Thursday, June 30, 2011

Protection from Animal Rights Activists

There seems to a lot of recent backlash against legislators which seek to protect farmers from animal rights radicals. A lot of assumptions run hand in hand with this, but the short and simple of it is that there used to be a time when people pulled up your driveway at your farm and you were happy. Not happy because it meant an interruption to work, but at least happy in a curious sort of way, interested to see what this stranger would do to take your day out of the ordinary. And while a cordial visit with a stranger used to be ok, teaching them about what you do and where things are, now we're just skeptical. If a stranger shows up at our place, now my first thought is to get them out.

Even our little "farm" has had its fair share of unknown guests over the past few years, situated alone in a rapidly urbanizing community. These unwanted guests may or may not have been responsible for weird happenings at night over the years. Or it might just have easily been some pranking kids, but it leaves us suspicious and uninterested in sharing our life with other people anymore. What used to be a great outreach tool has just turned into a territorial defense against assumed perpetrators. And this is as much as anything because we don't have a lot of legal protection from randoms that might come wandering up. If you haven't guessed yet, I'm pretty strongly in favor of punishing undercover videographers.

This leads into another Farm Sanctuary blog post. I'm not going to spend a lot of time arguing that the West Coast laws are really doing anything for animals. But if you look at the history of widespread animal "welfare" legislation, none of it has. So at least this legislation doesn't make matters worse. But the real stinger is the commentary about prosecuting activists. My comments as always won't get published. They are below...


"You neglect to mention that in the past one and a half years, at least 3 videos have included undercover activists personally abusing animals, paying workers to abuse animals and telling workers to abuse animals. This is also all caught on tape and this is exactly why farmers don't want activists on farms anymore.

"These activists you uphold and condone are responsible for causing the abuse which they then document and edit to pervert into an accusation of the farmer. This is exactly why it should be illegal and why they should be, and in some cases now are, going to jail."

Fundraising Boost (duplicate post)

Tomorrow marks the first level cutoff for fundraising for my benefit bike ride. As we approach the deadline, I'm still $100 short on my fundraising goal for this cutoff. If you know anyone who has suffered through cancer, any friend who has dealt with the pain of watching a relative suffer, or you personally have experienced this, please consider donating to my ride. 100% of the donations go directly to cancer research to find cures and preventions for the disease which plagues the entire world. (and it's tax deductible!)

Click on this link to donate to my ride. It is not a virtual ride, I am actually biking, sweating and aching 100 miles down to Athens. Even so, this is just a fraction of the effort that cancer patients and their families go through every day just to keep fighting. I hope to be an inspiration to them, and you can be too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Proper Animal Care

It’s funny that for as long as I’ve been involved in animal agriculture, people have always thought they knew better than me how to take care of my animals. Sometimes they were right, when I was first starting and learning how to care for animals. I took their advice in the form of suggestions from those more experienced than me; this was the entire point of 4-H: learning to be responsible for something and learning the skills to do so successfully. Interaction with adults, public speaking, leadership opportunities, they all came second to the basic concept of learning new things and sharing my learning with those around me.

More often in my later years, they’ve been wrong. As early as middle school on the local junior fair board, I’ve had to deal with accusations of animal neglect when people failed to load their rabbits up on feed all day. Of course, we all know what happens to people who load up on food all day, so it ought to be common sense that it’s not good for a rabbit to stuff itself either, right? And if you think that they self-regulate, you’re absolutely wrong. In most cases, the animal will eat as much as it can because naturally this makes sense for it. But because its energy is not being taxed in survival all day, it needs far less energy as well and overeating can quickly be the end of it. Is it abuse of children when parents tell them to eat broccoli or restrict the amount of chocolate they can eat?

Of course, as time has rolled on, I’ve interacted with stronger personalities and less educated personalities, both categories of which have either embraced an open mind, allowing me to share my knowledge of proper animal care with them, or they have continued to allow ignorance to dominate their intellect and illogically argued that farmers have no idea what’s best for animals and only keep animals to exploit them. I’ve heard recently from people that being defensive of farming makes it look like we’re trying to hide or justify something when most people would’ve never thought to believe the ridiculous stories that circulate anyhow. This may be true, but I think there’s a spark of pride in the role we all play in feeding the planet that makes farmers naturally defensive of the accusations which are backstabbingly snaked about in the underground of the animal rights movement. And I have never shied away from an argument about whether or not we properly care for our animals.

