Heart Health requires fatty acids and B-12


By Sara | 02/18/11 - 8:57am | Comments (1)

A vegan lifestyle may increase the risk of developing blood clots and atherosclerosis, according to an article in Science News

After a review of studies of vegetarianism, the authors of the peer-reviewed article conclude that vegan diets (no meat or animal product of any kind) tend to lack iron, zinc, B12 and several fatty acids.  All of these are found at relatively high levels in meat, compared to vegetarian foods. 

Fatty acids, specifically omega-3s influence the ratio of LDL:HDL cholesterol.  Contrary to widely held beliefs, cholesterol is necessary.  it is a component of cell membranes and many hormones.  A 2-minute search on Amazon reveals numerous titles on the emerging realization that fat is not the enemy.  The Westin A Price Foundation has been promoting healthy fat for a long time.

Extreme diets of any kind, from vegan to no grain, are inherently unbalanced.  We are omnivores, and our bodies depend on food from a variety of sources.   

The professor/philospher in me is compelled to make the following observation:  Any practice taken to an extreme, or adhered to as a dogma, produces imbalance.  This is the philosophy we follow at when producing beef, in  our spiritual practice and our diet. 



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What’s in a (calf) name?


By Sara | 01/20/11 - 9:02am | Comments (0)

One of my favorite parts of raising cattle is naming.  Every animal born on our property gets a name, even if we know at birth that its destiny is as part of our pastured beef business.  I’ve blogged about some of the reactions we get from our customers:  Some want to know the name, some don’t.

We started out using names from music, since we got our start in Austin, Texas.  Since then, we’ve evolved a system of naming that helps us to keep track of animals through their names, such as their sire, family, group or birth year. 

This year, we have two main groups of names.  The first group are all calves that are sired by a Devon bull out of New Zealand.  All of his calves have names that are places in New Zealand or Australia.  So far, we’ve got Hobart, Brisbane, Cambridge, Tamborine and Pukekura.  I’m holding out for the one we name “waikikamukau” (pronounce Why-kick-a-moo-cow), which is a small town in New Zealand.

The second group of calf names are for those sired by Red Angus or Black Angus bulls.  There is an international identification system for cattle, which specifies a single letter to designate the year of birth in each animal’s ID.  This year, the letter is Y.  There is a 22-year cycle to the ID (letters I, O, U and V are not used).  As it turns out, one of my favorite years for music, 1967, was also a “Y” year.  So, most of our the Angus/Red Angus sired calves for 2011 will have names from one of the Billboard top 100 from 1967.  Georgy Girl was our first calf of the year.  I expect we will end up with Ruby Tuesday, Daydream Believer, Billie Joe and more by the end of the year.  What was your favorite song from that year?

Naming each animal makes each one an individual, rather than a commodity.  By name, I can usually recall a picture of each animal and its characteristics.  When we harvest, the names help me to be grateful to the creatures that provide our livelihood, as well as good food for our family and our customers’ families.   



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A few thoughts on food safety


By Sara | 09/03/10 - 7:58am | Comments (2)

The recent recall of commercial eggs has led to lots of questions about food safety. Unprecedented numbers of people, many of them new to farmer’s markets, are flocking (pardon the pun) to purchase eggs that they believe to be safer than those in the grocery store.  But there are some missing pieces in the search for “clean and safe food”; it’s not as simple as “buy fresh, buy local”

As Americans have become further removed from their food supply, they have lost touch with the fact that food is a biological product, produced in biological situations from biological animals that have biological functions.  Translation:  everything poops.  We have gotten so used to our food being sterilized that we have forgotten about basic food safety.  I also happen to believe that because we are not exposed to low levels of normally occuring bacteria as we grow up, when we do encounter these normal bugs, they give us a pathogenic reaction. 

ALL foods are subject to ‘conatimination’.  Salmonella occurs in all birds and reptiles.  It is usually not a pathogenic strain, but it is still there.  Similarly, various strains of E. coli are present in every bit of feces.  Pastuerization, irradiation, buying direct from a farmer you trust; none of these are substitutes for basic food safety.

