(Contrary to popular belief, not all farm people are automatically morning people. 4:10 a.m. is a ridiculous hour of the day. Amen.)
By 5:15 a.m., I was pulling out of the drive and pointing the car north. Northbound to Maple Park and the Mike and Lynn Martz farm, where the very first group of Field Moms would soon be gathering. Chosen by the Illinois Farm Families among scores of Chicago moms and bloggers, the Field Moms were making their first trip to the farm, accompanied by Roseville farmwife Deb Moore. I tagged along as both a member of the media and a farmwife myself.
Of the 10 Field Moms, 7 were able to attend – a number that's not surprising given the number of small children and potential for sickness, family obligations and more. One extra Chicago mom and blogger, Emily Paster, also attended.
Saturday, if you'll recall, was incredibly windy in the northern half of the state so we started off our day inside, where Mike and Lynn Martz shared how they got their farming start. Let me just say, for the record, they operate one very impressive farm. Mike manages the cattle feeding operation (with 2,700 head on the farm on Saturday) and Lynn manages the 6,300-acre grain operation. Among many other things, they shared how circular their operation is: Lynn raises corn. Mike buys corn from Lynn for the cattle. Cattle eat corn and produce manure. Lynn injects manure into fields for fertilizer. Lynn grows more corn. Corn is used to make ethanol. Gluten and distillers grains are by-products of ethanol production. Mike buys gluten and distillers grains to feed to cattle. Who produce more manure. Which grows more corn. And so on and so forth. I think the Field Moms were impressed by that. Heck, I was impressed by that.
While we were inside, Mike also gave a quick lesson in beef selection at the grocery store. He brought out several packages of the same cut of meat and talked about different quality grades. Higher grade=more marbling. More marbling=more flavor. He pointed out that marbling is mono-unsaturated fat.
"It's like eating olive oil," Mike said. "That's the kind of fat that's good for you, and we haven't done a very good job in the beef industry of telling you that." The bad fat is what most folks cut off – the thick stuff around the edge.
And before anyone could even ask, Mike talked about hormones and antibiotics. He reported that while he understood people's concerns, he suspected they might not know the whole truth: that a 3 oz. steak from an untreated steer has 1.3 nanograms of estrogen. That a 3 oz. steak from a hormone treated steer has 1.9 ng of estrogen. But the baked potato you'll eat with your steak? It has 225 ng of estrogen. (To note, a nanogram is one-billionth of a gram. So 0.6 ng is equal to slightly more than half of one billionth of a gram.)
Then he talked antibiotics. About how they only use them when an animal is sick. About how every drug has a withdrawal time – a period of time after the medicine is given before the animal can be slaughtered. How their computerized charting program flags every animal that's been treated and won't let them ship one before the withdrawal time is over. And how packers test and test, and if they find drug contamination, USDA can trace it right back to Mike's farm. "I don't need that. And I don't want to eat meat with drugs, and I don't want you to eat it either."
Really, we could have almost called it a day at that point; that's how valuable Mike's lesson was – and how good he was at relating it to the Field Moms. But it was only 9:30. Time to brave the wind.
We headed outside and to their cattle facilities where Mike pointed out their handling facilities were designed by Temple Grandin, noted for her ability to design equipment that calms the cattle. He showed how they ultrasound cattle, using it to design the exact feed type and amount that animal will need. We walked out to the cattle buildings, to the grain handling facility. We talked about grain quality and moisture and watched them dump a semi load of corn. We walked back to the field and each mom took a ride in the combine and in the tractor/auger wagon (driven quite handily by the Martz's daughter-in-law, Jamie). We talked yield maps and variable rate fertilizer application.
After lunch, it was on to Dale and Linda Drendel's dairy farm, at Hampshire. We talked milk safety, we wore snazzy bio-booties and we went into the parlor to watch them milk. We visited the baby calves. We checked out some fancy champion Holsteins, part of the Drendels' show cattle herd. Suffice to say, they've done well in the Holstein show ring, as evidenced by the wall of silver and purple in the farm office.
And among the highlights at the Drendel farm was the chance to visit with their herd veterinarian. He answered questions on hormones and BST and rBST, and how there's no discernible difference between the two. Indeed, milk cannot be labeled BST-free because every cow produces BST and it occurs naturally in milk. Instead, milk producers label it rBST-free (recombinant BST). He also shared how when one farm he consulted with decided to stop using rBST, it was a marketing decision and not a scientific one. "I don't think you should turn your back on technology. But I think consumers should have a choice and in that circumstance, they were saying they didn't want it."
It was a whirlwind of a day and in a nutshell, I think we were all better informed at day's end – myself included. I had some great conversations with some of the moms before they boarded the bus. We all experienced information overload, but those I spoke with were impressed with the technology and the care for the animals.
Sure, that's little surprise for farm folk. But with any degree of luck, given a few more days like Saturday, eventually it'll be little surprise for Chicago Field Moms, too.
Want to know more about Illinois agriculture and life on a young family's farm? Check out Holly's Prairie Farmer blog.