Kid-Friendly Beefy Spaghetti Cups Recipe | Meat Prices

Farm moms like us realize that time and budgets are important commodities – just like our crops and livestock! This recipe is perfect for an affordable and easy meal that kids love. What we like best is that you can freeze the cups and pop into the microwave for a fast meal for toddlers and kids. We know that many people are concerned about rising food costs- and specifically meat costs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts beef and veal prices to increase by 8-9 percent by the end of 2014, compared with 2013. Pork prices could rise by between 7.5 and 8.5 percent.Meat Counter So, what’s behind the increase? There are several contributing factors, including:

  • Effects of drought on cattle herds in the plains and western United States. When drought hit many major cattle-producing states in 2011, the grazing space for cattle greatly decreased. This forced many farmers to sell their animals to be processed. The high cost of feed for cattle further contributed to smaller herds. This decreased the supply of beef available, while demand has remained high. Herd sizes have been slow to rebound and are currently at historic lows, similar to those in the 1950s. That’s because it can take 18 months for a calf to reach market weight.
  • Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv). This pig virus is responsible for millions of piglet deaths in the past year. Hog farms in more than 40 states were affected by the illness that is most fatal to newborn pigs. Farmers tried to compensate by raising their animals to heavier weights, but only partially compensated for the losses. Hog supplies are now back on the rise, but pork prices will continue to be higher until supplies get closer to meeting demand. PEDv poses no risk to other animals, humans or food safety.
  • Rising demand for protein from U.S. consumers. The protein power movement is gaining traction here in the U.S. which means greater demand. This can be seen in reports from companies like BB&T Capital Markets and NPD Group and in the menus at Taco Bell, McDonald’s, KFC and Panera.
  • Rising middle classes in Asia, Africa and South America. A growing number of people around the world are eating more meat today than in years past. As the global population and individual incomes rise, so, too, does meat demand.

Have additional questions about how meat gets from the farm to your table? Click here to learn more about the farmers who raise beef, pork and turkey. {Kid-Friendly Beefy Spaghetti Cups }20141216_223538 Ingredients20141216_175859 1 lb ground beef ½ onion, chopped (or substitute 2 tbsp of minced onion) ½ box elbow macaroni 1 cup cottage cheese ½ cup Parmesan cheese 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese 1 cup spaghetti sauce 1 tsp garlic powder 2 tsp Italian seasoning Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water. Bring to a boil and cook pasta to al dente (about 8 minutes).
  • While the pasta is cooking, brown the hamburger and onion in a small skillet.
  • Drain pasta and put in a large mixing bowl.
  • Add in cottage cheese, parmesan cheese, 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese, garlic powder and Italian seasoning to pasta and stir well.20141216_181505
  • Slowly add in ground beef and spaghetti sauce. Mix well.20141216_182041
  • Spray muffin tin with cooking spray. Fill cups to the top of each with the pasta mixture. Gently press down on each cup.20141216_182625
  • Add around one spoonful of mozzarella cheese on top of each muffin cup.20141216_182738
  • Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and starting to brown.20141216_185005
  • Let the cups sit for 5 minutes before serving, or freeze for easy reheating and a fast meal. Kid-approved!20141216_183238

Organic Farm Tour & Maple Dill Carrots recipe

Linda peppers smile no glassesRD Amber from Stirlist, a registered dietitian passionate about food, health and nutrition, came to visit my farm recently and she blogged about what she learned about our organic production, as well as an amazing Maple Dill Carrot recipe (keep reading for the recipe!). Enjoy learning a little more about our farm.

carrots-26-881x587Linda and Tom Schwarz live near Smithfield, NE with their son, Alex and daughter, Becky. They own Schwarz Family Farm and the family has been farming in Nebraska for six generations. The day I visited their farm was the coldest day we’ve had in Nebraska since last winter! Even though the temperature was quickly dropping and the wind gusts were fierce, I had an amazing time getting to visit with this family and learn more about their farm.carrots-11-1024x682

When CommonGround asked me to pay them a visit, I had no idea what to expect. When I think of organic farmers, the word “hippie” usually comes to mind. The funny thing is, they totally called me out on that. Tom said, “Most people are surprised to learn that we are not hippies.” How did he know what I was thinking? Ha! Instead, I made some new friends that day and walked away with a new respect for organic farmers.

