Illinois Farm Families Blog

Nov 17 2014

I Visited a Beef Farm and Still Wanted a Steak

There they were. Hundreds of them, in roomy pens, air moving freely. They milled, they chewed, the lay down and took rests. All getting ready to be beef, which I enjoy on my plate on occasion.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Larson Farm in mid-October and met four generations of family farmers. Together they manage 6,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and 2,500 head of cattle. Lynn, member of Generation 2 and daughter to the 1st Generation was in charge of the fields while her husband Mike managed the cattle operation. They work together and separately, making a life for their son and his children. They have four full time employees (also a family affair) and one part-timer to help them out. What I gathered that they have most of, is each other.

There are some facts that I really want to share with you that are fascinating.

Hormones – yes, there is estrogen used in the rearing of these all-male beef cattle There are 1.9 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef that was treated with growth promotants compared to 1.3 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef from an untreated steer.  There are 225 anagrams of estrogen naturally occurring in the baked potato you set next to that steak.

Antibiotics – yes, there are antibiotics in the feed. These antibiotics are to prevent cows from developing blood in their stool; these antibiotics do not exist on the human side. Antibiotics are given to sick animals that DO exist on the human side. There is a strict regimen followed including a “withdrawal” period, which most farmers will extend out. These do not show in the meat we eat and help keep the animals from sickness.re1.9 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef that was treated with growth promotants compared to 1.3 nanograms of estrogen per 3-ounce serving of beef from an untreated steer. There are 225 anagrams of estrogen naturally occurring in the baked potato you set next to that steak.

Corn – they eat it. Their food consists of mother’s milk until they are six months old and then a mix of corn, hay, a glutinous mixture of sticky goodness that is the byproduct of processing corn for ethanol or cornstarch, and a small additive in pellet form which contains the antibiotic and a protein supplement.

Meat Grade – this was super cool. Mike ultrasounds the steer between the 12th and 13th rib. From this ultrasound they can detect the fat layer on the back and the marbling of fat in the muscle. They do this ultrasound to determine how many more days they can feed the cow until they go to market, and what the expected grade might be. This is all determined by complex equations calculated in seconds by a specialized computer program. There is nothing they can do to improve the grade other than feeding the cow and they are very careful to ensure the cow is at a healthy, manageable weight – sometimes sacrificing grade.

All of that talk about marbling made me hungry for steak, even after seeing the cows in the pens,

 seeing the feed, and looking around what is known as a CAFO or a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; AKA the devil.

Here is what I can tell you.

The family cares about the welfare of the animals. They care about their use of manure, they monitor their water usage for runoff, and they want the best for us and for the animals. I came away with some questions about how it could be better.

Could the operations be smaller? Lynn tells me that the smaller operations, say 300 head of cattle, are not regulated in the same way, all livestock operations are regulated, but the bigger they are the tighter focused the microscope gets.

Could the pens be bigger, and could the cows roam? They could. I can pay more for that at the grocery store and if enough of us do, then things will change. Farmers are always responding to the fluctuations in consumer preference. If we, the consumers, want cattle to be treated or raised in a different way then we argue that point with our checkbooks, and we will pay for it. This is our choice and the farmers are ready to accommodate.

But what I am trying to tell you is that these animals looked good and healthy to me, in this large operation in my home state. I trust that they are not only safe to eat, but that the farmers are being responsible about their overall health management, the environmental conditions an operation like this produces, and the desires of the consumer.

Am I comfortable eating meat? Yes, I was before and I am now. I feel like I know a little more about antibiotics and hormones and I cannot wait for steak night.

Sara McGuire,
Chicago, IL

Sara is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago Moms Meet Farmers.


Oct 15 2013

A Tough Career

I had the privilege to be a part of the Farm Families Field Moms Tour for a second time. We were headed for a modern cattle processing facility, Larson Farms, in Maple Park. Our bus soon pulled onto the property, and a handful of friendly people were there to greet us including Mike Martz, a partner in the company. Then began our tour of their property. Mike and his wife Lynn were both very open and knowledgeable about their cattle business. They spoke often about the safety and care that their animals received as well as the environment. 