I’ve often wondered what it is that makes animal rights activists so antagonist towards farmers AND their animals. Are they really so ignorant as to believe their own lies about farmers’ exploitative nature? Animals have survived and prospered for centuries in this “exploitative condition”, it’s a shame we can’t just ask them for their official vote of approval. After all, their domesticability is what led us to settle down and take care of them in the first place. It wasn’t us that hunted them down and forced tameness upon them over the years. (Sidebar: have you ever tried to forcefully tame anything? It doesn’t work.) Or maybe the root of this is that the animal rights activists are actually jealous of the good relationship we have with animals based on hard work and mutual respect. If so, all they had to do was ask. We’re more than willing to share our experiences with those who respect our profession, those who don’t spend every waking moment trying to falsify video and abuse animals themselves to get farmers in trouble.

Feedstuffs recently shared an interview with one of the stars of Food, INC., an animal rights leaning “documentary” on the nation’s food system. I’ll try to upload it to my blog for a while if I can, but there were some very striking quotes that came out of it which I wanted to emphasize. When investigated for their dairy cows waiting at the gate to come in for milking, in good weather and right on their internal schedule as always, the investigator told Salatin that he “didn’t have an animal problem; you have a people problem.” The animals were doing just fine, functioning as they’re well adapted to do, but the neighbor down the road thought she knew what was going on and called in abuse when there was nothing further from the truth.

“This notion that we can have life without death is ridiculous.” and “This notion that you can divorce life from death is … a silly, childish, ignorant notion.” More and more people are making money and garnering attention because of such profoundly obvious statements. I touch on this topic often and my favorite organization to bring this up is still the Zac Brown Band in their commentary on the death that comes about from harvesting vegetables. Salatin goes further to say that if you think death is just a one-way street, he suggests laying naked in your garden for three days to see how nature treats you. That’ll be a harsh reminder of the fact that life requires the death of the living. This simple balance is even in Disney’s Lion King, but people still fail to acknowledge it. Death as a part of life doesn't mean that we should cast off efforts to improve that quality of life, but it does mean we should stop looking for ways to bypass what is fact.

But farmers know this, among all the other things they know. And they take it into consideration every day when they are out planting the fields, killing the weeds, treating the animals and feeding them. Life costs life to feed life, but it is our responsibility to help feed the world. And farmers are willing to risk damage to themselves for the sake of the animals, those same animals which will eventually meet their end in the food chain. This is because farmers truly care for their animals, as well as take care of them. They do this even though they know that one day the animal’s life will come to an end to feed them. Animals benefit from this care and protection from disease and predators, and in turn eventually sacrifice their life in exchange. This is the balance that is life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Over the years it's become especially obvious that I'm just not good at asking people for money; it's been something I've struggled with all my life. We never negotiated for allowances with our parents. Our 4-H projects always sold to the people who bid the highest, but not because we had ever sent them letters asking them to buy our animals. If we sent a letter, it was asking them to support the fair and the youth in general, but never just us. Even when I worked at Farm Bureau and my job was specifically to recruit sponsors, I still struggled with asking people for money. Any amount was fine with me just so long as they were giving of their own good will.

But now here I am again, asking for money. My Pelotonia profile says it all: I'm riding to raise money and awareness for cancer research in Ohio. Our Ohio hospitals are making huge progress in treating and preventing cancer and this research will provide hope to many people this year, next year and next decade. Has cancer affected my family in the past? Heck yes, it has. That's the main reason we live in Ohio now, because we moved here to support my grandpa as he fought and ultimately won his battle with cancer. This year two of my friends have also been fighting cancer, both with great outlooks. And a friend at Amanda's church is in a huge struggle this year as we pray for a miracle.

So that's why I'm riding. I don't do cancer research, nor am I a nurse or a doctor, nor am I superb at comforting those who suffer. But I am athletically built enough that I can ride the miles. And so I ride, because that's my part in this. I ride so that you and others know that we are trying to fight cancer and help those who suffer. But riding isn't enough, I have to also actually raise the money for the ride.

