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The true story of your food won't fit on a label

"We aren't likely to ever have labels that really tell the story about the deep origins of our food or the conditions under which they were produced. But don't be afraid to share a little of the reality of what it has taken to get your livestock to market."

Black Angus cattle are bunched together and frosted white from falling snow. They have blue ear tags, one with "12" on it and another with "7."
The conditions in which livestock are raised on the northern Plains can be brutal, and the true story of the origins of meat won't fit on a label in the grocery store.
Shelby Chesnut / Grand Vale Creative LLC
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At a recent musical theater event put on by our high school music department, my daughter looked at me strangely and asked, "Mom, are you crying?"

While the students' performances were wonderful, they did not bring me to tears. Instead, after a couple rounds of working cattle in our beautiful North Dakota winds, my poor eyes were suffering from an accumulation of dirt that had settled in them. They were dry, and I was blinking furiously trying to produce a little moisture to flood out the grains of sand and allow me to see the stage a little more clearly.

Northern Plains winters always have a way of challenging cattle producers in new ways. We expect cold and snow, but the ways and the whens always seem to catch us off guard.

The wind has been a particular foe for us this year for a variety of reasons, not the least being the pain that it inflicts on eyes and skin. Snow that had just been pushed out of the way moves back. Panels that take heavy equipment to move get scooted around by what the meteorologists sometimes have called "breezy" conditions. We've even had light bulbs blown out of their sockets. It wears us down physically and mentally.

But that's not something that will be reflected on the packaging of the beef that comes from our farm.

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I am not a fan of the various labels that consumers have to contend with in the stores. In meat, that includes grassfed, organic, bird friendly, all natural, what have you. They might mean something to some consumers, but to others, they raise questions about whether other products have been raised "properly." Whether an animal husbandry method is "correct" obviously is a matter of opinion. I, for one, have happily and healthily survived my entire life on conventionally raised meat, whether that is the home-raised beef to which I've been lucky enough to have access or meat from other animals that I've purchased in stores or butcher shops.

But if I was going to pay extra for meat, these are the kinds of labels I'd want to see:

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  • Certified cold: This animal was born in subzero temperatures and would not have survived had the producer not put it into shelter in a timely fashion.
  • Producer's enemy: This animal tried on more than one occasion to physically hurt the human trying to feed, treat or stand in the same pen as it.
  • Certified fence jumper: This animal consistently found ways to escape from any and all enclosures, including corrals constructed of heavy metal posts, barns and tight six-wire fences.
  • Absolutely not grassfed: This animal was fed a total mixed ration, in part because grass isn't available in a nutritious form when the snow is 2-feet high and the summer drought limited grass quality and quantity, and in part because corn and other ingredients added to grass and hay make for efficient cattle finishing.

Every season has challenges for animal producers. But winter almost always presents the unexpected, the hard to manage, the exhausting. Most find ways to successfully deal with the conditions in whatever way they can, whether it's piling on more layers or bringing that newborn lamb into the house to warm up.
We aren't likely to ever have labels that really tell the story about the deep origins of our food or the conditions under which they were produced. But don't be afraid to share a little of the reality of what it has taken to get your livestock to market. It's not all blue skies and calm days, with cattle happily munching on grass in the pasture. The reality sometimes includes frustration and maybe even some watery eyes.

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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