Many topics were discussed including: how their specialized equipment provided a safe way for the cattle to exit the cattle truck and enter their pen, a padded floor their cattle could comfortably stand on, cattle ultrasounds (which I had never heard of before), the corn grown on their property, the use of manure, a fly larvae eating natural pest control, and good stewardship of the land they own. 

We had the opportunity to be up close and personal to three of the cattle whose fate was going to be determined through an ultrasound by viewing the amount and type of fat in the muscle tissue.  As the technology was being explained step by step, I couldn’t help but focus on the three large cattle in front of me. They were smelly, clumsy, yet strong and interesting animals. I then realized that they had needs similar to my own pet at home, and how time consuming it must be to take care of all of them and to keep them healthy!

The cattle, although close together, seemed happy.  Their farm was considered a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) because of the amount of cattle contained in a single space. The cattle’s structure consisted of a roof with exposed sides, a soft floor with a design that manure could be collected and then removed and used for fertilizer. The cattle had enough space to all lie down at once. I witnessed this right before we left the farm.

So, the perception I received on Larson farms was overall positive. I decided that this was not the career path that I personally would like to choose, but it was good to see that the farmers were there because they wanted to be. I also admired the way the farmers were very aware of the needs of their cattle, such as noticing if an animal was ill and then caring for them immediately. The health and safety of each of their cattle was in their best business interest.  In the end, the healthy cattle would help bring in a paycheck to feed the farmer’s own families.

A great thank you to all family owned farm business, such as Larson Farms, whose lives are devoted towards their work!

Valerie Johnson
Elgin, Illinois

Valerie is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.


Oct 10 2013

Larson Tour Recap: Meeting the People Who Bring Food to Our Table

Oh what a great tour…this was such an action packed day-we heard from numerous great farmers. This tour kept us on our toes-the beef cows were great to see and the farm we went to do a great job of bringing all of the learning together. So many key parts of the day that was very interesting. The farmer took very good care of the cows, buildings, machinery and land-this was truly a family friendly operation but it shows that they enjoy what they do plus they want to pass it down to future generations. The family cares about the animals and designed building so that it would protect the well-being for the cows and they also have the technology within the building to make sure the cows are getting what they need to be with the correct industry standards via the ultra-sound machine. This ultra-sound machine was different than the machine we saw for the dairy cattle and it served numerous other tasks and they were key tasks in focus to a farmer. 

The farmer also kept close contact on the cows diet like all of the other farms we attended and he also had a specialist involved in this processes because weight and marbling is a key commitment in his business for price and brings return business from customers. 

This farmer was a finishing operation-he would get the cows from another location to where they needed to be for the butchering process. He did an amazing job. 

He also raises 5600 acres cash crop- corn, soybeans and wheat. They did an amazing job of keeping on top of their crops with the involvement of key staff. They analyzed each field and had a great understanding of the soil, each field’s layout and needs.

Also on this tour we heard from an organic farmer.  We heard the pros and cons of farming this way. It is my understanding that they really spend a lot more time in the field via plowing and moving the dirt before planting and then pulling weeds. Their crop is considered a premium to consumers but they have to hire more staff and they spend more on gasoline.  

After hearing from both farmers I am not sure the direction of organic farming; it seems like it is not the greatest for the soil and the breakdown of the environment in that way, plus how much soil do we bring up when they pull weeds? Also hearing how they raise organic cows just seems way too long and I’m not sure of if that is good for humans or the animal. So many questions about things??

Overall the information about the hormones was great and just amazing how real and factual it was. I can’t believe how much society blows this way too out focus. The media needs to leave farmers alone and just let them be and just give them a little praise. They are the people that bring the food to our table.    

 

Janelle Floerke
Orland Park, Illinois

Janelle is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.


