Activist vs. Agriculture: What Would Jefferson Think?
“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to wealth, good morals and happiness….,” Thomas Jefferson, 1787, in a letter to George Washington, from Paris.
Thomas Jefferson, a wise and intriguing man, knew what he was talking about. He was a “spokesman for democracy,” the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the U.S. and a founding father. Not on this list provided by whitehouse.gov, however, is the title of “agriculturist,” one which Jefferson was incredibly proud of.
Jefferson inherited a large plantation in Monticello, Va. and farmed there while building our nation. As did many of our founding fathers, he knew the importance of agriculture and the free world would need a strong agricultural foundation to sustain a lifetime. However, I feel Jefferson’s vision of the ideal “agriculturist” may be a bit different than the ones we see today.
For instance, Jefferson most likely had no idea there would be agriculturists out there who made full-time, 50+ year careers out of selling fertilizer and chemical to farmers. I’d say there’s a zero percent chance our third president predicted lobbyists would get paid one day to fight for or against antibiotic-feed-additives for livestock. I’d put my life savings down ‘ol Tommy Jeff didn’t foresee people like me actually STRESSING about social media posts against agriculture and how I can, in turn, make a different social media post to combat those claims.
Since Jefferson’s ideal of an agrarian democracy, American agriculture has changed in many ways – but the spirit and overall concept is still there: American citizens dedicating their lives to putting food on their family’s table and yours.
As I wrote last week, there’s more to agriculture than just plows, sows and cows (according to pretty much every FFA kid ever). In other words, more goes into putting food on the table before and after crops or animals are harvested.
For example, let’s look at the beef lifecycle based on information provided by “Beef – It’s what’s for dinner,” coupled with my incredibly basic gate to plate knowledge.
Remember, a cow is a sexually mature female who has had a calf; a bull is a male who has not been castrated and can breed with a heifer or a cow once he has matured; a heifer is a young female who hasn’t borne a calf; a steer is a male who has been castrated; a calf is a baby; I’m not going to explain breeding, ask your mom and dad about this one.
First, a bull must breed a cow or heifer, and they will either have a bull calf or a heifer calf. After this calf gets their mother’s colostrum, they are given an identification number and ear-tagged which goes into a record book and is submitted to a cattle breed specific association for recordkeeping purposes. The calf is later branded with the rancher’s brand, sometimes castrated if the calf is a bull and the rancher chooses to do so and doctored with a vaccine provided by a veterinarian. The veterinarian got the vaccine from an animal pharmaceutical sales representative who works for a large animal pharmaceutical company, who works with scientists to develop effective vaccines.
This calf spends months “growing” while getting nutrition from its mother’s milk and eventually from grass and/or hay as well. At around six to 10 months and when they weigh between 450 to 700 pounds, the calf is weaned off milk and may begin receiving a small amount of supplemental plant-based feed for extra energy and protein to help them grow and thrive.
Next comes a decision. Heifer calves, in many cases, are retained by the rancher or sold to another rancher to one day be bred to a bull themselves and repeating the entire lifecycle process listed above.
Bull calves, however, can go one of two ways. The rancher may keep the bull calf intact, meaning they aren’t castrated, and sell them to another rancher to do the same. The other option is to castrate the bull calf and turn him into a steer.
For the sake of this example, let’s say we have a calf who was turned into a steer and follow his lifecycle. We’ll call him “Steer X,” and he’ll live a life like many other steers would at LC Cattle Company, a.k.a., my husband’s family’s ranch.
Steer X was probably born sometime in March and spent all spring and summer growing. In July, LC Cattle contracted the sale of Steer X and many more steers by the pound at a livestock auction market. This requires the help of auctioneers, the person who comes out and films Steer X at LC Cattle’s ranch, tech wizards who put Steer X’s video online and enters all of his information, like what vaccines he’s been given and what his genetic lineage is and brokers or “cattle buyers” who deal with the transactions between LC Cattle and the person who actually wants possession of Steer X.
