Experts Answer Questions About Agriculture

  • Article
  • 4 min read August 11, 2017

I made a delicious veggie quiche for breakfast the other morning, and as I beat the eggs, stirred in the cheeses and added the sautéed veggies, I was reminded of the conversations I had recently in Colorado with farmers who help make these foods available.

I moderated two panel discussions in Denver, where a group of Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and students had the opportunity to ask agriculture experts questions about their farms. The answers were eye-opening for me and the other health and wellness professionals in the room and really helped to connect agriculture and farms with nutrition, health and well-being. Below are a few questions and answers I wanted to share:

Do large dairy farms pay as much attention to animal care as small farms?

Debbie Preston, Colorado dairy farmer: I feel very confident in saying that large farms do pay as much attention to their animals as small farms -- sometimes maybe even more because of a larger labor force. We have taken on the moral and ethical responsibility of caring for our animals. The cows on dairies are monitored very closely. For example, with technology, we are able to see what a cow does every time she goes in to the milk barn and this provides benchmarks for us on meeting her needs to ensure she’s in good health.

How do farmers care for their cows?

Preston: Cows are housed either in barns with individual stalls bedded with sand, as in our case, called free-stall barns, or in large outdoor spaces with big permanent shade structures. Both of these types of housing facilities provide shade from the sun, shelter from rain or snow and have wind breaks to provide shelter from wind.

An important part of caring for cows is feeding them a nutritious diet. Cows often are housed in areas with other cows that have similar needs, allowing them to be fed a certain ration or recipe, depending on stage of lactation. These recipes are not thrown together; there is a nutritionist on staff who monitors the rations and makes adjustments as necessary. The cow nutritionist is a trained expert and knows the nutritional needs of cows to make sure the rations meet those needs.

What’s one example of technology that farmers use on a dairy?

Preston: Cows have an ear tag that is read when they go into the milk barn, allowing several things to be monitored. For example, how much milk did she give? How long did it take her to milk? That information is automatically added to her individual record in the computer. That record also has any and all information about her: Her calving information, her vaccines, any health issues and how they were handled. It's all there and can be viewed in word format and graph format so any abnormalities will be easily seen and we can address them to keep the cow healthy.

What are cage-free eggs, and what does it mean for egg quality?

Terri Heine, representative for Eggland’s Best farms: Cage-free eggs are from chickens raised in a cage-free system. Egg quality is not influenced by farming style, but by what the chickens eat and how quickly the eggs are transported to the store for purchase. The composition of the feed is mixed according to season and is tightly controlled, and the eggs are monitored for vitamins A, B, D, E, omega-3 fatty acid content and cholesterol and saturated fat levels.

Cage-free housing is almost the size of a football field and enclosed for the chickens’ protection. Food and water is available 24/7, the chickens are free to move around and have lots of perches and a separate level with a sandy floor where they can more naturally scratch and perch. The nesting boxes have curtains for comfort and accessibility.

How are your farm practices environmentally friendly?

Robert Sakata, Colorado vegetable farmer: When it comes to the environment, soil health is one of the most important factors we consider on a daily basis, and we are extremely fortunate in Colorado to have four distinct seasons that help our soils. Allowing the land to rest during the winter and go through the natural cycle of freezing and thawing provides us with great benefits. We are incorporating old-time practices like the use of compost and new technologies like mycorrhiza supplements. I have grown up on our farm and over time have gotten to know each of our farms and fields. Each is a little different and responds differently to things like drought and heat.

Speaking of heat, in the arid West, water is one of the most precious resources we have. We try to make sure that we are as efficient as possible with our irrigation. Even though water may be seen flowing off of a field, it is often going back into the canal to irrigate the next field.