At Schwarz Family Farm you can find row crops including organic corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, and alfalfa. Additionally, they grow a variety of organic vegetables and herbs such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, carrots and peas. Their customers include other farmers who are raising organic animals, local restaurants and grocery stores throughout Nebraska that supply organic produce.carrots-2-1024x682

Linda has been working with CommonGround for the last three years. She said she enjoys being a CommonGround volunteer because it gives her the opportunity to share more about their farm and connect with consumers. Her favorite part about working with CommonGround is answering questions and setting the record straight about organic farming practices.

But they haven’t always farmed organic.

They farmed using conventional means for several years and then transitioned to organic in 1998. So, why did they switch to farming organic? They had the opportunity to downsize and realized they wanted to do more with less. Switching to organic was also motivated by their two children wanting to be a part of the farm. Linda’s husband, Tom, mentioned that another reason they farm organic is because there is an increase in demand for organic crops. Tom says, “Our customer is the person sitting down to a meal at home, not the co-op.” I thought this was a really interesting point he made and honestly, this is something that I hadn’t really thought about before. This family understands the demand and knows who their customer is.

Even though it might be more difficult to grow organic crops and vegetables, the benefit is that they have developed their own niche growing organics in Nebraska. They can offer an amazing variety of produce and herbs such as chocolate mint, sugar pea greens, and yellow candy onions.carrots-3-1024x682

Growing organic is not easy. It is extremely labor intensive. Linda and Tom both mentioned how difficult managing weeds can be. Not only does it take a lot of time and dedication to manage the land itself, but organic famers spend quite a bit of time on paperwork. They have to keep records and document everything to maintain their organic certification. This is an important process and extremely time consuming. By the way, it takes at least three years to transition to organic farming.

carrots-6-1024x682And yes, that’s a lady bug in that photo above. In order to deal with aphids (pesky little things that like to feed on vegetables), the family uses lady bugs and praying mantis egg cases to help manage the aphid population in their green houses.

carrots-5-1024x682Why greenhouses? Well, Nebraska is known for extreme weather conditions. The greenhouse facilities and tunnels provide an opportunity for the family to grow year round. They are also portable, which allows them to move the greenhouses from year to year, allowing the land to rest which can help with disease management.

carrots-15-1024x682Another reason for growing organic is that they can grow a variety of produce and herbs. If you haven’t figured it out, they are serious foodies. They love spicy food and even jar their own salsa, which I had the opportunity to sample. In the spring you will find these greenhouses filled with tomatoes, perfect for Linda’s famous salsa recipe. Linda said that Tom is a great cook and makes the best chicken enchiladas. Because they have such an amazing variety, they love trying new recipes and experimenting with different herbs.

carrots-16-1024x682They have also created their own unique brand. You can find different herbs and seasonings in pots that are sold are Hy-Vee stores in Lincoln and Omaha. Or you can purchase their dry seasonings on their website.

Clearly Tom and Linda’s children, Alex and Becky, love being apart of the family business. Both kids work really hard to keep the farm going and help market their products. In addition to her role on the farm, Becky also manages the family website and social media. Alex, who also happens to be a very talented actor, plays a major role in day to day operations. His enthusiasm for sharing their farm values, methods and love of food is truly moving.

Here are what the tunnels look like.carrots-81-1024x682

Purple lettuce? Um, yes please.carrots-8-1024x682

One thing that I really appreciated about the Shwarz family was hearing them talk about other farmers. Not once did I hear a negative word from them about farmers who don’t choose to farm organic. I thought this was incredibly awesome because as I mentioned before, even I walked into the experience with some preconceived ideas. If I could put a theme on my experience with CommonGround the last six months, I’ve learned that farmers advocate for choice. It’s amazing that we have so many options! I’m so impressed with Linda and Tom’s farm that I’ve already promised to pay them a visit again in April when their greenhouses are full of tomatoes.

