The Truth About Free Range Chickens

If you have not seen the Geico Commercial about the free range chicken going on an adventure, here ya go.

It’s pretty cute and worth the 30 seconds, especially because this post addresses it.

Let me preface the post with this: while I am a strong advocate for commercial agriculture, I also believe in consumer choice. But I believe the choice should be made after educated research, which means the consumer should research both sides of the argument, not just one.

The Misconception

Free Range ChickensA lot of consumers like to think that free range means that the chickens have the unlimited access to do what our chicken friend in the commercial did. Travel as they wish, on a whim, to anywhere. But that is not quite the case.

The Truth

The USDA says, FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The animal does not have to live its entire life outdoors, it just has to have the access to it at some point and time, whether it utilizes it or not.

A study in the United Kingdom found that out of a flock of 800,000 birds only 15% were observed outside during the daylight hours. This is because the open pasture makes them nervous since it provides no protection from sun, wind, or predators.

The Issue

The issue is that less than 1% of chickens are raised as free range, and in the future it will be almost impossible to raise enough chickens to feed the growing world population.

Poultry is the second most consumed meat in the world, not too far behind pork. Poultry is usually the cheapest meat for all the different countries. If all of agriculture switched over to free range chickens it would raise the price of chicken so exponentially, that very few people in developing countries would be able to afford it.

cage raised chicken. Free range chickens. Are cages humane for chickensConventionally raised chicken is often described in a negative way, but it is described that way mostly by people who have never been to a poultry farm. While I will admit that all areas of agriculture, have something they could improve on (because no one or nothing is perfect) I also believe that conventionally raised poultry at the majority of U.S. farms are treated humanely. I believe that because I have seen it with my own eyes.

In conventional laying houses most chickens live in cages that provide them with room to move around and spread their wings. An interesting fact about chickens is they will not produce eggs if they are stressed out! That means the chickens are comfortable and not stressed in these cages, or they wouldn’t produce any eggs.

If you want your chickens to be free range, that is perfectly fine because it is still a part of agriculture. But I want consumers to know the truth about what “Free Range” means for the chicken and for labeling purposes.

The Truth About Genetically Modified Food: Are GMOs Safe?

TGenetically Modified Food Is Safehe safety of genetically modified food is something that is debated frequently. When consumers want to learn more about GMOs the easiest thing to do is to turn to the Internet. When I googled GMOs the first nine links lead to articles that were against the use of GMOs, that means 90% of the articles a consumer reads are negative, but 90% of the field corn and cotton in the United States are genetically modified. I think the main reason behind this is because consumers do not understand GMOs: what they are and if they are safe.

Genetically Modified CottonDr. David Weaver from Auburn University explains the science behind GMOs. There are certain bacterium, Agrobacterium, that live in the soil, this bacteria attacks injured plants. If a plant is wounded, this bacterium travels inside the plant and injects DNA that takes over the plant and tells it to produce food that only that bacterium can eat. In nature this is called crown gall. Scientists took this bacterium and removed the piece of DNA that causes crown gall and put DNA for another trait into the bacteria. Then the bacterium gets injected into the plant, just like if the plant was injured in nature. In the case of cotton, scientists put a gene that codes for a protein that when expressed kills a certain insect that feeds on cotton. This protein is extremely specific, so that it is only toxic to a certain insect.

A second GMO is a gene in soybeans that protects plants from glyphosate, roundup. Roundup is a non discriminatory herbicide. Scientists placed a gene that resists roundup into soybeans this means that farmers can kill weeds and save their soybeans. One advantage of GMOs is that we can control target insects and not kill all of them. The main insect that used to affect cotton is no longer able to eat cotton because of the genetic engineering done by scientists.  Dr. Weaver said, “At one time, over half of the insecticides used in the whole country were used on one  crop, cotton. Because of GMOs that is no longer occurring.” GMOs have drastically reduced the amount of herbicides and insecticides used in the agricultural industry.

Now the thing that consumers worry most about, the consumption of GMOs. There are only three commercialized GMOs in the US corn, cotton, and soybeans. We can only eat two of these so we’ll address soybeans first, the main way soybeans are consumed in the US is through vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is a mixture of fatty acids and those fatty acids contain none of the products that the plant expresses to make it resistant to roundup so when eating it, you are not eating any genetically modified proteins and it is in no way harmful to humans or animals.