Do I think eggs and ground beef are safer if you buy them from a local source that you can trust?  Generally, yes.  However, even the cleanest hen house will still produce eggs with salmonella on the outside.  Even single-animal, small plant, grass-fed ground beef can harbor E. coli.  So, follow basic food safety guidelines:  Separate preparation areas and utensils between raw items and cooked.  Refrigerate food quickly after cooking, etc. etc. 

If you want to read more, search our Food Safety archives, or check out these posts:

http://downtoearthblog.com/agriculture/is-local-food-safer-or-just-more-accountable/archives/184

http://downtoearthblog.com/foodproduction/no-need-to-avoid-beef-if-you-know-its-source/archives/211

http://downtoearthblog.com/health/teaching-children-about-food-safety/archives/163 



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Has Agriculture Lost the Middle Ground?


By Sara | 08/28/10 - 7:28am | Comments (1)

I’ve seen a number of articles, blogs, etc. lately in the animal ag press encouraging producers to stand up verbally to attacks on the industry by animal rights groups.  At the extreme, some of these groups are calling for conversion to veganism.   The vast majority of Americans are not going to become vegans or vegetarians.  When the animal ag industry focuses on fighting the extremes, it tends to allow us to avoid the more pertinent and difficult issues relating to the way large-scale animal agriculture has evolved.

In the name of “efficiency”, many sectors of the industry have gone down a slippery slope of incremental changes in animal husbandry.  Like the frog heated slowly to boiling that will die rather than jump out of the pot, our industry has slowly adopted practices that my agricultural ancestors would be horrified with. 

In many cases, a practice is put into place that incrementally improves “animal welfare” over the existing condition, given the current production situation.  An example is de-beaking chickens:  Through a combination of changes in genetics (commercial chicken strains are more agressive than their flock-living ancestors) and living conditions (higher densities of chickens per square foot), chickens will peck at each other.  It is better to remove the chicks beak than to let them peck each other to death.  And so welfare studies will report that chickens are better off with de-beaking than intact.

If the industry’s current mass-production practices are so defensible, why is it that they are not routinely pictured in educational or promotional material from the very industries that use them?  The egg industry uses images of hens on nests.  The chicken industry pictures chickens that still have their beaks, the milk industry uses images of cows out on pasture. 

Temple Grandin makes a statement in her most recent book (Animals Make Us Human) about why she is still in animal ag.  She also states that if her career had started now, as opposed to when it did, she is not sure she could have seen past the current welfare situation present in many large-scale chicken, hog and feedlot operations.

We, as an industry, have lost the middle ground between animal stewardship and ag-business.  Individual producers are, as a whole, conscientious caretakers of the animals in their charge.  Somehow, in the translation to larger and more efficient production, however, we’ve lost our connection to the subjects of our stewardship, and often to the employees who are involved in that production.  IMHO, this is what our industry needs to address more urgently than preventing a mass conversion to veganism.

 N.B. This post was prompted by “The sin of animal agriculture“, a blog post to which I felt compelled to reply.   



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Inspiration and Enthusiasm


By Sara | 07/15/10 - 12:14pm | Comments (0)

One of the “perks” of participating in farmer’s markets is that I get a healthy dose of contemplation time on the drives to and from the markets several times a week.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about my life’s purpose and how the dream for Wild Type Ranch arose out of a pledge to myself to live life with integrity. 

Early in life, I had very clear career goals, and most would call a success what I did and where I got to before Ralph and I started the ranch together in 2005.  It seems to me now, a greater success is being able to go through daily life inspired and enthused.  The roots of those words; “in spirit” and “in theos” (or “in God”) speak to a way of living where all aspects of life resonate with one’s “life purpose”.  In other words, integrity.

The more I do in a spirit of being “meant” to be doing whatever it is I am doing now, the more gratifying each activity is and the more my daily existance come into alignment with my values.   I am realizing that integrity has a lot more to do with the inspiration and enthusiasm than just being totally honest and up front.

