Bloggers Learn About Beef, Pasture to Plate

5/17/2014 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. — One in three bloggers are moms, according to AC Nielsen. There are more than 152 million blogs on the Internet and millions of moms sharing their thoughts, interests and insights.

On Monday, the Pennsylvania Beef Council organized a tour of the Masonic Village’s beef operation to show the day-to-day operations on a beef farm to Pennsylvania bloggers.

Why should it matter to producers? An estimated 52 percent of bloggers are parents with kids under 18. And blogs do generate a large audience.

Blogging platforms Blogger, WordPress and Tumblr generated 80 million unique visitors in one month during a 2011 study by NM Incite.

For many of the bloggers on the tour, it was the first time they had stepped foot onto a feedlot or had a discussion with producers about beef.

As they asked questions, they took pictures and notes, which they posted to social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook to share their experiences with their followers.

For Natalie Dixon, who writes the blog “A Turtle’s Life for Me,” the tour was a chance to take a look at something she did not think about much, beef. She said she was amazed at the “transparency of the whole operation.

“You don’t see this very often,” she said of the in-depth tour of the farm.

The bloggers visited multiple spots at the farm to learn how its calves move from the cow-calf portion of the operation up to the feedlot.

Dixon has been a supporter of the farm’s produce operation, using its farm market’s fruit at her bakery in Elizabethtown, Pa.

Wendy Lunko of York writes a blog called “Random Thoughts” that focuses on a variety of cooking, hunting and do-it-yourself topics. She had been to Masonic Village before for its Autumn Days celebration but had not visited the beef farm.

Although she is an avid hunter, Lunko never thought much about how beef was produced. She said she thought it was interesting to see how animals were cared for, the handling of the cattle and how the farm uses its grazing lands.

Blogger Amber DeGrace had grown up around a dairy farm, but was eager to see a beef farm. She said she was impressed about how “clean and orderly” the barn was and how the feedlot pens had “a lot of cows in there, but not stuffed in there.”

The object of the tour was to tackle the bloggers’ questions, which ranged from the difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef to antibiotic use, animal identification and hormone use.

Consumer questions and education are not new to the Masonic Village farm. It’s located on the Masonic Village campus, where thousands of retired residents see the farm’s beef cattle daily.

The watchful eyes of the residents mean that farm manager Frank Stoltzfus can get plenty of calls from residents and visitors telling him of their “perceived concerns.”

Some of those calls are legitimate, and Stoltzfus said he’s appreciative. Others are points of concern for the callers but nonissues for the cattle. Stoltzfus said he works through each issue and does the best he can to ease the caller’s concerns.

At the farm’s feedlot, Stoltzfus stressed the importance of cattle care. The farm built a new finishing barn a couple of years ago. And by improving the herd’s living conditions, the farm has seen a jump in production from the 300 cattle in the facility, he said.

The barn was designed for “one person to operate,” he said, and on an average day, he’s that one person who is working the herd.

The rate of gain jumped from between 2.8 and 2.9 pounds per cow per day to 3.7 pounds. Stoltzfus said that so far this year, the cattle have graded either select or choice. The 100 percent rate is a first for the farm.

Stoltzfus tackled the issue of grass-fed versus corn-fed. He said it’s a choice for both the farmer and the market. However, for the Masonic Village farm, finishing the cattle in a feedlot makes more sense because more cattle can be finished per acre than on pasture.

But he stressed there is nothing inherently good or bad with either option. They are just different. Farmers have to “fill what the market wants,” which is why different models work on different farms.

The buy-local movement has benefited Masonic Village, which does sell a portion of its beef through farmers markets and the Internet. Smucker’s Meats in Mount Joy processes the farm’s freezer beef.

Mike Smucker of Smucker’s Meats said the freezer beef market has revitalized his family’s business after a decline in the 1980s in the number of farmers sending animals for processing for private use.

“Buying local is changing how we process things,” he said.

A popular model is selling one-eighth of a steer or the equivalent of a 45-pound box of beef. Its about the size of what would fit in a freezer compartment of the refrigerator. It was an idea developed by Stoltzfus and other beef farmers as they started growing their direct-marketing businesses.

Stoltzfus also spoke about current beef prices, which are making it quite profitable to raise calves for the feedlot. He described each calf as being like a “$1,000 coupon at weaning” because of the higher prices.

However, he also is quick to point out that there have been times when starting with the calves has not been as profitable.

Dr. Elizabeth Santini, who chairs the state’s Beef Quality Assurance board and is a Pennsylvania Agriculture Department veterinary field officer, tackled the questions regarding hormone and antibiotic use.

She stressed to the group that some people have visions of “buckets of antibiotics” being administered to cattle, something that is not true. She said that on a per cow basis, very little antibiotics are used.

Regarding hormones, she said she believes they have negative connotations because of human substance abuse cases. She also pointed out that there are hormones in plant-based foods and that tofu has higher levels of hormones than beef.

Beef nutritionist Jim Houge said profit margins are typically slim. Hormones and antibiotics used judiciously help to improve efficiencies, but when taken out of a management system, they will raise costs.

Houge said there needs to be a premium price paid to farmers for those choices.

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