Genetically Modified Corn

The only GMOs that we, as consumers eat part of the protein product is corn. But we shouldn’t be worried about eating GMOs because they are heavily regulated by the EPA and FDA. To be commercialized GMOs must be demonstrated over multiple years through hundred of tests over years to be completely safe. Then they have to be approved by the FDA who has a low tolerance for anything that might be remotely harmful. These products have been examined to prove their safety, and research continues to prove it. There has not been a single case of someone dying from a GMO. So there is no reason to be worried about feeding yourself or your children GMOs.

The Truth About Antibiotics in Chickens

Consumers are worried about what goes into the food they eat. And rightfully so, if you’re putting it into your body you should know what goes into its body and why. After my post about the truth about hormones in poultry I was asked multiple times to write a post about antibiotics in chickens, so after a good bit of time (sorry!) and research from trusted sources I hope that this blog will help answer your questions about the antibiotics used in the poultry industry.

The different antibiotics used in humans and beef cattleIn a previous post about antibiotics and hormones in beef I discussed how the antibiotics used in animal agriculture medicine are usually not the same ones used in human medicine. This remains true for the poultry industry as well. A few of the antibiotics for humans and livestock are in the same drug class, but the FDA regulates these and establishes proper use levels along with withdrawal times. When used as directed by the FDA they pose no health issues. So there is very little possibility for antibiotic resistance because of being fed to livestock.

Antibiotics are used in the poultry industry to prevent and treat diseases. One common misunderstanding is that antibiotics act as growth promotants, but they do not. In poultry antibiotics simply dramatically reduce the amount of harmful and wasteful bacteria in the gut of a chicken. Antibiotics keep chickens healthy which therefore makes them more efficient in converting feed to energy.

ucm378110Ray Abner Director of US Poultry Business Unit and Global Strategic Accounts for Phibro explains why antibiotics are helpful, “When poultry encounter harmful pathogens, not only do these bacteria rob nutrients, but much of the chickens’ protein and energy intake must go towards defense mechanisms. This inhibits growth.” By using antibiotics to keep chickens healthy we are aiding in producing more of one of the worlds favorite sources of meat. Also by using antibiotics we are helping keep the poultry industry more sustainable. The University of Georgia did a study to see the impacts of going antibiotic free, ABF, in producing chickens Continue reading

The Truth About a Farmer’s Fight

Todays blog post is going to be a little different from my others. Today I’m going to share why I am thankful for the fight of a farmer.

I am thankful for the work ethic and fight instilled into me by agriculture and my father. I recently found a “pledge” from Mike Rowe that, in my opinion, accurately sums up the agricultural industry’s view on work ethic. Here are some of my favorite points from the pledge, for which I am most grateful.

“THE S.W.E.A.T. PLEDGE”
(Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo)

3. I believe there is no such thing as a “bad job.” I believe that all jobs are opportunities, and it’s up to me to make the best of them.

7. I believe the best way to distinguish myself at work is to show up early, stay late, and cheerfully volunteer for every crappy task there is.

11. I understand the world is not fair, and I’m OK with that. I do not resent the success of others.

12. I believe that all people are created equal. I also believe that all people make choices. Some choose to be lazy. Some choose to sleep in. I choose to work my butt off.

A picture from Gilmer Dairy Farm's Facebook page.

A picture from Gilmer Dairy Farm’s Facebook page.

I love these points from the pledge because I find them applicable to myself and the agriculture industry; The 1st point I listed is one thing I am extremely grateful for, people that step up and do the “dirty jobs” that others do not want. Most people like drinking milk, but most do not want to dedicate the amount of time it takes to produce the milk. Dairy farmers essentially donate their entire life, give up vacations, and hours of sleep so that we can have that delicious drink that we love. If you are ever curious about what the life of a dairy farmer looks like check out, Will Gilmer on Twitter or Facebook.

I am grateful for the people that go above and beyond for our food production (I am not saying that other people do not show up early, work late and work their butt off, I am sure people of other professions do this as well.) But I am especially grateful for the agriculture workers that do this so that we can eat delicious meals, like the Thanksgiving Dinner we will have soon.

My father and I at an Ag in the Classroom Event recently teaching elementary kids about beef cattle.

My father and I at an Ag in the Classroom Event recently teaching elementary kids about beef cattle.