I’ve experienced lots of inspiration and enthusiasm lately; spending time with my extended family, a new horse at our house, a pair of locavore/meet the farmer dinners and increasing demand for what we produce.   

My boys often say that they can “taste the love” in the food we eat, when it is grown or prepared ourselves or by someone we know.  I think there is truth in that:  If your food is produced with inspiration and enthusiasm, how can it not taste better?



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Pasture-raised versus Grass-fed


By Sara | 06/04/10 - 6:20am | Comments (0)

 One of the most common questions our ranch gets from new customers is “Is your beef grass-fed?”  We are proud to raise our cattle entirely on pasture with a diet that is always primarily grass and hay.  But, we do not fit the USDA definition of “grass-fed”.  This is a conscious decision on our part.

 The guiding principle behind our management practices at the ranch is a dedication to the welfare of our animals and the quality of our product.  It is a fact of life in our region of Texas that we do not grow lush, green grass year round, year-in and year-out.  We are working hard at the ranch to build our soil and balance our cattle numbers so that we become relatively immune to our increasingly frequent droughts. 

In the meanwhile, we don’t feel it is in the best interest of our cattle, or our beef quality, to allow our cattle to lose weight or suffer due to poor quality or insufficient home-raised forage.  Consequently, we sometimes supplement our cattle with alfalfa hay or a minimal amount of feed that contains grain.  Ironically, the “grass-fed” rules allow supplementation with feeds such as cotton seed hulls and beet pulp but not oats and corn, which cattle would seek out and eat naturally if given the chance.  The problem with feeding grain comes when cattle are fed a diet that is primarily high-energy grain (such as corn) which changes the pH and natural flora of the cow’s digestive system.  This is not the way our pasture-raised cattle are fed.  We give our cattle the best quality of life possible and produce a healthy, high-quality product.

Yes, we have lost an occasional customer because of our philosophy.  It is a small price to pay for the quality of our beef and the welfare of the animals in our care.



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Idyllic ranch life isn’t what you may think


By Sara | 05/29/10 - 8:36pm | Comments (3)

Our home ranch is featured in this month’s Edible Austin magazine.  If you like the photos, they are a credit to my husband and partner, Ralph Mitchell.  He’s also the one responsible for doing the steak grilling for the taste-testing we do of each harvest of beef, not to mention the bulk of the ranch work.

This article presents an idyllic view of our life.  In reality, it is hard work almost every day.  It is also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.

While I was in Washington D.C. last week, a cab driver from Mauritius, upon hearing that I ranched for a living, asked how many hours a week we worked and what we did for a vacation.  He seemed surprised when I explained we pretty much worked  while the sun was up and that time off the ranch was only by necessity.

I found myself explaining that although we work really hard almost every day, our “vacations” come in small moments that don’t happen during most people’s work life.   Often, in the midst of a stressful event, I’ll be caught by the beauty of a nighthawk chasing insects in the morning sun, or the smell of clover in bloom.  As it mentions in the article, we sometimes turn a routine chore like checking on the cows into a mini romantic interlude.  Honestly, if I had a week with no responsibilities or duties, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here on our home ranch.

I wonder how much different the world would be if most people were able to find the same kind of reward in their daily labor.



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The Beef Lady Goes to Washington


By Sara | 05/26/10 - 1:55pm | Comments (7)

Back when President Obama got elected, he promised to include Washington outsiders in his new administration.  In that vein, anyone could go to the change.gov website and submit a resume to be “considered for a position in the Obama-Biden administration”.  I, along with a number of members of my church community, did so.  None of us really thought we were likely to be contacted, but the whole idea was still kind of cool.

In August of 2009, while I was selling our ranch’s beef at the Georgetown Farmer’s Market, I got a call from the White House personnell office asking if I’d be interested in following up on my application.  Once they convinced me they were for real, and that the position wouldn’t require me to leave my beloved Texas, I embarked on an 9-month process of interviews, FBI background checks, paperwork and more paperwork.  In the end, I became one of three Presidential nominees for the board of directors of the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, fondly known as “Farmer Mac“.  Tomorrow, I am scheduled to appear before the Senate Ag Committee to be confirmed.

