As a public health dietitian, one of my career and business goals is to engage with consumers on where their food comes from. I have witnessed the look on a child’s face when they realize food grows outside (mostly), or when they take their first bite of a new fruit and vegetable. I laughed, and cringed a little, when my mom told me the story of an elementary school child calling her avocado a black egg. To enlighten consumers of all ages, I am thrilled to share a few of my experiences on farms and where my food comes from. First, is a farm that I have visited many times, but have never taken the opportunity to explore its history or operations. It was a fantastic experience and I’m so excited to share it with you.
I could not have planned a better day to visit Lazy Acres Angus, my brother-in-law’s family beef farm. For late August, it was unseasonably cool with temperatures in the low 70’s. It was also the beginning of calf season and 24 calves had been born in the last four days. Lazy Acres Angus, located in my hometown of Franklin County, Virginia, sits just outside of our main “town” of Rocky Mount. Their family has operated the farm since the 1960’s and today it is home to over 300 cows. My brother-in-law, Jason Thurman, showed me around the farm and he made sure I got the full experience of a day in the life of a beef farmer, including seeing a calf that was less than an hour old.
We started out at the barn, loading the side by side ATV with everything we would need to check on the cows and feed them. We then headed to the fields, checking each one carefully. We loaded the concrete feeders with feed, checked the fences as well as the water containers. My favorite stop was in the field with all the new calves and the moms. Jason quickly identified a calf who had been born within the hour standing next to its mom. He recorded the mother’s tag number, created a tag for the calf, and then weighed the calf for their records and the angus association. He told me that a healthy calf should weigh around 65 pounds for the first calf heifers and this little guy was the perfect weight. It was amazing to see that within an hour of being born, the calf had already learned to walk and eat. Jason gave the calf a shot of MU-SE, a mixture of selenium and Vitamin E, which prevents Selenium-Tocopherol Deficiency (STD) syndrome in weanling calves and breeding beef cattle. I equate this to newborn human babies receiving a Vitamin K shot. We checked on a few other calves that had been born within the last 24 hours and then we headed to the remaining fields.
As we traveled from field to field, I noticed the use of innovative practices. They are no longer using plastic feeders, but instead they are using concrete feeders so that the cows cannot push them over, and it reduces their usage of plastic. The farm is also utilizing alternative watering systems, a 4-hole livestock waterer pictured here. It allows the cows to access fresh water which is available to them through water pipes that are fed by a well. This also keeps the water from freezing, wastes less water, and ensures the cows have clean water to drink. They utilize various technologies to maintain records and ensure proper health in their cows.
Of course, we had to talk about the consumer buzzword claims out there on the market like “no hormones” and “no antibiotics”. Although it is illegal to sell beef with antibiotics in it, it is impossible to visit a grocery store and not see a “no antibiotics” label on so many products. There are strict regulations around the use of hormones and antibiotics in animal products that farmers must adhere to or face severe consequences and fines. In 2013, the FDA put into place a policy that heavily restricts the use of antibiotics in cows, pigs, and chickens raised for meat which includes requiring a veterinarian to oversee the use of antibiotics to prevent disease in the animals. Jason isn’t the first farmer to tell me that they use antibiotics in their cows only when completely necessary due to illness, just as we would do with humans. The only use of hormones on the farm is for reproductive purposes, not for growth. Cow and calf care are of utmost importance at the farm and they practice low stress cattle handling in addition to consulting often with their veterinarian.
When I asked Jason what one of the biggest accomplishments for Lazy Acres Angus was, he told me about how they had been awarded the Clean Water Farm Award for the entire Roanoke River Basin. They received the award for their work in ensuring a buffer exists along the watershed. They worked closely with the Blue Ridge Soil & Water Conservation District to install three miles of fence, one mile of it along the water line to fence off the streams from the cows. Although the work was completed in 2016, they received the award in 2018. The award program is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in partnership with the 47 Soil and Water Conservation districts throughout the state of Virginia. Not only is this an incredible accomplishment, but it is a great example of how farmers are constantly working to protect the land and the environment.
Lazy Acres Angus is very active in the community hosting student groups as well as meetings, demonstrations, and trainings. They host a customer appreciation event every year in addition to their annual cattle auction which is typically held in the Spring. We talked a lot about how beef farming looks different on the east coast than other parts of the country and how the industry has changed over the years, including market fluctuations. Jason stated that the market is a roller coaster and it can go up and down from day to day. He noted that trade, news, and weather-related changes in feed costs can also greatly affect the market.
I left the farm at about 7 PM and Jason still had about 4-5 hours of work to do before he could call it a day. I’ve always had a great appreciation for farmers, but even more so now after seeing the amount of time, sweat, and dedication that the family has put into Lazy Acres Angus. This farm spotlight is to recognize how hard our farmers work to put food on their table and ours. It is to show that 97% of US farms are family-owned and these families take time away from their responsibilities at home to feed the world. So, go visit your local farms, learn what they do and why, and show them as much support as you can!