Read more from RD Amber on her Stirlist blog. carrots-22

Maple Dill Carrots & Organic Farm Tour

  • 3 cups peeled and sliced carrots
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  1. Place carrots in a skillet and pour in just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat; simmer until water has evaporated and the carrots are tender. Stir in butter, brown sugar, dill, salt and pepper.

Seeking Nebraska Farm Women to Become CommonGround Volunteers!

Kristen_1We are seeking Nebraska farm women who are interested in sharing the message of where America’s food comes from. CommonGround is looking for women who like answering consumers’ questions about food and farming. This is a chance to help those disconnected from agriculture understand how their food is grown and raised – straight from the original source, the farmer.

The time commitment to being a volunteer is as much or as little as you want! CommonGround will hold a training for these new volunteers in January. We would love for YOU to become an agvocate and a volunteer for CommonGround!

All women interested can click below to fill out the Volunteer Profile Form.

cg vol prof form

diane wheat 1

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread & Farm Tour

diane wheat 5I recently hosted Amber from Stirlist.com to visit my farm and share with her one of my favorite fall bread recipes.  Here is a part of her post, and you and read the whole story on her blog

I recently saw a meme online that said, “We should go back to how we produced food 100 years ago. The grocery store was your vegetable garden and basement cellar. And if you didn’t have something you needed, you simply asked your neighbor.”

diane wheat 2While this might sound very sweet and romantic, I wondered if this is truly realistic? To learn more about this, I traveled three hours across the great state of Nebraska to visit with mom and farmer, Diane Karr. Diane and her family live near Blue Hill, NE and they raise wheat, soybeans, corn, alfalfa and cattle. Diane studied agribusiness in college and then moved back to Blue Hill where she and her new husband rented a farm and became actively involved in his family’s farm. Today Diane and her husband have been married for 17 years and now farm the land where her husband grew up.

When I asked Diane about how farming has changed over the past 100 years, she immediately said, “You need to see the plat map.”

Did she just say, “Plat map?”diane wheat 4

A plat map shows where each farm is located. Diane placed two plat maps side by side. One was from 100 years ago and the other was a recent plat map from last year. It was a humbling experience to watch Diane turn the pages and share stories about how the community has changed over the years. The biggest difference between the two maps is how many more individual farms existed 100 years ago. Many of those farms that existed 100 years ago no longer exist today. When I asked her about how farms like hers might be compared to factory farms, she laughed and said, “Farming practices might have changed, but that doesn’t make us a factory farm. Farming is a living thing. We care about the land and we feed our own children what we grow here. 100 years ago there were many nutrient deficiencies and modern farming and food science has helped solve that. Farmers are now more efficient than ever and today we are able to do more with less. People forget how much harder it was to farm 100 years ago. Why would we want to go back to doing things like we did 100 years go? ” Great question.

As a nutrition expert, I think consumers have given a lot of authority to non-experts regarding farming and food production. A popular example of this would be celebrities claiming gluten and wheat products cause autism and other health issues. Knowing that Diane is a wheat farmer, I wanted to spend a little time chatting with her about this. One thing that consumers are often confused about is wheat and GMOs. “Did you know that there is no commercial GMO wheat available on the market? It might exist someday, but currently wheat is not available as a GMO.” You can read more about that HERE.

