Around campus and in casual conversation, animal food production has become a hot topic. Unfortunately, with this publicity comes misconceptions. While some mistaken views may stem from misunderstandings about conventional farming, consumers should know that ethical and sustainable agricultural practices are an increasing part of agriculture today. When you meet people who devote their lives to animals, you realize animal and human health are top priorities. Having grown up around animals and having worked in various sectors of the dairy business, I’d like to share my thoughts on animal husbandry and paint a more positive picture than the one often presented. Responsible and sustainable animal agriculturalists simultaneously improve the health and well-being of their animals, customers and consumers, and the environment.
America’s farmers and ranchers labor tirelessly to ensure the health and well-being of our food-producing animals. Though incidents of abuse do occur, farms that endanger their animals’ and consumers’ health are the exception rather than the rule. Animals at the 1,000-acre Appleton Farms in Ipswich, Mass., where I have worked in the dairy for three years, receive constant and comprehensive attention. Nearly all steers and cows living on small and mid-size farms in this country enjoy amenities — abundant food, water, shelter and medical care — necessities that many humans around the world live without. Our 135 head of cattle live outdoors from April through November, consume grass from rotationally grazed pastures and enjoy free-choice access to clean water, fresh hay and dry shelter year-round.
Animal products, especially those from grazing animals, are a progressive and efficient component of a diverse agricultural system. From stony hillsides in Vermont to windswept plains in Montana, much of the country is too rocky, arid or steep to continually grow grains, fruits or vegetables without significant soil addendums or fossil fuel-intensive irrigation. Though our simple digestive systems cannot extract energy from most natural vegetation, grazing animals can harness this solar energy for us. Ruminants, including bovines, have four stomachs, in which bacteria capable of breaking down cellulose reside. The resulting milk offers a package of energy and nutrients far beyond what the original plant provided.
Farmers continually explore technologies and production methods that promise to improve animal, human and environmental health. Dairy farmers who grow corn feed cows chopped, two-inch pieces of the entire plant — stalk, leaves, kernels and cob — instead of just using the grain. Wasted nutrients end up in manure, are composted and get reapplied to the land for the subsequent season’s crop.
Consumers are willing to pay for a higher-quality product. For example, our Northeastern dairy cooperative has a zero-tolerance policy on antibiotics, and we receive a premium based on the quality of our milk. Though it may cost a little extra, we take pride in producing the purest, cleanest milk possible at each milking. We market our grass-fed steers to a meat cooperative that’s committed to sustainable beef production. Some of those steers make their way to Yale in the form of grass-fed burgers.
Can we do better? Yes, we can, both out on the farm and here in the city. Grass-fed dairy, beef, poultry and swine operations make sense in many locales, especially from an energy and environmental standpoint. Yale is leading the way in institutional purchasing, economically encouraging producers to do what it takes to farm well. The Yale Sustainable Food Project purchases from responsible animal agriculturalists and buys local whenever possible, bringing us one step closer to a food system that generates more energy than it consumes; a food system where the calories we eat come from sunlight rather than fossil fuels. Continued expansion of YSFP is one way to improve and ensure agricultural sustainability, animal well-being and human health. By doing so, we send the message that a sound agricultural process yields a great product.
Step away from Yale for a moment and a visit a farm. Talk to those who do it every day. You might just realize that the future of animal agriculture is a lot brighter than you thought.
Daniel Serna is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. He is a representative on the Yale Dining Services Advisory Committee.