Information & Dialogue (Hold the “Education”)

Interesting blog post by Andy Vance, who touches on both the importance of transparency in animal agriculture (our passion here at Lacuna) and our industry’s sometimes condescending attitude toward consumers (one of our pet-peeves, as we recently noted).

Mr. Vance neatly captures the challenge at hand for producers and processors: how do we most effectively open the doors of our barns and plants to share information that (some) consumers and retailers are asking for, while avoiding the presumption that we can or should “educate” (read, indoctrinate) stakeholders about our world-view?

Lacuna believes one good starting point is to develop a comprehensive, end-to-end, approach to animal handling, in which objective data both enables and validates continuous improvement.

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Pragmatic Rebalancing: “Efficiency” and the Next 50 Years

The weather has been beautiful here in Central Illinois…moderate and dry.  Our turkeys will be seven weeks old tomorrow and are doing quite well.  The last of the barn swallows departed… Their melody has been replaced by the harmonic, mechanical noise of an early corn harvest.  Fields of corn are disappearing, our country roads are busy with tractors, wagons and trucks hauling corn to the local elevator.  We have started our corn harvest on our farm as well.  

A recent post by Raoul Baxter on Meatingplace [free subscription required] was great – he discussed how chicken production has become significantly more efficient in the past 75 years.  It used to take 14-15 weeks to produce a 3.5-pound chicken (3:1 feed conversion); today it takes a little over give weeks (1.5-1.7 feed conversion).  Likewise, when my father started producing turkeys in earnest in the 1940s and ’50s, it was considered exceptional to produced a flock of 19-pound turkeys in 19 weeks (~4:1 feed conversion).  Today, a flock of turkeys could weigh near or at 50 pounds in 19 weeks (feed conversion below 2.5:1).

These incredible changes in animal production parallel those in other commodities.  Last week I rode in a new combine that was handling 100 bushels of dry corn every 133 seconds (tracked and recorded by its on-board GPS computer-monitoring system).  Seventy years ago, my father handpicked corn alone—if one person could pick 100 bushels in a day, it was a whopping day.

Yet, efficiency is not by default an innocent goal or benign master.  For meat production—unlike coal and corn and other supply chains that have become remarkably more efficient—the raw product is alive and characterized by individual traits that respond differently to stress.  The stress that impacts a corn plant may affect the bottom line, if that stress is significant enough—but it does not register in the crop’s behavior, nor with the consumer, in the same degree as stress endured by a live chicken, turkey or pig. 

The point is, major live-meat suppliers have developed a commodity production mindset: produce meat as cheaply as possible.  Which may benefit us to a point.  But in pursuit of producing the cheapest meat possible, we must take care not to implement least-cost models that compromise the animal.  For example, high corn costs or soybean meal may spur us to create reformulate feed rations.  Alternative inputs may make sense on the nutritionist’s computer model by reducing cost-per-ton by five dollars, but the impact on the animal is often less predictable.  The individual animal and flock response may be a slower growth curve, or an increase in variability of individual weights or body confirmation (feathering or gait issues). 

All meat producers and processors are walking this fine line…if not, they would not survive this low-margin business.  The critical question is, how does variability of performance relate to well being?  And what level of variability is acceptable to the consumer, processor, USDA inspector, producer and genetics company? 

Lacuna Technologies exists to answer those questions by collecting and understanding objective data on individual animals, and by creating comparison models.  We believe objective information will benefit all stakeholders, and will impact how decisions are made and executed.  We believe our system will ultimately change behavior in live production as least-cost production models are shown to approach the gray zone of acceptable individual live-animal performance.  Processors and growers and retailers are in business to profit.  But, when we push past the gray zone, individual animal performance will become increasing inconsistent.  Lacuna will be able to measure the tipping point so that both retailer and consumer can respond accordingly.

A majority of our population used to be involved in producing food; now, less than 2% of us are engaged in that.  But we all have a stake in it, and many have opinions.  It benefits the system if we can collect and share—and act upon—objective information.

