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Questions From Suburban Middle-Schoolers

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It’s National Ag Week! A lot of this week is sharing more about what we do, and answering questions (even more than usual) and really spotlighting agriculture in the US. I’ve been majorly under the weather for a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to say that I’m starting to feel a bit better and so I wanted to share something really fun I got to be a part of!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege to Skype in with two classes of middle school students who are taught by my 7th grade science teacher. One class was even in the same classroom where I learned about science in 7th grade! They are learning about the environment and photosynthesis and genes, and my teacher asked if I would talk a little bit about cows and the environment, and it was SO fun.

For those of you who don’t know, I grew up smack in the middle of suburban Denver. I could see a mall from my bedroom window (specifically Sears at Park Meadows Mall, if you’re familiar with Colorado.) I didn’t really see many cows until I was 21–other than weekends on a family friend’s ranch when I was young–and have no family members involved in agriculture. Whenever I get a chance to share about ag with anyone, and especially kids in town, especially kids from my own hometown, I get really, really excited. It’s so fun, and such a great experience. I thought I’d share some of the questions I got, because they were fantastic.

What would happen if we got rid of all the cows?
It would be bad. Rangelands evolved alongside grazing animals, and so without (well-managed) grazing, they would become unhealthy. Well-managed rangelands are more productive, healthier, and sequester more carbon. We’d likely have something similar to a dust bowl if we were to get rid of cattle. Not to mention, we would have a hard time meeting micronutrient requirements and protecting our current rangeland/open space from development.

Would it be a good idea for everyone to get a couple of cows?
Honestly? Probably not. Cows take up a lot of room, require a lot to eat and drink, and most people don’t have enough room to support a cow or two. Plus, they are really big, so can get to be expensive to feed and take care of. And, like all animals, cattle can require specialized care. But, that’s not to say that if you want to get some cows that you can’t have any! If you have the room, and learn how to take care of them, then go get you some cows. The average herd size in the US is 40, after all, so there are lots of people with a few cows. If you don’t have room for cows, though, maybe backyard chickens? Chickens can help with food waste, are kind of silly, and can be a fun way to learn more about raising animals!

Do cows make forest fires worse?
Nope! Cattle can actually help mitigate wildfire risk by grazing in forests and helping get rid of some of the dry matter and litter on the ground that can be a major fire hazard. Much of the increase in forest fires, in my opinion, is due to mismanagement of forests. There are too many trees too close together, lots of deadfall, too much dry matter, too much to burn. Cattle can help get rid of some of that stuff that can burn, and at least help fires be less intense!

How do cows stay warm when it’s really cold?
First of all, most cows suited to cold climates grow big fuzzy coats in the winter, so that definitely helps! It’s like a winter coat. Otherwise, we feed them extra in the cold since cows keep warm by eating more, and if it’s snowy or wet, we lay down hay, straw, or other bedding to help provide a barrier between them and the cold, wet ground. If it’s calving season, if it’s possible sometimes we’ll try to bring cows in to the barn or pens before they calve to help keep them warmer and drier, and if a calf gets too cold we’ll warm it up by putting it in the pickup, or in the barn, or in the laundry room, or wherever until it’s warm enough to go back to its mom.

How long can cows live in the cold?
A long, long time. All winter! We used to live in a place where it was so snowy we had to feed hay from October-April, and it regularly got to sixty below in the winter. We never once lost a cow to cold, but we did feed a lot of hay, and checked cows constantly in calving season, because baby calves are at the highest risk to freeze.

Is methane like pollution?
Methane isn’t like pollution in the sense of smog or exhaust. But it is a form of pollution, for sure! Cows aren’t the only (or the biggest) source of methane, though. Oil & gas production, landfills, and wetlands are also sources of methane.

My family lives near a place with cows. Their pasture is very boggy, and the water doesn’t look very clean. Is this bad for the cows?
Probably not, as long as they aren’t constantly hanging out in standing water. If cows’ feet stay too wet too long, they can get infections (foot rot). And, most pasture water is not going to look very clean, because it’s probably muddy and kind of icky, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for the cows. Just because something doesn’t look clean doesn’t mean it’s dirty, you know?

My neighbors have some cows and some goats, but the cows ate all the grass so now the goats don’t have any to eat. What can they do?
(I’ll admit this question took me a bit by surprise, and I tried really, really hard to be tactful!) Well, the honest answer is to either a) get rid of some or all of the animals, or b) get more land. This is a pretty standard overgrazing situation: too many animals, not enough grass. So either you get rid of some animals or get more grass. You could lock them all in a pen and feed them hay, but that’s a short-term, expensive band-aid. Unfortunately, it can be really hard to regenerate overgrazed pastures, and why it’s not a good idea to just put a bunch of animals on some grass without knowing how many animals it can support and in what conditions. We saw a lot of this on the 40-acre ranchettes around where we lived in Colorado, especially with horses, and it frustrates me quite a bit.

How did you know you wanted to be a rancher instead of a lawyer? [I originally wanted to go to law school following undergrad–I even started studying for the LSAT!] 
I felt it in my heart. I just knew. It made me happier than studying law or my law internship (although that was so fun), and I am more suited to this lifestyle in most ways.

Can you take the GMOs out of milk?
Well, there aren’t GMO cows, and there is no GMO milk, so no, because there aren’t GMOs in the milk. If a dairy cow eats, say, some GMO alfalfa, those genes aren’t going to come out in the milk. She is going to metabolize that alfalfa just like she would any other foodstuff, and that energy is going to help her make milk. That being said, organic milk is milk from cows who were not fed any GMO feed, if that is something that concerns you. However (you knew this was coming), GMOs have been proven safe time and time again!

Are cows and horses similar?
Well, they both have four legs and eat grass, but that’s about it! Cows and horses are incredibly different, but play complementary roles on the ranch: horses help us work and move and care for our cattle more effectively, and the cow work helps keep the horses in shape and their minds sharp. Plus, it makes everything more fun!

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