And that's where asking comes in. The hardest thing that I have to do for this Pelotonia, harder than the training or the bike search (which is now complete!) is the asking for money. I've posted to Facebook, contacted old friends and even sent out letters now to corporations and politicians, organizations and well-connected friends. And now I'm back to here. If you read this blog and can even spare $5 or less, please consider donating. This link will take you to my profile where you can choose to donate or not after reading mine and other peoples' stories on the Pelotonia website. Please consider giving to support this huge effort which encompasses nearly 4,000 riders.

For any readers interested, my wife and I are also doing sponsor jerseys with logos. This could be a great advertising opportunity which would be an outreach message into the community about local support.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


The experiment that I’m working on is pretty commonly referred to as a feeding trial. Basically what this means is that our experiment will consist of different diet adjustments. These diet adjustments try to only change one specific thing between diets in order to be able to attribute differences observed during the experiment to these diet changes, thus increasing our understanding of what impact the things we feed has on product quality, product safety, animal health and the environment. It is a very rewarding area of animal science to be researching for me because I feel like the knowledge we can gain in this field is limitless in its potential real-world applications. In our case we will be formulating one diet from which different additives will be put in. We hope to determine which added ingredient is best for encouraging healthy growth and behavior of pigs while improving the safety of our human food supply. Keep in mind that all of the ingredients we are testing have already been proven to be safe and beneficial for consumption by animals, and also safe for ultimate human consumption. We just want to know which is most beneficial.

A struggle with feeding trials over the years is that occasionally something other than just the treatment gets inadvertently changed. In my field of study, I’ve seen growth performance of pigs attributed to a diet ingredient and then people later discovered that they gave extra protein or energy to one of the groups. This can have a big impact on what happens during the experiment! These confounded results can have very little value to science if the variables cannot be sorted out and I don’t want this to happen to me. To avoid this, we spent last week balancing diets based on current ingredient listings that we have available to us. We made the diets as simple as possible and used a programmed spreadsheet to ensure that every requirement of the pig is met in the diet. Then we edited ingredients between treatments to make sure that they were balanced as well. By balancing for energy, we created “isocaloric” diets which we also balanced for protein.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Feed ingredients also have different digestibility values once fed and can have interactions between ingredients. This is where it becomes important to understand feed ingredients and to have properly analyzed the feed for the values we used in the calculations. Scientific research over the years has established a lot of ratios that we need to follow to ensure that the animals we are feeding have the nutrition they need to be healthy for the trial and also balanced between treatments in the experiment.

All sounds kind of complicated, right? Well this is a simplified version of what really goes on, and this same nutrient balancing is what is done for all of the animals that live on farms today. Some people think that we should return to the “natural” way of producing animals, that we have overcomplicated the issue and that this isn’t good for the animals. While I understand peoples’ concerns about complicated diets, simple things aren’t always good. Pasture and free range doesn’t provide everything that an animal needs to live, just like vegetarianism cannot provide all of the nutrients that humans need to be healthy. We need to supplement this intake with protein, vitamins and minerals (naturally found in animal products) in order to be as healthy as we can be. And the same kind of supplementation is important for animals.

Now, we could just throw out a mineral block and call it good, but with all of the science and knowledge that we have today, that would be underutilizing technology. By using the technology we’ve developed, we can provide so much better care to the animals we raise. And this is why farmers go to great lengths to balance out nutrients with proper analysis to make sure that they are providing everything that an animal needs to be healthy and survive. They go to complicated lengths to make the right decisions for the animals which ultimately put food on your table.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Today was one of those where I am reminded about how great it is to be in school. There are so many knowledgeable and experienced professionals in this university and it is a privilege to work with them. Some days. And by the way, I Googled "ultrasound piglet" to find the images. Let's just say that I did a lot of sorting before finding a good one from Purdue. And I've seen tons of things I never wanted to or expected to see.

Back to topic, today was one of those days for learning great new things. We took a trip out to the farm where I will be conducting my research and brought the ultrasound machine along to preg-check the gilts there at the farm. Preg-check is just short-hand for checking them to see if they're pregnant. Since pregnancy and new life is a critical part of the economic chain on farms, it's important to know whether animals are pregnant and how far along they are so that you're not just sitting around waiting every day or randomly surprised when it starts raining babies.