Another myth that people have come to believe is that in order to be healthy, you should stay away from wheat. Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease or an allergy, there is no reason to avoid wheat. As a Registered Dietitian, I’ve unfortunately seen people use “gluten sensitivity” as a fad diet and in my opinion, it really minimizes the serious effects consuming wheat could have on those with true celiac disease. I think it’s important to mention that celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disorder and it occurs in about 1/133 people. It is not as common as everybody thinks it is, but it is a very real thing for those who actually have it. But that doesn’t mean everybody else needs to avoid it. According to the Wheat Foods Council, wheat has been consumed by humans for the last 17,000 years and we have seen an increase in all autoimmune disorders, not just celiac disease. When you eliminate wheat products, you eliminate several other important nutrients such as B vitamins, folate, iron and fiber.diane wheat 6

This field is hard red winter wheat. This wheat was planted in early September and will probably be harvested in July. Diane told me, “It goes dormant in the winter just like the green grass outside your house.” Apparently this is the type of wheat that you will find in all-purpose flour and used for making breads and rolls. There are actually 6 classes of wheat that include hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hard white, and soft white. The hard flours are usually good for breads and rolls and the soft wheat is good for flat breads and crackers. Durum wheat is used for pasta making. This recipe that Diane shared with me contains all-purpose flour, which is perfect for quick breads like this.diane wheat 1

Diane and her husband’s parents still live near Blue Hill and when they’re not working on the farm, you can find Diane and the rest of her family cheering at cross country meets and football games. This chocolate chip pumpkin bread recipe is a fall family favorite.diane wheat 7

Diane assured me that while the number of farmers may have changed, the reliance on neighbors and passion for caring for the land could not be stronger. Seeing the impact of a family caring for the same piece of land for over 125 years brings a perspective we often neglect.

Special thanks to CommonGround Nebraska and Diane for the tour and for sharing this recipe! Be sure to visit Diane’s blog and please feel free to reach out if you have questions.

Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Bread & Farm Tour
Cook time: 60 mins Total time: 1 hour

3 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 can pumpkin (15 oz)
1 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup chocolate chips

In a bowl, combine sugar, eggs, pumpkin, vegetable oil, and vanilla. Set aside. In another bowl, combine flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients. Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon into 2 greased and floured 8 x 4 inch loaf pans. Bake at 350 for about 60 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks.


No-Noodle Lasagna Beef Dip Recipe

The most delicious appetizer. Ever.lanalasagna1

lanaI’m a BIG fan of appetizers.  And it’s now Appetizer Season, a.k.a. Football Season!  Looking for something new to try?  I’ve got a great one for you!  I discovered this dish of deliciousness last spring at a Taste of Home Show in Kearney, NE where I was working at a booth forCommonGround Nebraska.  The Nebraska Beef Council was handing out samples and I may, or may not, have made multiple stops at their booth.

So what do I call an appetizer this good?  Supper!   And it’s also called No-Noodle Lasagna Beef Dip.

And even more good news – it’s a great way to use leftover roast beef!  I’m going to start from the very beginning… first you have to cook roast beef (or buy the packaged fully-cooked… but I guess I’m a little old-fashioned and like to do it the old way). Since we raise beef and have a freezer full of our own beef, our package looks a little different than you buy in the grocery store.

I happened to grab a rump roast, but any cut of roast is good.  I think the proper way is to thaw the meat prior to cooking… but I don’t normally plan that far in advance :) so I just put it in the crock pot frozen, add a glass of water, and sprinkle our favorite meat spices on the top.  Oh – and don’t forget to turn the crock pot ON low.  Yes, I’ve made that mistake!lanalasagna2

Cook on low for about 8 hours.  Then serve for a meal!  Or use it for this recipe if you’re afraid there won’t be any leftovers!lanalasagna3

Use your leftovers (or about 1 lb of roast beef, or whatever you have), pull the beef apart so it’s shredded, and add 1 1/2 cups pasta sauce and 1 clove garlic (minced).   Spread 8 oz cream cheese (softened) into a 9 inch pie plate.  I mean really… what’s an appetizer/dip without cream cheese?!?!lanalasagna4

I love using this garlic press… but you can use garlic in about whatever way works for you!  If I don’t have fresh garlic cloves, I just sprinkle some garlic powder or something like that.lanalasagna5

Next, the recipe calls for 1/2 cup sliced green onions, which would be fantastic, if I had them.  But I didn’t, so I went without.

Spread the meat mixture over the cream cheese.  lanalasagna6

Then sprinkle with 2 T parmesan cheese (grated).lanalasagna7

Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.  You could probably even do this in the crock pot.

