Meet Jane, a Kansas cattle rancher, wife, and above all else, a mom of two wonderful, hardworking children. Jane and her two kids, Jada (9th grade) and Brock (4th grade) run a cow calf operation, which means they have a steady herd of cows that roam pastures and produce calves for the family to sell at a later time.
As Jada and Brock placed well-kept leather saddles on their horses, Jane began to describe, over the clucking of laying hens and the occasional moo from a cow, what can only be described as a model of environmental efficiency in beef production.
The land her cattle graze is too uneven for planting and has a soil profile that just wouldn’t make for efficient crop land. So instead of acres of crops that might have been planted on this unstable and unyielding land, fattened cows are seen scattered across the lush grasslands of the historic Kansas Flint Hills.
The cows, which come to a whistle, graze these natural grass lands from the Spring to Fall, converting land unfit for crops into energy needed to carry their calves to term in the Spring. Care is taken not to over-graze these lands, although the lack of rain has made it difficult to do so this year, and the roaming cows break up compacted soil with their hooves and their manure adds fertilizer back into the ground.
Eventually the pastures need rest, and Jane will make the decision to move the cattle from the pastures onto previously-harvested land that formerly held wheat, alfalfa, or other crops just a few weeks prior. Instead of this remaining stubble withering to the ground, the cattle are allowed a chance to graze what the harvester has left. The cattle willingly graze these remains and eat up any left-over grain that falls during harvest before it rots,and they will continue to graze fields of winter wheat throughout the chilled winter.
In Jane’s words “No matter how much salad dressing we could put on what remained after harvest, it still wouldn’t be edible, but the cows love it. We are taking something unfit for human consumption and giving it to the cows.” She mentions that in this way, ranchers are able to get a second value out of the land, improve their efficiency, and decrease their environmental impact.
As I continue to click my camera and as the lights from my strobes flash, I notice Jane’s watchful eye look over the health of the herd, going through a mental checklist to see if every cow is healthy and happy. Everything is as it should be, and we begin talking about medication used in cattle operations like hers and a health and wellness protocol that has been informed by trusted research gained during her master’s degree and refined through a wealth of practical experience as a ranch mom.
Contrary to what many may believe, farmers and ranchers don’t immediately reach for medication.
“When we first see the need for medicine, we evaluate that need. If the animal is cut, injured, or sick, how sick are they? Is it something that time will help heal? We don’t jump to medicine immediately. We watch and observe the cattle. We give them the opportunity to naturally heal first and use antibiotics if they cannot get better on their own.”
It’s not just a business decision, because Jane also cares about the well-being of her cattle.
“It’s a humane issue. I don’t want to see them sick and suffer. [If a cow’s eye looks off], I give them a chance to see if it’s something like dust in their eyes. If they seem to need the medicine, we give it to them. We only give medicine when we have exhausted all other avenues to treatment. We don’t want a cow going blind from pink eye…
As we talk about the medications used to keep cattle healthy, I can’t help but ask “How do you know that the medicine you give your cattle when they are sick, antibiotics included, don’t end up in the meat that people eat?”
She, like many other ranchers, keeps careful records of any vaccinations or medicine given including the associated serial numbers. Jane strictly follows the USDA mandated withdrawal times to guarantee the product she is selling is completely antibiotic free. As an added bonus, Jada and Brock also keep these records in their 4-H record books.
But aside from following the regulations, she is confident in the product that her family has been raising for five generations, and that leads to the ultimate test of confidence for any mom feeding their kids.
“Everything we sell to the consumer, we have eaten a similar product first in our own home. We eat what we raise. We want to produce something that people enjoy eating. We want to produce something that is clean of antibiotics … that’s healthy. We’ve always been confident in what we produce.”
Since one of the large distinguishing marketing differences between conventional and organic beef is the use of antibiotics, I asked Jane what she believes the biggest misconceptions are about what she does on her farm.
“That if it’s organic, it’s better… I personally don’t believe that. We use a vaccination program on our cattle to keep them from getting sick. It’s trying to use everything efficiently and raise cattle humanely. If something is sick, we treat it. Just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it’s more farm-raised or safer.”
As I put my camera gear in my car and begin my drive home, I began to think…The more I have a chance to visit with family farmers across the state of Kansas, the more I wish people could do the same. If they could meet people like Jane and her family, they would realize ranchers not only care about their livestock and the land, but the consumer as well. If people could visit more family farms, they would realize the pride taken in producing an affordable and safe crop for the consumer to enjoy. And I think if people could visit these family farms, their false perceptions of “corporate” farming would fade away and be replaced by the images of Jane, Jada, and Brock, working together as a family as each does his or her part to produce a humanely-raised and sustainable product.
Scott Stebner is a Farm and Rancher photographer based in the Mid-West. Scott is available for commissioned work throughout the United States.
Click HERE to contact Scott.