Sep 28 2013

From Temple Grandin to Technology: What Diane Letson Learned on the Larson Tour

My overwhelming thought when I rode the bus back to the Park ‘n Ride was that farming is really a hard business and that farmers must love their land and way of life so much that there is never a thought of “giving up the farm.”  Even in what I would consider the “down” season – November through February – the Larson/Martz members are reviewing data and reports, reviewing farm equipment and making repairs, and dealing with all sorts of farm management issues. I did have a few takeaways:

1. Varying degrees of cattle farms

I did not know that there are three distinctive types of cattle farms: 1) Cow and Calf 2) Background and 3) Finishing. The Larson/Martz Family Farm is a finishing farm. I was under the assumption that a cattle farmer or rancher handled the entire process of raising cattle from birth to final “product” or until the cattle are at a point to go off to slaughter.  

2. Temple Grandin

Mike Martz mentioned that the building we entered to view their ultrasound technology, which I’ll call the cattle house for lack of a better name, was a product of Temple Grandin’s and that Mike had consulted with Temple on the building’s design as well as the design of the pen and chute to lead the cattle to the ultrasound machine. I thought this showed a great level and depth of commitment from both the Larson and Martz families to ensure their cattle were well managed. Temple Grandin is well-known as an expert on animal welfare and specifically with cattle care and management. She designs buildings and other devices to reduce the animals’ anxiety. She was born autistic, but despite this life challenge, holds a doctoral degree in animal science.   

 

3. Fly management

I was rather astounded to see the technology that is brought in to the barns to manage the flies. Wasps are brought in to hatch and then eat fly larvae starting in April. The wasps are introduced weekly to manage the ever populating fly larvae. Despite a warm and sunny day and despite hundreds of cows producing enormous amounts of manure there were hardly any flies to be seen or felt which has to make the cows and farm employees more comfortable.

4. The importance of a crop scout

I continue to be impressed with the number of outside resources family farms hire to ensure the health of their land, animals, crops, water, equipment and more. Crop scouts are another example of an outside resource that is valuable to the farm. Norm, Lynn, Mike, Justin and other Larson/Martz family members certainly walk their fields and examine their corn, but the additional field expert aka the crop scout is very well trained to look for pests, invasive weeds or other conditions that could harm or destroy the crop. 

5. Technology

Once again I am struck by how much farmers use and want to use technology to manage their farms. Lynn and Norm shared with us that family farms used to farm on averages, but that is no longer prudent or practical. Both shared that due to many advancements in GPS technology farming should be viewed as an exact science when it comes to pinpointing different lots of land with potentially very different nutrient needs.  

 

Diane Letson | Chicago, Illinois

Diane is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.


Sep 04 2013

An Unexpected Comparison

On Saturday, July 27, I spent the day with several other moms from the Chicagoland area on the Dairy Farm of Linda and Dale Drendel.  Their dairy farm is in Hampshire, Illinois - about an hour west of Chicago.  After a stop at the Dean's milk processing plant in Huntley, we arrived on their farm.  We were greeted by 3 generations of Drendels, and served a great, country lunch!   The Drendels are a family that has made farming their business for many, many years.

I'm so grateful that it wasn't a typical hot, July day.  Instead, we were fortunate to have unusually cool weather.  This city girl does not want to spend a hot day on a dairy farm - even if it is a day spent away from my three demanding children!

One of the things that I found most surprising about dairy farming, is that not only do the farmers need to milk their cows 2-3 times EVERY day, 7 days a week, all year-long, but the farmers also need to grow and harvest the cow feed - by themselves - for their dairy cows.  The cows' diet is monitored regularly by an animal nutritionist, to make sure that the cows receive the best nutrients possible.  This reminded me of when I was nursing my daughter.  In order to keep my own milk production going well, I was drinking a lot of water, and trying to eat very healthy food, almost round the clock.  It's very similar for the dairy cows, haha!  When the cows are producing milk, they are fed a certain food combination.  On the other hand, when they are pregnant with baby calves, they are offered a slightly different diet.  They all have unique nutritional needs.   