Serve with crackers, toasted bread or chips.  Wait for the fans to cheer… never mind, their mouths will be full… at least until it’s gone!   To my surprise, one of my kids was not a big fan of this… which worked out well for the rest of us.  Let’s just say there was no concern with leftovers!

Find the official recipe here.


Walking beans

I am walking through a soybean field just as the leaves are beginning to turn. The plants are knee high.

Have you ever walked beans?  Have you ever heard of walking beans?  I smile as I ask this because before I became a farmer I had no idea what walking beans meant.   Before I was married I had a co-worker at a vet clinic I worked at that farmed with her husband.  One day she mentioned that she was going to be walking beans on her weekend off.  At that time I knew very little about farming and farming terminology.  The little bubble above my head was of her and a leash and somehow getting green beans to move along.  I didn’t even know that she was referring to soybeans as the only fields I saw growing up were cornfields.

Steve's not confused as he walks through this soybean field that was partially harvested the week before.  Rains kept us out of the field for a week.  Steve is chewing on a soybean to check for moisture, a skill I have yet to learn.
Steve’s not confused as he walks through this soybean
field that was partially harvested the week before. Rains
kept us out of the field for a week. Steve is chewing on
a soybean to check for moisture, a skill I have yet to learn.

My flashback to that moment came the other night as I was watching TV and one of the political candidates from Iowa mentioned that she had grown up walking beans.  I was wondering how many people knew what she was talking about.  I also realized I’ve done this when talking to people about what we do on our farm.  I assume someone understands my terminology until I see a confused look on their face or worse yet, they turn and walk away shaking their head!

One of those expressions came to me when I was talking about how we treat cattle.  When we find a sick animal we remove him from his pen and take him up to the barn where we can give him medicine.  This is how I said it “we pull the steer and then take him to the barn to get treated”.  I didn’t realize that the bubble image the person was having was of us roping the animal and dragging him from the pen to the barn.  Fortunately this person asked more questions so I was able to explain what “pulling” meant.

We use ATV's instead of horses to remove cattle from their pen.  We try to walk them out slowly as this steer is doing.  He is looking at the gate and moving towards it.
We use ATV’s instead of horses to remove cattle from their pen. We try to walk them out slowly as this steer is doing. He is looking at the gate and moving towards it.

I wasn’t brave enough to ask my friend what it meant to walk beans.  My opportunity to learn came when I became a farmer.   When Steve and I were in our early years of marriage I became quite skilled at walking beans.  Walking beans was a form of weed control in soybean fields.  We would walk through the rows with a hoe to cut out the weeds.  My sisters also became skilled at walking beans when they came to visit.  We all agreed that walking beans was not that fun but easier than detasseling corn.

My days of walking beans are long over thanks to the development of roundup ready soybeans.  Using a chemical to control weeds isn’t the only tool we use but this was a big help.  Tillage methods and crop rotation are also important as we try to raise the best crop we can each year.

I would encourage anyone not familiar with farming terminology to ask the questions that help in understanding what we are doing and why.  My own fear of looking stupid really makes me look stupid for not asking and making an inaccurate assumption.  I have learned to prefer wisdom over ignorance, facts over fear and truth over lies. joan6

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you! For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Chipotle Meatballs Recipe and Farm Tour

JoanRuskamp2Registered Dietitian and food writer from Stirlist, Amber, came out to my feedlot recently and shared one of my favorite meatball recipes on her blog. I was able to show her the feedlots, explain how we take care of our cattle, why we use vaccines and how many hormones are in beef vs. other foods (hint: see picture of M&M jars below!). 

