffett added.
For example, many producers consider crop rotation in simplistic terms, such as alternately planting corn and beans because it is an economically viable combination from a business standpoint.
“It doesn’t work well economically to do the types of rotations that we really should do to protect our lands and our soils,” he mentioned.
However, with government subsidies and incentives, producers may be able to approach changes in their operations with a different attitude.
“If there are programs in place that allow farmers a different way to do things in terms of financial risk, I think a lot more farmers would transition from traditional farming to no-till, strip-till or even using cover crops,” he suggested.
Buffett also warned his audience against becoming too reliant on technology, explaining that although technology can provide useful tools, nature will not be changed.
“The more we understand nature and the more we appreciate it and incorporate it into how we behave and what we do, the better off we will be in the long run as farmers, land owners, conservationists and people who care about the world,” he said.
Maintaining biodiversity is underrated, he noted, explaining that it should be better incorporated into production systems.
“American farmers are the biggest conservationists in the world,” he stated. “We have saved tens of millions of acres of bio-diverse jungles and forests because we are efficient at high-production agriculture. We never get credit for that.”
However, he continued that doesn't mean producers shouldn’t continue to become even better at what they do.
“Farmers deserve a lot of credit, but we have to stop for a minute and ask what we can do better,” remarked Buffett.
Beef Quality Assurance standards may improve public perceptions of beef safetyWritten by Gayle Smith
As beef consumption continues to decline, producers need to take advantage of programs like Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) to help the industry retain its market share.
Consumers are concerned about issues like animal welfare and are not convinced ranchers have animals’ best interests at heart, according to Colorado State University Livestock Extension Specialist Kacy Atkinson.
Since the 1970s, beef consumption has steadily declined, while other meats have remained steady or show positive growth. In the 70s, the nutritional value of beef was questioned, with some research indicating beef was bad for consumers, and it was hard on the heart.
In the 2000s, beef had palatability issues, and now, its production concerns are the focus. Many people feel cattle are bad for the environment while others see beef as non-sustainable.
There is also concern amongst consumers about production practices used to raise beef.
Atkinson believes these issues need to be fixed at the production level, using the BQA program as a base.
“The mission of BQA is to maximize consumer confidence and acceptance of beef by focusing producers' attention to daily production practices that influence safety, wholesomeness and quality of beef and beef products,” she said.
BQA has helped the industry enhance carcass quality, so consumers can continue to enjoy beef, she continued.
“Our goal is to produce a good product consumers want to put on their table, and get enjoyment from eating,” she said.
BQA has also helped the industry reduce quality problems like drug residue in carcasses, eliminate pathogen contamination and E. coli and reduce carcass defects.
The second part of BQA is working toward maximizing consumer confidence.
“We need to communicate with the consumer that we’re using the best management practices available,” Atkinson said. “We understand their concerns, and we are using accepted practices to address those concerns. We need to keep informed where our industry is and where it is going. Most importantly, we need to learn how to communicate with consumers what we do in a way they will understand.”
BQA is constantly evolving to meet producer needs, she said. The focus of BQA is on feedstuffs, health, animal care and husbandry.
Unfortunately, less than 30 percent of cattlemen have sat through a BQA program, and fewer than 20 percent have become certified. Atkinson said this needs to change.
“The very last antibiotic approved for veterinary medicine was created in 1978,” she said. “There will never be another antibiotic we are allowed access to in veterinary medicine. Any new antibiotics will be for human medicine only.”
“If we don’t do a good job stewarding antibiotics in our industry, and we create resistance problems, we won’t have anything left to use,” she said. “That’s why it is very important for us to use good practices with the antibiotics we have.”
Consumers are concerned about antibiotic use in livestock. In fact, 82 percent of consumers believe producers misuse antibiotics on a regular basis.
“They don’t understand that a bottle of Draxxin costs $3,000, so we are probably not giving that shot for the fun of it if the animal doesn’t need it,” Atkinson said.
“There is a huge knowledge gap,” she continued. “Seventy-eight percent of consumers think antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals, and 72 percent didn’t have an issue with it being used to prevent disease.”
Unfortunately, thanks to the wealth of misinformation being circulated by beef activists, consumers don’t think beef producers are doing a good job taking care of their animals and are raising them in inhumane ways.
There are documentaries, webinars, books and protestors that all present animal agriculture in a negative light. These protestors aren’t afraid to use social media to their advantage, she added.
“These protestors want to see the animal agriculture industry go away,” Atkinson stated. “There are even companies out there working on beef alternatives that taste like beef, but they aren't beef.”
“A food service company has to respond to these consumer concerns if they want consumers to continue shopping at their establishment and eating the food they provide,” she continued.
To address these concerns, companies like Panera Bread, General Mills and Walmart are creating their own set of standards for how the products they will eventually sell to consumers are raised.