I am also grateful for the fight that is instilled in every farmer, no matter the circumstance. I have rarely known farmers to give up, they will keep working until they find a solution and solve the problem at hand. This can be anything from loading 12 foot panels in the 8 foot bed of a truck (personal experience), working to solve the world’s hunger problem, or fighting leukemia. My father recently got diagnosed with leukemia and he is already on chemo to fight it. I am extremely grateful because as a farmer he had strong work ethic and fight instilled into him from day one. I am so grateful for his work ethic and fight because without he might give up, but with it I know how strong he is and how hard he can and will work to fight this circumstance. Just as strong and as hard as the farmers and scientists that are working to solve world hunger, and feeding a growing population. Both of these are wars that are only going to be won by people with high work ethic and fight.

The Truth about “Hormone Free” Chickens

How many times have we gone to the grocery store to get food for dinner, and saw a label on our favorite protein, chicken, that stated “Hormone Free.” I hate to be the one to break it to you, but those labels are lying.

NO chicken, at all, no matter what, is completely “hormone free.” Chickens naturally produce growth hormones. Mississippi State University Extension explains this a little more when they said, “Progesterone, testosterone, and estrogen are naturally occurring hormones in both humans and animals. These hormones are necessary for normal development, growth, and reproduction.” As MSU Extension explains, hormones occur naturally in chickens so that is why the label, “hormone free” is incorrect.

Chickens Growth Hormones

Labels like these are misleading to consumers.

Another label that is misleading is “No Hormones Added.” Additive hormones are banned by the FDA and have been for the past 50 years. So no growth hormones are added to the chicken we eat, because they are illegal so when companies market their chicken as “No Added Hormones” just realize that this label applies to all chicken eaten in the United States.

This video from the USPoultry Association featuring interviews with professors and extension specialists from the University of Arkansas does a great job describing that hormones are not used in the poultry industry, and why they are not used. It also shows how chickens are raised, showing the housing, feeding operations, and overall care of poultry in the United States.

Chicken Growth Hormones

The left-hand chicken is a breed from 1957. The middle chicken is a breed from 1978. The right-hand one is a breed from 2005. They were all raised in the same manner for this paper and were photographed at the same age.

Poultry Science, a scientific journal, recently did a study on the effect of selective breeding on growth, efficiency, and yield of broilers, or chickens produced to be eaten. The study took mixed-sex chicks and grew them according to a current nutritional program to 56 days. They took front and side portraits of 8 birds per strains. They also measured growth rate, feed intake, and measures of feed efficiency including feed conversion ratio, residual feed intake, and residual maintenance energy requirements.

This study says that, “From 1957 to 2005, broiler growth increased by over 400%, with a concurrent 50% reduction in feed conversion ratio…” This study proves that the size of broilers has increased over time because of selective breeding that has consequently increased feed conversion ratios.

Another reason, besides legality that chickens are not given growth hormones is that they are not effective. Dr. Berry, a poultry science professor from Auburn University explains why, “Growth is complex; no one hormone can affect it. The hormone everyone considers a growth hormone is a protein hormone that is in all vertebrate. It cannot be taken orally, because it is digested normally, to be effective it would have to be injected. The injections would have to be given every 90 minutes to be in correlation with the pulses of the natural hormones in the chicken. We have 110-120 million birds growing in Alabama at any given moment, so 120 million birds would have to be given an injection every 90 minutes; obviously that is not economical at all.” This is a reason that surprises a lot of consumers, but it is another main reason that hormones are not used in the poultry industry.

So the next time that you hear that chickens are larger than in the past because they are fed growth hormones, just realize that is actually not true. Chickens are not fed or injected with growth hormones, they just have naturally increased size over time. So when you see a label that has “No hormones added” or “hormone free” just remember that NO chicken, at all is hormone free,  and no chickens have hormones added to them. So feel confident when buying chicken from the store or from Chick-Fil-A by realizing you are not eating something with growth hormones.

A Dairy Misconception: Malnourished Cows

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Finding these cows similarities, could be difficult but finding the differences are very easy. As for similarities: they are both female cattle (cows) that have calved semi recently. It is obvious in the picture in the right of the Hereford because she has a calf beside her, in the picture of the Jersey (on the left) there is no calf but you can tell that she has calved somewhat recently because of her large udder.