I've never actually ultrasounded before, so I spent a good part of the first pens just trying to understand what I was looking at. Since you probably haven't done this before either, I'll try and make sense of it for you. If the image is in the right place, determining pregnancy takes less than 2 seconds. We are looking for round dark shapes in the image at this age. Each one of those round dark images is a piglet in the uterus. Where things get tricky is the correct placement of the image itself. If the probe is in the wrong spot, you can get cool (but useless) images of the GI tract which can be misinterpreted for a non-pregnant pig. I also a few times today got images which were blurred in some places by poor contact between skin and probe and these blurrs weren't helpful either.

We went through about a half gallon of vegetable oil today, lubricating up the probe. No, that's not because it was going where the sun doesn't shine. Lubricating the probe helps eliminate image blocking by skin and hair on the underside of the pig. We can better press up against the side of the pig and apply even pressure which leads to a better image. Surprisingly, while there were very few pictures of ultrasound images, there were tons of pictures of people ultrasounding, so I will include one here for you as well. The basic gist of the procedure is to oil up the probe, place it under the pig near the flank and to angle it at about a 45 degree angle through the pig. This should give a good view of the uterus.

This is by no means an easy thing to do, but it is very non-invasive and so it's important to become good at doing this so that we can limit the stress of the mothers and promote a higher pregnancy success rate for them on the farm. My advisor is unbelievably quick at this and was a patient teacher today as I stumbled through my first few before really grasping what I was doing. What a great day for learning!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Approval! (duplicate post)

Great news came in today! My project has been approved by the IACUC review committee. I was getting pretty skeptical since we hadn’t heard anything recently and I was starting to get worried about how long we would have to wait to hear back. Then this morning we got a query about correcting a typo and I was even more worried. Were we going to have to go through correcting every typo before the protocol was finally approved? But thankfully it finally came in this afternoon. And none too early.

Logistical issues have already caused us to need to readjust the plan a few times. Nothing ever can work out quite as planned and there is a plethora of research projects out there. Each one says something just a little bit different with slight changes in methods and results. In an effort to streamline the project and eliminate animal stress (including the humans working on this project), and to make sure that this project has real benefit and applicability to society and animals, we keep reevaluating the project details. And while the animal care protocol is approved, this is only the beginning.

The animal care protocol is only for assuring the least harm to the animal and appropriate care and contingency planning for the whole project. Although it is very important to make sure that research projects responsibly minimize impact on the lives of animals, it is also very important to make sure the project has important meaning to the furthering of science. So what still remains are all of the little details. Details that include the exact percentages of feed ingredients, the exact measurements to the inches of the pens, the exact times and camera positions for observations. And again, all of this is based on the literature and findings of all the people before me. As things go on, I will try to keep you updated on the different parts that go into a simple research project.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Plate (duplicate post)

The new food pyramid came out. Well, it doesn’t really look like a food pyramid anymore. They’ve successfully weaned us completely off the building block design I grew up with, eliminating sweets, fats and sugars from what I’m supposed to eat at all. But who are we kidding? It’s some of the cheapest energy available and has kept Americans kicking butt since we used them for soldiers in the World Wars. Even today they try to ship chocolate to the soldiers in the Middle East, but temperature has been a bit of a limiting factor and I’ve heard the chocolate that can survive that is not really worth eating.

The link I gave you above to the food pyramid comes from a friend’s blog. She gave some interesting input on it and I found it more helpful than the still currently limited information on the USDA blog. I have this sinking feeling that I blogged just last year on a new food pyramid and they probably just finished creating that website, so we’re in for a bit of a wait as they tell us over again how to eat and how to not get as fat as we are. But as time goes on, I’m seeing more that it’s not just how much we eat, it’s how much we do. And I found it ironic that they decided to suggest drinking fat free milk even though the fat provided in milk is much better for people than other fat they could intake. Milk is so great for you, there’s no reason why 1% or 2% milk isn’t just fine. Just remember to limit your fat intake somewhere else.
I didn’t gain weight when I ate a lot, I gained weight when I ate more than I was burning in daily exercise and work. I lose weight when I do physical labor and play sports, regardless of how much I eat or drink during that time. Sure, how much I eat or drink might limit how much weight I lose, but I lose weight. Amanda and I are in the process of tracking our weight change versus how much we walk and I can tell you that already the graphs are pretty interesting for me. I’ve learned a lot about my exercise levels and how much I really do or don’t walk on a given day and I’ll give you 2 fun facts I picked up the past couple weeks. First, stairs at work instead of the elevator isn’t gonna do it unless you work at the Sears Tower. Second, I need to ditch the desk work. Unfortunately neither of these are helpful in my situation so I’ll keep walking as much as I can and limiting unnecessary food intake.