Unfortunately, while nursing, I didn't produce a whole lot of milk for my youngest daughter.  Then again, I didn’t gain 1,400 pounds either! At times, I felt like a weighed over a ton, though.  When my problem developed, my lactation consultant suggested that I try using supplements to increase my production.  With dairy cows, supplements and medicines are much more regulated.  I can’t believe I’m comparing myself to a dairy cow, but the similarities are outrageous!  Cows and humans alike, both need certain naturally occurring hormones to lactate.  However, if the farmer needed his cows to increase milk production, there is a way to produce this chemical synthetically.  It's called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or artificial growth hormone.  There isn't a way to test for this synthetic hormone in the milk that's on our store shelves, because it's mimicking a naturally occurring hormone.  So instead, we need to rely on the pledges made by the dairy farmers, that the milk is rBGH free.  The Drendel’s milk, which uses artificial hormones, is used for products like sour cream, cheese and ice cream.

Another thing that I found surprising is that dairy cows are basically milk factories.  The Drendels care for about 120 of these walking, mooing, hungry milk factories on their dairy farm.   The unique aspect with dairy cows is that the milk factories can have unique personalities and quirks.  Some cows like to be milked first, and push to get in line to be done first.  Other cows like to hang out with the others, before being ushered into the milking parlor, and they will wait until the very last minute to be milked.  The milking process is painless to the cows, and like a nursing mother, the milking alleviates the fullness from milk that the lactation process creates.

A vet cares for the cows when they are sick and also during their pregnancies.  We were able to meet the veterinarian that visits the Drendel dairy farm regularly.  Several cows can be pregnant on the farm at any given time, so the dairy farmers have a very close relationship with their veterinarian.  When the dairy farmers suspect that one of their cows is pregnant, they call up the vet for an ultrasound.  Similar to humans, they get to see a picture of their babies via ultrasound, check to see if they’re healthy, and they’re free to post that ultrasound picture on Facebook too, for everybody to see!

After my tours at the dairy farm and milk processing plant, I feel good about the milk that is being produced in Illinois.  I’ll continue to serve it to my family on a daily basis and I’ll be happy to tell you about my experiences during that unusually cool July day.

 

Maggie Bartoszewski, Oak Lawn

Maggie is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.


Aug 17 2013

Dairy Tour Recap

Milk and dairy products are probably some of the biggest issues when it comes to the organic/conventional debate. We have all heard about growth hormones and antibiotics in the milk we give to our children and questions related to this topic were the most common on our Dairy Tour to Dean’s processing plant and Dale and Linda Drendel’s dairy farm in Hampshire.

Our first stop was Dean’s processing plant in Huntley. This is where milk is brought in from local farms (Illinois and Wisconsin) and bottled. We were given a wonderful presentation of the process, the testing, and quality control that has to happen before the milk is accepted for processing. Biggest surprise was the fact that the farms delivering milk to Dean’s have all signed a pledge not to use growth hormones with their cows. This caused a lot of excitement among the field moms. The second exciting piece of information was the sustainability plan with recycling and conservation of water used in the plant.

The tour of the plant showed us the process from beginning to the end: tanks bringing in the milk, the testing area, the bottling facility, and finally the distribution area. We learned a lot during the tour and the presentation and one of the most important facts we learned is that the most important quality control measure with milk is to make sure it stays cold. I don’t think any of us field moms will ever again go shopping and leave the milk in a hot car. Or put the milk on the fridge door!

Our second stop was at Dale and Linda Drendel’s dairy farm in Hampshire. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic farmyard than the one they have with the red barns and cows walking to pasture in the fields. Animal welfare was probably the most important issue for most of us and the question of antibiotic use with cows. The veterinarian explained when and why antibiotics are used and how the milk is separated during milking for those cows who have been treated. This way the milk will not end up going to the processing plant.

The biggest surprise at the farm was the fact that at a farm that produces conventional milk, the cows are allowed outside. As the routine on a dairy farm is set in stone since the cows have to be milked twice a day, the cows themselves know the routine. When the bell is rung for the milking, the cows start walking towards the milking area and wait patiently for their turn at the door.