Chipotle Meatballs and Farm Tour

DodgeWatertowerMost people end up getting out of Dodge, but last month I found myself spending the day in Dodge, Nebraska. I traveled to Dodge with my mini me (Kristen- my intern) and we had the opportunity to visit with Joan Ruskamp, a cattle feeder and farmer. I was really looking forward to spending the day with Joan so that I could see firsthand what a day in her life looks like. Joan grew up in Grand Island, NE and is a graduate of Nebraska School of Technical Agriculture at Curtis in Veterinary Technology. Her role on the farm may have changed over the years, but she stays busy with bookwork, doctoring, processing and other duties around the farm. Joan enjoys being a CommonGround volunteer because it has given her the opportunity to chat with people who might not understand what life is like as a farmer and cattle feeder. Thanks to recent marketing campaigns by brands such as Chipotle, many consumers have questioned her farming practices. However, Joan loves to answer questions and she definitely helped shed some light on a few of the tough subjects she’s had to address the past few years. I think the biggest myths about cattle feeding is that the cows are crowded, “shot up” with hormones, given unnecessary antibiotics, and that the farmers mistreat the animals. What I saw on Joan’s farm that day was the complete opposite. I was surprised to see how much room the cattle had and I was really impressed with Joan’s knowledge about feeding, managing disease, and hormones. She also gave up some very valuable time to answer all my questions, which was very much appreciated. The photo below is the view from Joan’s front door. Do you think this looks like a factory farm?DodgeDeck

It’s not quite a “factory farm,” is it? Joan prefers the term, “family farm” because the land was passed down by her husband’s family. In fact, all five of her children have helped around the farm over the years. I was really surprised to see how spread out the cattle were. I realize that I am not an expert in cattle, but I saw no signs of the cattle looking uncomfortable or crowded.DodgeCows

There is plenty of room to roam…dodgepens

One of the most popular questions that Joan receives is about the amount of estrogen in beef. To help better illustrate the amount of estrogen in beef, Joan created a great visual teaching tool using jars of chocolate candies. The amount of candy represents the amount of estrogen present in eggs, peas, potatoes, and beef. I wasn’t able to capture the labels in this photo below, but the jar starting from the left represents 1 egg, then 1/2 cup peas, 1/2 cup potato, and then 1/4 pound of beef. Each candy represents 1 nanogram of estrogen, which is 1 billionth of a gram. (That’s a pretty small amount!)

1 egg = 993 nanograms of estrogen

1/2 cup peas:452 nanograms of estrogen

1/2 cup potatoes: 300 nanograms of estrogen

1/4 lb Beef: 1.7 nanograms of estrogendodgeMs

dodgeFeed-781x1024So what do cows eat? You might have heard something about “grass fed” vs. “grain fed.” I think it’s important to mention that all cattle start out on grass, so you could say that all cattle is grass fed. However, “grass fed” implies that that cattle are not finished on the grain you see pictured below. The way Joan explained it to me is that the diet of grain and other nutrients better supports what the cattle are bred for and helps build muscle. The cows strictly fed grass their whole lives will not develop like those that are finished on grain. Joan said that one is not necessarily better or worse, but there is a difference in taste, quality, and price. If you want to eat beef that has only been fed grass it’s whole life, you can expect to pay more for it. The Ruskamps finish their cattle on a diet that consists of grain and other nutrients, and their diet is carefully monitored each day.dodgeeaters

As far as antibiotic use, Joan says that they only use antibiotics when they need to treat a sick animal. The inhumane thing would be to not give the animal medicine to improve. It was also interesting to learn how treatments have changed over the years. They can give one treatment that can last 10 days, compared to many years ago farmers were giving higher doses for longer periods of time. Also, antibiotics are only administered in the neck region and not other areas of the body. Fascinating!

Read the rest of Amber’s blog here. Now, enjoy this recipe!meatballs

Chipotle Meatballs and Farm Tour

2 pounds lean ground beef (I recommend 93-95% lean)
2 eggs
1 cup water
1 package chicken stovetop stuffing
1 12 oz jar grape jelly
1 12 oz jar chile or chipotle sauce

Mix together beef, eggs, water, and stuffing mix. Portion meatballs into 1 or 2 oz portions. 2 oz portions will yield at least 2 dozen. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

While meatballs are baking, prepare the sauce, Over medium heat, mix together grape jelly and chipotle sauce. Bring sauce to a boil and then remove from heat.