“They have to address consumer concerns because they are the end point of the food chain,” she stated.
When consumers were surveyed about their biggest concerns related to the food they chose to buy and put on the table, they indicated their number one concern is the impact of the food on the environment.
Their second concern is sustainability and whether or not their food choice was sustainable, and third is animal welfare concerns.
Atkinson said it all comes down to trust.
“Consumers don’t know how to trust,” she said. “They think farmers and ranchers are trustworthy, but they don’t think ranchers exist anymore because they don’t understand agriculture.”
Beef producers need to tell their story, be more transparent and explain their production practices so consumers can understand what they do and why.
“If we don’t step up to the plate and address these concerns, as an industry, we are going to see our market share continue to decline, and we may be regulated from the top down,” she said.
Higher temperatures recommended, cooking ground beef compared to steakWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“While the idea of pink steak might sound good and is safe, the same is not true for a burger,” states Jeff LeJune, a professor in the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
“When we put a piece of meat on the grill, the outside of the meat heats up and therefore can destroy the bacteria on the surface, but the interior takes a lot longer to heat up,” he explains.
The interior of a steak is relatively sterile and does not contain the same harmful bacteria that ground beef does.
“For a burger, the meat is put through a grinder and whatever is on the surface ends up in the interior, and the interior ends up on the surface. It’s all mixed up,” remarks JeJune, noting that the bacteria are introduced throughout the product.
To explore this concept, he conducted an experiment using two different kinds of growth media.
“The first one was a non-selective media that is very nutrient-rich and allows all kinds of different bacteria to grow on it. The second one contains bio-salts and other ingredients that would be present in the intestines. It selects for organisms that would grow in the intestine like coliforms and E. coli,” he says.
Samples were created using both mediums for interior and exterior cultures from raw steak and raw hamburger.
“We cooked the burgers and steak to 140 degrees, which would be medium rare. Then we cooked them to 160 degrees,” he notes.
Samples were taken from the interior and exterior of both the steak and hamburger at both temperature points and applied to the two types of growth media.
“We put our petri dishes in the incubator and left them overnight. Bacteria like warm temperatures, so that’s one reason we put our food in the refrigerator when we aren’t going to eat it right away,” LeJune comments.
After removing the samples from the incubator, LeJune and his team compared the samples heated to 140 degrees to look for bacterial growth. There was no bacterial growth from the internal samples of cooked steak, but growth colonies were visible on the samples from the ground beef.
“To make sure that the burger is adequately cooked, we should cook it to 160 degrees. At that temperature, we had no bacterial growth from either the steak or the burger,” he states.
The results of LeJune’s study showed that the surface of both raw steaks and raw burgers can be contaminated with bacteria, but only the raw ground beef was contaminated on the interior.
“As we cooked it, the numbers decreased, but even cooking to 140 degrees leaves bacteria on the inside of a ground burger,” he says.
He suggests using a meat thermometer to test the doneness of meats and cooking ground beef to a160 degrees to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
“Don’t eat pink burgers,” LeJune remarks. “They are not safe.”
Speaker encourages understanding antibiotic use, being a positive voiceWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Buffalo – “How many of us have gone and told our local grocery story thank you for carrying commodity beef?” questioned Jennie Hodgen, a food safety and meat science specialist at Merck Animal Health during the Johnson County CattleWomen’s Annual Women's Ag Summit in Buffalo on Jan. 23.
“All retailers have comment sections online. It’s very easy to look up Kroger, Walmart or whoever and thank them for supporting the beef industry,” she said.
Hodgen explained that a small percentage of consumers are demanding niche market products and that producers can have an equally strong voice in the marketplace. She also encouraged producers to create good relationships within their communities.
“I firmly believe that one of the best ways to correct some of the misinformation out there is to have those one-on-one conversations,” she stated.
Something as simple as a dinner party can be a good way to open the door for a conversation about food production and building the relationship encourages consumers to think about speaking to their “ag friends” when they encounter questions.
“We need for people to have these wonderful experiences and memories of eating meat so that when they get questions they pause, like they do with bacon,” she explained.
One of the issues producers can help address is consumer concerns about antibiotics by helping to explain why and how they are used.
“Find out what their concern actually is,” Hodgen suggested in regards to opening the conversation.
By listening to the questions consumers already have, producers can often provide answers without creating more questions and concerns than they already started with.
For example, consumers are largely concerned about the use of antibiotics used as growth promotants in livestock, but they know very little about antibiotic use for treatment of illnesses.
“Surprisingly, consumers don’t make the leap between antibiotics given to humans and antibiotics given to animals,” commented Hodgen.