Farmer Mac is the ag equivalent of the better known Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  It is a publicly held (i.e. for profit) institution created by government mandate to help make loans available to rural america.  Of the 15 directors, 5 are appointed by the President.  The job of the Presidential appointees, as representatives of rural America, is to help make sure that Farmer Mac meets its mission.

I’ve been in Washington all week.  At 45 years old, I can safely say I am no longer a wide-eyed innocent, full of idealistic dreams.  However, my week here has made me excited to begin this new adventure.  It is encouraging that a small rancher, not to mention one who makes much of her living through farmer’s markets, would be chosen for this position.  These are interesting times for agriculture and for our economy.  The status quo is being examined and many new ideas are being thrown into the mix.  I look forward to listening, learning and doing my small part create solutions.



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Should non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal husbandry be banned?


By Sara | 03/26/10 - 9:36am | Comments (0)

One of the top priorities for our direct-market beef customers is that we raise animals without the routine use of antibiotics. That concern is second only to their desire to purchase meat from animals that have not been raised in a feedlot.

We are not an organic operation, even though we use only organic fertilizer and mechanical (no herbicides) weed control. The main reason we are not organic is that I feel it is in our animals’ best interest to be able to treat them in whatever way needed if they get sick or injured.  Sometimes that means antibiotics.  If we were “no antibiotics” or “organic”, any animal we treated would have to be sold at the sale barn into a feedyard.  

In four years of selling beef, I’ve had only one or two customers who have said they specifically wanted beef from totally non-treated animals.  Since we maintain a production history on each animal and know from which animal each package of beef was harvested, we can accomodate these few.

Over the five years we’ve been stewards of our ranch, the need for antibiotics and other “non-organic” treatement has decreased dramatically.  Our soils have gotten healthier and we’ve developed a complex ecosystem of plants for the animals to graze.  We’ve culled (or harvested) animals that don’t do well with fewer interventions. 

But, what about the mainstream beef industry?  A report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production included recomendations for a ban on non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. This in turn prompted pending legislation that would limit the use of antibiotics of for nontherapeutic purposes.   Nontherapeutic is defined as “any use of the drug as a feed or water additive for an animal in the absence of any clinical sign of disease in the animal for growth promotion, feed efficiency, weight gain, routine disease prevention, or other routine purpose.” 

Antibiotics, when used routinely in intensive production (i.e. confinement) do increase feed efficiency, increase growth rates, and lower the incidence of disease.  We designed our operation with a “no routine antibiotics” pledge not because we were against antibiotics, but because we felt that a situation in which routine antibiotics showed significant benefit was one in which the animals were under stress.  I doubt if our cattle would show any benefit from the addition of any antibiotic feed additive.

One doesn’t have to search far to find written opinions on this issue.  BEEF magazine has had articles and an editorial discussion of the PEW report on the issue.   From a bovine veterinarian’s point of view, banning antibiotic use would increase disease, animal suffering and human health risks. 

My own viewpoint is that this is a whole-systems issue, not one that can be addressed piecemeal.  A ban on routine antibiotic use must coordinate with adjustments in production systems resulting in less stress to the animal, less exposure to disease and an overall healthier environment.  These adjustments will also likely result in an increase in the price of meat.  If the ban is passed, there will be casualties; animal and business.  I think it’s an adjustment worth making, but it must be made intelligently and wholistically.



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We’ve been interviewed!


By Sara | 03/24/10 - 4:25pm | Comments (0)

One of our customers is an aspiring writer who recently moved to Austin.  She is honing her skills and exploring our community all at the same time.

I spent some time with her in February talking about the ranch, our philosophy, etc.  She wrote a very nice piece about it on her blog.

Getting out and talking with people is one of my favorite parts of being a direct-to-consumer food producer.  I get a chance to be an educator (and often the pupil at the same time).  My days at the farmer’s markets always bolster my faith in humanity.  Even though I come home tired, I am also energized by the good people with whom I interact.



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