Once meatballs are fully cooked, you can poor the sauce on top of the meatballs and then cook again for another 5 minutes. Or you can place meatballs in a crockpot, add the sauce, and cook on low heat until ready to serve.meatballs3

Speak Up! Why do hog farmers use gestation crates?

Speak Up is a series of blogs where CommonGround volunteers from all over the U.S. speak up to answer questions from consumers. This post is about South Dakota CommonGround volunteer and family hog farmer, Peggy Greenway. 

PeggyGreenway-188x160According to a Huffington Post article, “Major pork producers Smithfield and Hormel have pledged to end the use of gestation stalls by 2017, and major retailers like Burger King, Safeway, Wendy’s and Denny’s have all promised to work with their suppliers to do the same.”

South Dakota CommonGround volunteer and family hog farmer Peggy Greenway and her husband, along with 14 other area farmers, are co-owners of a 3,400-head sow (or female pig) farm. That sow farm provides weaned pigs to the Greenways to raise them to market weight in hog barns on their farm. At the sow farm, expectant mother pigs are housed in individual maternity pens or gestation creates.

According to Greenway, the purpose of individual maternity pens is misunderstood. She says these pens are used by farmers to provide for the safety of the sows.

“Animal care is first and foremost in the decision to use maternity pens,” she says. “We are trying to keep the pigs safe from one another. Most people do not know that, by nature, pregnant sows get mean and will fight each other. The pens are used to prevent sows from these fights, which often cause injuries and sometimes even death.

“A free-choice stall is another option. This is where sows in a group pen can open up an individual crate attached to the group pen and go into it to be away from the other pigs. Trials have shown that given the choice, sows choose to be in those individual crates the majority of the time when housed in a free-choice stall system. They prefer the comfort and security of not having to fight with other sows to get feed,” said Greenway.

With the corporate push toward the use of group pens, Greenway explains the issue from the farmer’s point of view.

First, Greenway says that the use of group pens will increase the number of workers needed on the farm and require farmers to build larger buildings, ultimately creating higher pork prices for consumers.

“It takes one-third more space to convert existing sow housing from gestation crates to group pens. Farmers have to look at the cost of making those conversions. Either we build the extra space or we drop back on the number of pigs we house.”

Greenway says a large part of a farmer’s decision to make housing conversions on their farm depends on each farmer’s agricultural lender. According to information supplied by AgStar, the nation’s leading lender of farm equipment and operating loans to hog producers, converting an existing barn from individual maternity pens to group housing does not increase the value of the building, but instead will increase farmer’s debt load and lower production. After conversion to group pens, the barn will hold one third less sows. Greenway says it is unclear who will foot the bill for those conversions. She thinks some producers will just decide to exit the business.

Information based on an AgStar presentation:
Converting from Gestation stalls to Gestation pens:

  • Cost looks to be $200-$300 a space to redo
  • 2500 sow unit – value $900 a space = $2.25MM
  • Current debt is $500 a space – to redo you want to borrow that cots so debt per space would go to $700-$800 a space
  • Value will be unchanged so your collateral value has dropped
  • It is still a 2500 sow unit
  • How will we pay for these conversions?

Greenway says that farmers who are planning to build new structures to house hogs will likely look at incorporating a system of group pens in order to meet the demand from end users, but she says many things go into making the final decision.

“The other cost farmers may have to consider is labor. It takes more people to make sure that the sows are not fighting in group pen systems,” Greenway explains. “If a couple of sows are fighting, animal care givers have to remove them from the pen so they don’t get injured.”

Second, about 85 percent of U.S. hog farmers keep their sows in gestation crates. See the results of this farmer survey.

“We know we are doing the right thing,” Greenway says. “Our veterinarians recommend we use maternity pens because it is the system that works best for both the animals and for the people working to care for them.”

The Pipestone Veterinary Clinic’s veterinarians provide animal care and manage the sow farm, which the Greenways co-own with their farmer friends. Pipestone Vet Clinic also manages several other sow farms in South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Greenway family plans to continue to monitor meat industry and retailer demand for pork raised without gestation crates, while at the same time making sure they don’t compromise the health and safety of their pigs or the employees at the sow farm.