She continues, “There are four things that antibiotics can get approved for in the United States – treatment, prevention, control and growth promotion.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will no longer be approving growth promotion uses for antibiotics, but it has been highly popular for drug companies in the past for breaking into the market.
“In the past, the easiest claim to get approved from the FDA was growth promotion. If a drug company could get that claim, they could get their drug out there and then go after claims that are harder to get, like prevention, control and treatment, where the companies have to prove their drugs are controlling or treating a disease,” she explained.
Large beef cattle are not the sole result of antibiotic use, though, Hodgen said. Producers are paid by weight, and much of the growth seen in the industry is due to genetics.
“What has shifted in the last 20 years in genetics? We get more meat, we are more efficient, and we have a higher class of marbling, overall,” noted Hodgen. “We are trying to be good environmentalists, and we are trying to get our animals to grow faster with less feed and less water.”
Unfortunately, she warns, consumers can be frightened by the word “genetics” because they have negative feelings about genetic modification.
“It’s one of those terms that we all understand but perhaps might not be the proper way to describe it. If we remember to say we use different breeds, it might be more effective,” she shared as an example.
Providing positive reasons for certain management decisions can also be helpful, such as explaining that animals in the feedlot are closely monitored and cared for.
“I’m from New Mexico, and there isn’t much water in New Mexico. If we did not have a place to feed our animals, my family would not still have cows,” she said, explaining that feedlots provide humane options for producers who may not have all of the same resources.
Images that consumers have of feedlots also contribute to their concerns about antibiotics in the environment, although Hodgen explains that sunlight, water and air degrade excreted antibiotics before they transfer into the environment.
“Problems with antibiotics in the environment are usually associated with people,” she noted.
Consumers are also concerned with resistance and the development of “super bugs” due to the overuse of antibiotics. Again, Hodgen pointed out that livestock management is not where problems develop.
“Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) is probably the most prevalent disease in the beef industry. One of the things that eases the consumer’s mind is talking about what kinds of bugs we are worried about,” Hodgen remarked.
The bacteria that cause BVD are not bacteria that cause illnesses in humans, and therefore, the drugs used to treat BVD do not affect how people are treated.
“An antibiotic is a product from a bacteria that kills another bacteria,” she described, adding that resistance occurs for specific relationships between one bacteria and another.
Although many consumer concerns are unfounded, Hodgen noted that one way to reduce antibiotic use is to properly vaccinate animals.
“In 1997, 69 percent of animals going into the feedyard did not receive proper vaccination,” she stated.
Hodgen encouraged producers to be good representatives of the industry, providing good examples for how food is produced.
“We need to remember, the misperceptions around antibiotics are not only an antibiotic conversation. We need to have conversations about everything we’re doing with our animals,” she said.
Food safety emerges as unifying themeWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Fort Collins, Colo. – Experts from around the U.S. met in Fort Collins, Colo. Jan. 8-9 to discuss current issues in global food production at the International Livestock Forum, hosted by Colorado State University (CSU). Out of over 150 applicants, 20 university students involved in agriculture-related programs from around the world were also selected to attend.
Keith Belk, professor of meat safety and quality at CSU, highlighted a common theme that ran through all of the presentations given at the conference.
“Food safety has entered the arena on every single topic that we’ve discussed, whether it was maintaining access to export markets or making sure that a beef purveyor has places to distribute products in New York City, N.Y.,” Belk remarked.
Belk continued, “Every company that produces a meat product in the livestock industry today has been forced, without regulatory requirements, to implement global safety initiate standards – standards that exert control over both safety and quality in their operations.”
Regardless of whether they produce fresh or processed meats and regardless of size, he argued that if a company such as Walmart declares they will only sell products that meet global safety initiative standards, producers will meet that demand to gain a place in the market.
This market pressure is created by means that go beyond regulatory requirements to improve the control of food safety and management in food production systems.
“This is something that’s affecting the industry in a big way. It’s something that costs money but has gained demand by the folks who buy products from these plants,” he comments.
Although much of this pressure is market-driven, Belk also pointed out that July 25, 2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of the implementation of a final rule titled the Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) rule.
“How has this evolved the industry and what sorts of things do we have to look forward to in the future as a consequence of what has happened during that 20-year span of time?” he questioned.
The rule was created to set certain food safety performance standards and establish testing programs to ensure that those standards are met. It also assigned new tasks to inspectors to adequately review the set standards.
“We have a lot of graduate and undergraduate students in programs around the country studying animal science and food safety,” Belk stated. “One thing they all have in common is, to remain in this industry in the future, they will all have to know something about food safety.”
He explained that the demand for food safety creates a demand for people who are technically competent and can assist companies as they implement programs to address safety management issues.
“We should be thinking about the potential that exists for us and our careers,” he noted. “Food safety is permeating everything we do in livestock and meat production.”