And that’s what really important out of all this. We don’t all have a ton of time to go exercise and be super athletes. I hate lifting, my wife hates running, and our dog can’t go swimming with us. But all of us can find ways to be active, and we can avoid intaking large quantities of food. If you want a health food diet just eat healthy quantities for starters. People who pack themselves full of fiber material such as lettuce just to limit their intake or who starve themselves to limit calories are most likely not enjoying their weight loss strategies for various reasons. And our bodies are designed to be efficient. If your intake balance shifts, your body will find a way to capture as much as possible from what you provide it – that’s just a fact of life and something those of us who work with food animals are acutely aware of. Just like humans, animals adjust to different energy sources or quantities and their bodies naturally do what is efficient. Our problem is that we’re smart enough to provide ourselves more food than we need and then our body is too efficient. We eat too much and then our body stores too much and we get fatter. And we don’t exercise.

The food pyramid provides a great guideline for balancing your meals, but we need to limit how much balanced food we eat. And then we need to get outside and be active.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Garden dries out

The funny thing about planting gardens on time is that the weather just might end up hating you for it. I couldn’t have predicted when we beat the light rain shower that day that the next 2 weeks would be a continuation of the rainy misery we’ve suffered through here in the Midwest. And now that it’s sunny and my plants are all flooded out, the coast has cleared enough to go in and inspect the damage.

From 3 rows of sweet corn, 5 plants made it through the deluge. The cantaloupe came up in a fury, but I’m worried that it will wilt fast under the weather now because it hasn’t been able to leaf enough to shelter itself. Our herbs are starting to pop bravely back through the soil in the basket but they are behind schedule severely. Pumpkins are up and growing, but I didn’t even mean to plant those; they’re just volunteers from last year. Our strawberry plant drowned and subsequently fried, suffering a death rivaled only by the Spanish Inquisition, while even our indoor tomatoes have slowed their growth because there wasn’t any sunlight for them to absorb. The only two plants which came up nicely were the beans (eaten by our overpopulation of groundhogs and deer) and the peas. Hopefully the peas will survive the sunlight and give us a few flowers before they die from the sudden season change.

It’s a sad time out in the gardens, but since there’s extra seeds we’ll give it one more chance I guess. Hopefully it’ll get better and hopefully my guesses are wrong, but this isn’t looking to be a very wet summer. If I was a farmer, I’d really struggle convincing myself to put in all the effort on the slim chance that my harvest comes out right this year. Good luck to all that are out planting right now or making hay.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

No more videos!

This past week marked a great milestone in my time as a graduate student. Since I arrived last summer, I’ve been assigned to video evaluation of pigs we recorded on farm visits. The main gist of the project was to evaluate a training program’s success in helping farmers learn to limit their pigs’ stress and thus to ultimately benefit the pig by lowering their stress level and improving the interactions with humans. There’s a lot of evidence that points to increased production value of animals which have more positive interactions with humans as opposed to negative interactions with humans and sometimes people just don’t quite understand what can make up a positive or negative interaction. Some things as simple as shouting across the pens to someone else can stress out an animal whereas moving through pens at a moderate volume level and occasionally gently patting animals that are in your way, etc., can help improve their interactions with the livestock caretaker.

So a part of this project consisted of us coming on farm, walking through the pens with a video recorder, and then me going back through later and counting the number of pigs visible in the frame every five seconds. Let’s review: We visit LOTS of farms and record pigs; then I watch the video, stopping every five seconds to count pigs. Yeah, I started last summer and have never caught up. Until now.

This week I finished video number ~130, each one of which took excess of an hour if it went right the first time. The whole time the camera view is being knocked back and forth by pigs on screen that ran into the videographer (not a fun job) so it’s a short matter of time before I got motion sick. There were weeks in the fall where I spent the whole week in a state of motion sickness and headache from so much video analysis. All of this was fit in between classes and other work, and on a time crunch because we’re trying to analyze the project data now. As much fun as that was, I’m very glad to have it done and the time freed up to help on something new. Projects need to be changed up every so often and that one’s been on my plate for over a year now.