Greenway says she doesn’t know what the future will look like for hog farmers.

“If we want farmers to take good care of their pigs and provide healthy, high quality, lower-cost pork chops and bacon for consumers, we should all stay informed on this issue,” she says. “Most importantly, I urge people to seek the opinions of farmers and veterinarians if they have questions about the way sows are housed on farms.”

This is Steve with our granddaughter, Ella, fishing in our pond 
near our house and feedlot.  She is the next generation
we are striving to provide healthy and abundant food for.

One size fits all

Joan new shot 1Have you ever purchased an item that was sold as “one size fits all”?  There are some items, like a rain poncho, that worked for me to buy that way.  That wasn’t the case when I went to buy a pair of rubber gloves.   I found it very difficult to stuff my hands into a glove that was made for much smaller hands than mine.  Has this ever happened to you?  

joan pulling a glove onImagine shopping for clothes if your choices were limited to the one size fits all label.  Would we be limited to buying stretch pants and pull-over tops?  The one time in my life that I actually liked elastic pants was when I was pregnant.   Even the labels small, medium and large can be frustrating if you don’t know how much they will shrink.  Fortunately, we have clothing made for all shapes and sizes including specialty stores for those needing even more choices.

What about food choices?  Besides a plethora of diets to choose from we also have plenty of choices when it comes to how the food was raised.   When I was a child, my mom didn’t have the labels of organic, grass-fed, hormone free, etc. to look at.   Mom often bought the items that were on sale that week to feed our family of eight.  Now when a mom goes to the store, there are labels and whole grocery aisles of specialty foods that can be quite confusing.  Learning what labels mean and understanding more about production practices can help. You can learn more about labels here.

Steve and I enjoying one of our favorite meals on our deck - steak with veggies and hash browns.
Steve and I enjoying one of our favorite meals on our deck – steak with veggies and hash browns.

joan_gardenWhen Steve and I were raising our children we could choose to eat food from our farm and from the grocery store.  I took pride in having a big garden with items to freeze or can for winter meals. Perhaps many of you also enjoy gardening and eating the fruits, or veggies in my case, of your labor. We sometimes butcher a steer from our farm but also buy meat at the grocery store.  I never doubted the safety or quality of the food from the grocery store or from our farm.   How the food was raised was not a concern of mine and our children were healthy and active with doctor visits due mostly from sports injuries.   

In our culture today we have many people concerned about how food is raised.   Part of that is due to the change in the size of farms as well as fewer people doing the farming.  Farms have changed over the centuries to meet the needs of the people needing to be fed.  The food choices we have today are very important so that those with food sensitivities can find what they need as well as the family on a tight budget.Joan_four tractors oats

Our farm practices are designed to feed more people using less resources.  We utilize the science and research done by our universities and yes, companies that sell us seed, weed control and veterinary medicine. We utilize a hormone implant in cattle, antibiotics for disease and seed corn that can defend itself against a pest through DNA procedures.  It is very important to us to use methods that will leave us a better farm tomorrow. Putting research into practice is akin to saying the proof is in the pudding.   Continually finding better ways to improve our soil, provide better care for the cattle and produce a healthy food choice is what we work for.   Joan_history of auto and biotech

I encourage people on all sides of the debate about food production to first accept the need for a variety of farming methods and second to spend time getting to know farmers by asking us how we do what we do.  It is through shared friendly discussions that we all benefit from a continued food supply to meet the needs of a many sizes needed to fit all society.

This is Steve with our granddaughter, Ella, fishing in our pond  near our house and feedlot.  She is the next generation we are striving to provide healthy and abundant food for.
This is Steve with our granddaughter, Ella, fishing in our pond near our house and feedlot. She is the next generation we are striving to provide healthy and abundant food for.


We're a group of Nebraska farm women on a mission to help you learn more about your food and where it comes from.