As for the differences, their builds contrast one another. The Jersey on the left looks skinny, as her hip bones and ribs are showing. The Hereford is very stoutly built, she has adequate rib shape and depth. The Hereford is nursing a calf at her side, but produces less milk than the Jersey. Lactation in any animal, including humans, is the single most energy demanding activity.  Hereford cattle produce about 10-12 pounds of milk a day, while Jersey cattle produce around 50 pounds a day, which takes 10x more of the cows energy. The more energy spent to produce milk is less energy that will be used to produce meat. This does not mean that the Jersey is malnourished!! As a dairy cow she just has a different body type than beef cattle. This difference in body type is because of each cows purpose.

A dairy cow being skinny is not her being malnourished, it is actually called dairy characteristics. Dairy cattle are supposed to produce milk, so they expend a lot of energy doing just that. “Producing milk and growing body tissue are different physiological processes, under different controls” says Dr. Keith Cummins a retired dairy professor from Auburn University.

I hope the next time you see a a dairy cow, either in person or in a picture you will better understand why she looks “malnourished” and understand that she is not, she is actually a perfectly healthy cow that is working very hard to produce milk for you and your family.

The Truth about the Humane Society of the United States

If you are friends on social media with any farmers, ranchers, hunters, outdoor enthusiasts, or anything of that nature. You may have seen a frenzy of angry and upset posts about a recent occurrence. The Original Muck Boot Company shared a photo on Facebook about a fundraiser they were doing for the Humane Society of the United States. This caused an uproar in the agriculture and hunting communities, and resulted in #WhatTheMuck.

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Muck has since posted a response to this issue, so for some this issue is resolved for others it isn’t, but that is not the reason for this blog post. 

Some people may wonder, why would people freak out about a company donating money to help save puppies and kittens, they must be heartless. But the truth is trying to save puppies and kittens isn’t all that HSUS does, actually it is a very small part of it. Between 2009-2011 the “non-profit” collected more than $509 million, and gave away $27 million to grants and organizations in the United States, which is about 5%. Watch this video for more info. This would be all well and good, if HSUS didn’t present themselves as helping animals via commercialsRescued Stray Cats Wait To Be Adopted

People assume that because of the name, that their $19 a month goes directly to help animals, just like their local shelter does, but really where the money goes is lobbying against “animal cruelty”, in a backhanded way. 

Rapid City Journal did some research and found that HSUS credits itself with passing 470 state laws between 2004-2010, and 121 new laws in 2009 alone. Alright, so not only does HSUS not really help the pitiful animals in their commercials, they pass laws. So what? 

Well the way some/most of those laws are phrased directly affect/limit agriculture, while trying to hide behind the guise of helping animals. One law they proposed in Alabama in 2008, was a law to end cockfighting. This sounded like a wonderful thing to support, until further investigation, where it was discovered that by the wording of the bill any farmer with two or more roosters that could fight would be accused of cockfighting, fined and shut down. Therefore the poultry industry, a large sector of the Alabama economy, would be limited. Farmers got together and formed the Coalition for Farm Animal Care and Well-Being and prevented this law from being passed. 

UnknownAnother law HSUS lobbied for was Proposition 2 in California; which states that egg laying chickens must be free ranging for a certain amount of time, which is going to drive up the cost of egg production and possibly drive the egg industry out of California.

That is the reason so many agriculturalists exploded about HSUS receiving money, because giving money to HSUS could be synonymous with losing our farms and everything we love, live, and dedicate our life to, the agriculture industry. 

If you want to actually help animals donate money, food, or time to your local humane society where it is guaranteed that your money will help animals. 

I hope now that you know the truth about The Humane Society of the United States you either don’t feel guilty about not donating money to HSUS, or you choose to stop donating to HSUS if you have been. 

The Truth About “Factory Farms”

The term “factory farm” is being used more and more in our world, and the connotation just gets worse and worse. Many companies would like consumers to picture their competition’s food raised in cold, lightless buildings, being abused and neglected by the “big ag” companies.

Most definitions inclFactory Farming ude the size of the farm as a deciding factor in whether a farm is considered a “factory farm.” Here is one definition, “characterized by a dense population of animals raised on limited land and requiring large amounts of food, water and medical inputs”

But instead of size, the USDA classifies farms by the amount of products sold per year. So the main practice associated with “factory farming” is not even a description used by the USDA, there is no top limit on amount of sales for a family farm; they can make millions in profit and still be considered a family farm as long as they fit these requirements.

Chipotle, HSUS, PETA, and countless other animal rights activists would love if they could convince the nation and world that these factory farms dominate the United States, but the truth is they do not. Here is another animal rights group’s definition of a “factory farm.

