Food Dialogues Blog

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The Millennial Beef Farmer

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What does the future of farming look like to a millennial farmer? While the average age of a farmer is 58-years-old, what would entice a millennial to become a farmer?

That’s the question I asked Mary Moenning, a Minnesota millennial, while touring a beef farm in rural Minnesota. While sitting on straw bales in a hay wagon pulled by a pick-up truck, it occurred to me I was a bit out of place as a dietitian living in a small city. The wagons were filled with beef farmers and their families looking to grow their farming operation, by adding to their herd of cattle. While I quickly realized not many get the opportunity to ride on wagons into the pastures of beef cattle or the chance to hear from a farmer, I couldn’t help but jump at the chance to spend an evening in the pasture.

I spoke with Mary, a sophomore in college at Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois, during this beef farm tour right out in the pasture of rural Minnesota. Impressively, she’s got some big dreams. In fall of 2017, she will transfer to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, to double major in Animal Science and Agricultural Communications.

Mary, what motivates you to become a farmer?
“I have grown up on a farm and I really can’t see myself doing anything else than this. I love raising cattle. They are a beautiful animal and I take great pride in care for them. One thing that motivates me to farm is the challenging task of feeding nine billion people by 2050. To the average millennial, this might not be a thought as we live in a country of abundance. Our grocery store shelves are stocked with a variety of foods, and our restaurant choices are just as abundant. As a young farmer though, I am fully aware of the global needs we have for producing food with fewer resources. It’s a daunting challenge, but one that I am excited to be a part of to bring about solutions to our food issues.”

What kind of farming is your family currently involved in?
“My father farms in partnership with his two brothers. They raise corn, soybeans, pigs and cattle. Much of the grain we grow on the rich, fertile soils we have here in southern Minnesota are fed to our livestock.  The cow herd I have is independent of the family business. My brother, sister and I have grown our cow herd by working part-time jobs to cover expenses. It has been very rewarding. We help on the family farm too, doing field work as needed.”

I think it’s important to note here that Mary is unique but not alone. Many teens her age share her same passion and motivation. In fact, she’s been very successful in the. National FFA Organization, ffa.org/home  a youth organization founded in agriculture and focused on personal development and career success. And Mary recognizes her own uniqueness by sharing the following sentiment:” In high school, most girls my age were looking for prom dresses and looking at fashion magazines, I was instead looking at cattle in sale catalogues to build my herd of cattle.”

Mary, can you share how FFA has been beneficial in this process for you? 
“FFA has helped me find my life’s purpose. Before joining FFA, I wanted no part in the agriculture industry. Crazy, right? Soon after joining though, I realized all the amazing opportunities I had at my fingertips. FFA helped me build my cattle business, as I learned to organize, manage and develop my cow herd. I’ve even earned a national award this past October, the American FFA Degree. This award is given to less than one percent of FFA members who have demonstrated the highest level of commitment to FFA and made significant accomplishments in their supervised agricultural experiences. I’ve also had the opportunity to expand my leadership skills and public speaking skills as I’ve competed in general livestock judging events and serve in officer positions.”

As we scouted the pastures and listened to the owner of the cattle share about the herd’s health and feeding practices, as well as the average weight of gain, Mary was solely focused on what was in front of her, intent to pick out the best cattle for her herd.

Mary, can you explain what you look for when you are picking out cattle to grow your herd?
“When purchasing cattle to build a herd, it all starts with a good foundation—literally. It is very important for cattle to be structurally sound, so they can stay in the herd for a long time to produce more cattle and build a profit. I study feet and legs, as well as body type, and use data to drive my purchasing decisions. I’m looking for cattle that will be solid additions to the herd.”

Farmers asked questions about medications and vaccinations, and I quickly realized how important it is to take care of the herd. Animal nutritionists are involved from start to finish on the farm, working closely with each beef farmer to keep their cattle the healthiest they can by giving them every nutrient they need to grow, ensuring a well-balanced diet in order to stay healthy.

Not unlike registered dietitian nutritionists for people.

Mary, can you explain whether you use antibiotics in your cattle farm business and why or why not? And should we be concerned about the safety of our beef when we purchase it for our families?
“I can understand why it may be concerning to hear about antibiotic use in beef herds. Here’s what I want everyone to know: As a beef producer, my first goal is to have a healthy herd of cattle. I only use antibiotics when they are needed, based on the recommendation from my veterinarian. I want my cattle to be healthy, but at times they can get sick, and that is where the antibiotic comes into play. But I don’t quickly try to get an antibiotic, instead I focus on prevention. My first line of defense is taking good care of our herd with the right feed, the right nutrients, and the right environment to keep them healthy. I’m better able to sustain my herd, as well as my business when I manage my herd’s health well. It’s important to note though, when I give an antibiotic, I must follow safety protocols to ensure the antibiotic is safely out of the cow’s system. This is called a withdrawal period, or length oftime after the last dose of medication that ensures the antibiotic is no longer in the cow’s body. The length of time this occurs varies based on the antibiotic or medication used. But we are very careful to follow these directions. Years of research assures us that once we know the medication has cleared their system and is no longer present, the animal is safe to enter the food supply. Those safeguards are in place to keep our families safe.”

What’s your vision of the future of farming?
“I believe the future of farming will continue require all types of farms and all types of farmers. There is such diversity in the United States from a land and natural resource standpoint. Beef cattle are raised in all 50 states, but the way cattle are raised will differ depending on the land, climate and resources. In Minnesota, I can’t graze cattle year round. Our cold winters require that they get quality hay and grain to keep them fueled, healthy and thriving. I also believe technology and innovation will create exciting developments for those of us that farm as well as those who benefit from the foods we produce. My grandfather rode a horse to school when he was a boy; today I see my father routinely using his tablet to monitor weather, markets and other information. I can only imagine what additional advancements I will experience in my lifetime.”

What’s the number one thing you think we should know about beef?
“While farms and ranches may differ, beef producers take pride in producing nutritious, wholesome beef. Their dedication is not something you can fully appreciate online. It is something you should experience!”

Mary, what’s your favorite way to eat beef?
“As a college student and millennial, I’m health-conscious and budget-minded. I work out 3-4 times a week, drink plenty of water, eat my fruits and vegetables–and also want high protein. Beef is perfect for that—plus it is loaded with zinc and iron, essential nutrients for young women like me.

Some of my favorite beef recipes include chili and tacos. My mom taught me how to purchase 80% lean ground beef, rinse the meat after it is cooked to reduce the fat, so I do this quite often for my favorite recipes to save money.”

I’m thankful Mary was so willing to share her beef story, her dedication as a young person to the future of our food is quite inspiring. As Mary’s mom noticed, while her daughter was home on college break, Mary “just wants to be with her cows.” I think that speaks volumes to her passion for agriculture.

What inspired you here? Share your view in the comments.
To read more from Jen, visit jenhaugen.com.

Jen Haugen is part of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own. Funded by one or more checkoff programs.