by Connie Diekman, M.Ed., RD, CSSD, LD, FADA, FAND
For most people a cold, rainy day means it is a good time to stay inside. But recently, I joined a group of Registered Dietitians for a rainy day trip out to visit a cattle farm and an agricultural research center just outside of Nashville, Tenn. As a prelude to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, the International Food Information Council Foundation hosted a day of learning about cattle and crop management on Tennessee farms.
The day started with a visit to Tap Root Farm in Franklin, Tenn. Tap Root is home to blended Angus cattle and Quarter Horses, but it was the cattle that we came to see and learn about. For some Registered Dietitians, answering questions about how cattle are raised has become as commonplace as answering the question, “what is the nutritional value of a piece of beef?” Fortunately, we had many experts on our trip to field our questions about modern food production, including the team at Tap Root Farm, local veterinarian Dr. Frankie Locklear, and Tennessee Farm Bureau representatives Melissa Bryant and Mark Turner.
Our group had many questions about how the cattle were raised, what type of feed they received (we’re RDNs, so you know we had to ask about nutrition) and how veterinarians administer hormones and antibiotics.
The cattle at Tap Root Farm are free to graze on grass, but they also receive mixed grains that are designed to support their production of quality beef. The cattle are treated with great care, and a veterinarian monitors their health on a regular basis. We also found out that Tap Root is by no means an exception when it comes to caring for animal health. Modern farmers like those at Tap Root monitor the health of their animals daily and frequently enlist veterinarians to help make sure their animals are healthy and comfortable. If an animal is treated with an antibiotic, that animal is not available for beef production until the antibiotics have completely cleared the animal’s system. We learned that this “withdrawal period” is not just the protocol for Tap Root, it’s FDA-mandated.
The most interesting part of the conversation around how the cattle are raised was listening to the farmer speak with passion about the cattle. He talked about providing the cattle with the right space to move and the right feed, not only to produce good beef, but also to have happy cows. He also stressed the importance of having a good relationship with the veterinarian. This all made me think that the cows weren’t just animals to him, they were a part of the family.
The second visit of our farm trip was to the Middle Tennessee Research and Education Center. This 1,200-acre site houses beef and dairy cattle, fruit trees, soybeans and other forage crops. The center does research on systems to aid and improve farming methods.
It was on this visit that the conversation included discussion of ag biotechnology and how it can enhance crops by reducing the need for pesticides and insecticides. For many consumers, the area of biotech foods or “GMOs” is a confusing one that can be peppered with lots of misinformation. For RDs, it is important that we understand the science behind biotech foods, including why they are used and what research goes into them before they are used. Learning about them from an expert and then seeing them grow in the field provided us with a real understanding of how biotech crops can offer farmers an option when they look at planning their crop choices.
While the day was dreary and cold, the visits were exciting and offered a warm welcome to us and our many questions. Having the opportunity to see how cattle are treated, observe crops in the field, and hear from dedicated farmers who care about what they do and producing the best food for their customers made it much easier to feel comfortable answering questions about current farming methods. If everyone could visit a farm and learn from those who run it, many of the myths about modern food production would certainly dissipate.
Thanks to the IFIC Foundation for planning the day!
Connie Diekman is the Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.