This website states that “factory farms dominate U.S. food production,” but that is not the truth. According to the US Department of Agriculture, USDA, 97.6% of farms are family farms, and they account for 85% of production.

This website also states that the animals undergo “debilitating and painful conditions and deformities.” From personal experience I know anything that is broken is more difficult to sell, this includes animals. If we look at this from a purely economical standpoint farmers want to care for their animals because then they can make a larger profit.

But farmers also genuinely care for their animals, they spend countless hours checking cows that are about to calf, or treating a sick animal. Whoever said farmers don’t care for their animals, has probably never met a true farmer. I was recently working bulls with some of the biggest names in the cattle industry in Alabama, and before lunch these men gathered together and prayed, not only for our food, but also for the bulls we had just worked: for their safety, health, and growth.

Family FarmAnother characteristic people associate with “factory farming” is confinement in a barn; some people assume these walls are made to hide the torture we have planned for the animal, but what they do not realize is that these barns actually protect animals.

I live in Alabama, where 100 on a summer day in the middle of July is nothing new. I know people that farm in South Dakota where a few feet of snow can be constantly on the ground in the winter. Our barns provide protection from these extremes, no the animals may not be out grazing the pastures 24/7 but at least they aren’t freezing to death or dying of heat stroke. (this mostly pertains to smaller livestock, not cattle)

This blog does a great job of explaining why these Minnesota farmers house their hogs in a barn.

The main practices that consumers associate with “factory farming” and “big ag” are just large scale family farms that are run humanely by a family that is trying to make a living just like you or me. I once had a lady tell me that someone was not a “real farmer” because he ran a large operation, I do not think that the number of livestock or acres you have should determine if you are a real farmer. I believe the way you raise and treat your animals should determine if you are a true farmer.

The Truth About Antibiotics and Hormones in Beef

The use of hormones and antibiotics in the beef we eat is being questioned individually and on a large scale. An example of this is Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder, chairman, and co-CEO, who stated the chain was going to import beef from over 8,000 miles away in Australia, because the supply of antibiotic and hormone free beef has dwindled recently. That is his opinion, and he is entitled to it, but I just wanted to help spread awareness about how antibiotics and hormones are used in the beef industry.

The different antibiotics used in humans and beef cattle

Top antibiotics in humans vs. animals

Most people do not realize that the main antibiotics used in production agriculture are different from the main antibiotics used for human treatment, so the formation of “superbugs” from agricultural use of antibiotics is unlikely. This is helped by farmers following the prescription regiment better than human patients do (mostly because the cattle can’t tell us they “feel fine, they don’t need anymore medicine.”)

People that do not take/finish their antibiotic prescriptions from the doctor are more likely to contribute to the formation of “superbugs” than farmers who administer antibiotics to their sick cattle to prevent a loss.

Another protection protocol is that all antibiotics come with specific labels about the length of time (between 14-22 days) from the final administration of the antibiotic and harvest of the animal. The time span provided depends on the antibiotic, the dosage, and the length of the prescription; this time frame allows for enough time for the antibiotic to leave the animal’s system.

Now for the next thing Steve Ells said that US beef couldn’t provide, hormone free beef. The US can’t provide it because it is impossible, all living things have hormones so there is no such thing as “hormone free” beef. But we’ll just assume he meant no added hormones. It is true, some farms use added hormones to aid in raising their cattle, this is perfectly legal unlike in the poultry and pork industries. Hormones in cattle are administered through an implant under the skin on the back of the ear and are released slowly over time. Since the ear is one of the few parts of the beef carcass that we discard the implant never enters the food industry.

Now for the part everyone is worried about, the amount of hormones that actually end up in our food. Research has shown that a 3 oz natural, non-implanted steak has 1.39 nano grams of estrogen. A 3 oz hormone implanted steak has 1.89 nano grams of estrogen. In comparison 3 oz of cabbage has 2,017 nano grams, one birth control pill has 34,000 nano grams, and a normal adult male has 136,000 nano grams of estrogen. All of these numbers are well and good, but how much is a nano gram? It is one-billionth of a gram, in other words not a lot! To put that in a visual perspective if you took a paper clip and then tore it into 1 billion pieces, one of those pieces would be about equal to a nano gram.

While Steve Ells and Chipotle choose to source beef from over 8,000 miles away, I am perfectly satisfied with my American raised beef, because I know the truth about antibiotics and hormones in beef.