What will I remember from the dairy farm visit, other than the cows on the fields? I will remember the ultrasound of a 8-week-old calf that we were able to see. I will also remember that on dairy farms the owners choose from a catalogue which bull looks good for their cows and the semen is then shipped to them. And you do pay more for the super star bulls!

5 Things I Learned

  • The farms delivering milk to Dean’s have all signed a pledge not to use growth hormones with their cows.
  • The most important quality control measure with milk is to make sure it stays cold.
  • At a farm that produces conventional milk, the cows are allowed outside.     
  • Milk is separated during milking for those cows who have been treated with antibiotics so the milk will not end up going to the processing plant.  
  • The cows themselves know the routine for being milked twice a day, and will start walking toward the milking area when a bell is rung.

Tanja Saarinen, Oak Park

Tanja is one of the Illinois Farm Families 2013 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visits several Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each tour, the Field Moms share their thoughts by blogging about what they experience on these farms, including five things they found most interesting. Want to learn more? Read Our Story: Chicago moms meet farmers.

Oct 05 2011

Big surprises in store

Lynn MartzI’m really excited about the Field Moms coming to visit us on Saturday, October 15.  I’m looking forward to hearing their questions.  Sometimes I think that’s a problem with agriculture – we need to open up more, listen more, and communicate with our customers. We need to be more consumer-driven.

I’m also looking forward to showing the Field Moms around our farm, and putting them in our combine. I love bringing groups through here, and opening their eyes to what modern agriculture is really all about. It’s always interesting to see what the biggest surprises are.  

For instance, when we bring teachers here, they’re surprised at how much technology we have on the farm, like GPS and precision farming technology on our machinery.  

Another big surprise is that even with our size, it’s still a true family farm. Our farm supports eight families.

On the grain side of our farm, it’s the size and cost of our equipment that shocks people. (Actually, the cost of equipment shocks me too...)

And when we go to the feedlot, people are really surprised at how much care we take with each animal. They’re fascinated with the ultrasound, and what we can predict about every heifer and steer.  

Even with 3,500 head of cattle, we still know each one individually.  Our animals are receiving a lot more care than you’d ever imagine, just driving by the farm.

So I’m really looking forward to the Field Moms visiting.  It’ll open up communications – and it’ll be fun and surprising for all of us.   

Lynn Martz
Larson Farms
Maple Park, Illinois
Jul 05 2011

NIU Football team visit to our farm

Lynn Martz and NIU football playersHi, my name is Lynn Martz and welcome to our farm. My husband, Mike, and I farm with my parents, brothers and our son, Justin. Our farm consists of beef, corn, soybeans and wheat located in northern Illinois just 65 miles west of Chicago.
  
We are one of the farm families you can tour on the Watch Us Grow website. We hope, along with other farm families, to help answer questions about farm life and why safe nutritious food is important to us too. I hope you will follow along with our blog and ask questions if you like.

 

Giving farm tours isn’t new for us. We have always given tours each year for school teachers so students have a better understanding of where their food comes from. In June we hosted the Northern Illinois Football team and coaches for a farm tour. Coaches got to drive a tractor and see beef cattle be ultrasounded. Just like an athlete may be ultrasounded to scan muscle tissue and diagnose an injury, we use ultrasound at our farm to evaluate the muscle and fat tissue of our beef cattle. This data helps us to sort out and market the cattle better, providing quality beef products for you.

The evening was wrapped up with, of course, lots of steak to eat. For many of the players it was their first time on a farm. I kidded with them that their interests with climbing on equipment and weighing themselves as a group on the big truck scale are the same highlights that our kindergarten student groups enjoy too. 

Some of the trivia information we gave the team was one cow hide can be made into 10 footballs. Footballs are made of four pieces of leather stitched together. Leather laces along one seam provide a grip for holding and passing the ball. The size of the Football Field at NIU Huskie Stadium is comparable to one acre of farmland. In DeKalb County, there are over 370,000 acres of farmland, or football fields.

You can watch a video of the Huskies Football experiencing our family farm.  

Lynn Martz
Maple Park, Ill.

 

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