Steer X is then shipped out with dozens of his buddies in October to the person(s) who bought LC Cattle’s steers. We see the cattle buyer again on shipping day. He helps us transfer all paperwork over and deals with money transactions. We also see a brand inspector who’s employed by the Department of Livestock to check our brands and records with our cattle, making sure LC Cattle actually owns Steer X and didn’t steal him.
We have someone in the scale house at the stockyards making sure Steer X and his companions are properly weighed, giving us and the cattle buyer an exact number to multiply by whatever we sold our steers for back in July. We then send off a truck driver who hauls Steer X to wherever his new owner wants him to go, most likely to be wintered on pasture or on a semi-confinement grow yard. After 120 to 150 days, give or take, Steer X is 12 to 14 months old and now weighs 850 to 950 pounds. He is sent to a confined animal feeding operation, or feedyard. Steer X is now ready to spend the next few months of his life in a finishing cattle feedyard to become a full-grown slaughter animal.
A feedyard or feedlot is typically home to cattle for four to six months, they are sent there to grow by eating at feed bunks containing a carefully balanced diet made up of roughage, such as hay and grass, grains such as corn, wheat and soybean meal and local renewable feed sources. While at the feedyard, pen riders check on Steer X to make sure he’s doing OK and eating what he needs to.
Pen riders work together with veterinarians and nutritionists – that’s right, cattle have their own nutritionists – to ensure Steer X is eating the right kind of food for him to gain weight, ultimately producing more meat for consumers to later eat. Veterinarians also assist with this process and have played a hand in Steer X’s entire life up until this point.
Another level of the feedyard is the making of feed given to Steer X, which involves seed, fertilizer and chemical salesmen and women along with farmers, factories and even more nutritionists.
After Steer X has gained plenty of weight, usually around 1,200 to 1,400 pounds or 18 to 22 months old, he is loaded on another cattle truck and sent to a packing plant.
In Steer X’s case, this is a large U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspected plant, meaning a USDA inspector oversees the implementation of safety, animal welfare and quality standards from the time animals enter the plant until the final beef products are shipped to grocery stores and restaurants. This packing plant also employs general office workers just like any other business would: administrative managers, marketing experts, financial gurus, etc.
Does Steer X’s story stop there? Nope. Whilst at the packing plant, Steer X comes in contact with key packing plant employees including people who euthanize Steer X, “cut up” Steer X to break down Steer X’s meat and package the meat from Steer X. After Steer X’s hamburgers and steaks are all packaged and ready to go, a trucker once again picks up Steer X – this time in edible form – and ships it off to a grocery store or restaurant.
Let’s say Steer X ribeye’s are shipped to Albertsons in Livingston, Mont.. After those ribeyes arrive, someone’s got to stock the meat coolers; someone’s got to ring up the lucky customer who bought a delicious LC Cattle Company ribeye; and someone’s got to take inventory of how many of Steer X’s steaks are leftover.
At every single step along the way, the good folks at LC Cattle, the feedyard and Albertsons may be working with bankers, insurance agents, government workers, accountants, land surveyors, businessmen/women, rangeland consultants, industry organizations such as the local Farm Bureau or stockgrowers association, engineers, heck, they may even work with a media and marketing minded person like me to communicate THEIR story to the person who threw a piece of Steer X on the grill last night. The crazy thing? There’s a good chance I missed an ag employee or two along the way while explaining everyone who works together for Steer X’s life.
The long-winded explanation above shows just how far agriculture has come since Jefferson wrote the quote I shared at the beginning of this column, back in 1787. It’s seen technological advances allowing us to feed more people than ever before. It’s grown into a vast industry spanning from sea to shining sea. It employs countless people who wouldn’t have had their job back in 1787 or even 1987 – and, as someone who’s a cubicle cultivator, I’m incredibly grateful for.
In the coming weeks, I hope to enlighten you on other pencil and plow pushers, just like myself, so you can understand and appreciate the importance of every agriculturist out there working to feed and clothe you.