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Least Common Denominator? Come On, People!

Our turkeys continue to grow rapidly.  We transferred them from the brooder house to grow-out buildings.  It’s a slow, tedious job… we have learned over the years there is no magic formula for herding and moving four-week old turkeys. Creating the least amount of stress for the bird is paramount, and little details manner.  You just read what the animal needs and adjust accordingly.  As for the farm, our barn swallows are gathering for departure.  They arrived on April 7, and will be gone before Labor Day.  I estimate we had a dozen nests across the farm; at least 60 baby barn swallows have been born and brooded.  I am already looking forward to the arrival in early April 2012.  Beautiful, elegant creatures.  The flowers on the farm are blooming to near full zenith despite the hot and dry summer we are experiencing.  You can guess sizable effort into watering and bug control… Yet it is a diversion from the departing barn swallows.

We have initiated contact with various people and companies regarding Lacuna Technologies.  In such meetings, we present what we believe is a transformative feature of the Lacuna system–our ability to measure and assess the individual performance of each bird during the loading, transportation and unloading.  We believe that feature will be transformative for producers and processors, certainly, but also for consumers: translating individual bird performance into a consumer-friendly format—imagine an animal well-being equivalent to the nutrition facts panel—would empower consumers as never before.

A not uncommon response to our presentation is: “More information about animals will confuse the customer and create more problems.”  And: “A customer who knows too much about processing and live production causes more problems than a customer who is blissfully ignorant.”

In short, I realize some of us are comfortable addressing only the “least common denominator” …perceived consumer ignorance.  I, at times, scratch my head wondering, how much does the average Joe or Jane know, or care to know?  We all have our moments.  But treating the consumer as a soft-minded, ignorant lamb is diametrically opposed to my personal and professional beliefs.

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Animal Wellbeing & Arkansas

Greetings from Central Illinois, where it continues to be warm and dry. Turkeys are four weeks old today and doing well as the dry warm weather makes for easy ventilation. The bedding is dry and the birds love dusting themselves. Later this week, we will transfer them from the brooder house to the growout buildings, where they will have considerably more room to spread their wings.

Last Thursday I attended the “Advances and Current Issues in Animal Wellbeing” symposium sponsored by Dr. Yvonne Thaxton (Professor and Director, Center for Food Animal Wellbeing) at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. It was an excellent program with a wide range of speakers and topics. Dr. Thaxton expected around 50 people, but was surprised that nearly 120 attended (including her 93-year-old father – a Uof AR graduate himself). One of the main discussion points that resonated loudly to me (and a primary foundation for the existence of Lacuna Technologies) was the underlying quest by the meat producers, processors and retailers to provide consumers with objective, understandable information about how their meat is being produced, i.e., is it accomplished ethically?

A few colleagues in the audience knew of my father, Dan Sinn.  They faintly remembered years ago when he was involved with the National Turkey Federation board, on which he served for many years as a representative for Illinois.  My father is now nearly 87 years of age, stills lives in the farm house where he was born, never left the farm… (the longest time away was for his two-week honeymoon). His health is challenged… his body has endured enormous hard work as a player in the early years of the fledgling turkey industry. (Below is a brief overview of his turkey venture that is still being written yet today.)

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What Happens in Peoria

Our baby turkeys are no longer babies. Seventeen days old today – growing rapidly, nearly full-feathered, and rambunctious. The high heat had minor consequences the first week (mostly on this producer’s comfort).  Ventilation was difficult, yet constantly walking through the birds has proven worth the time, even though I’m doing nothing more than looking at them and checking living conditions.  The birds recognize me and begin following, which enhances their growth.  Dare I say temps were in the upper fifties this morning… haven’t felt this for nearly six weeks.  Allows considerably better ventilation and moisture control of the litter.  

Responses to our recent guest column in “The National Provisioner” have been interesting.  One person asked me what sentence in the article resonates mostly loudly to me.  Without a doubt: “We can and must balance the demands of consumers concerned about animal care — some of whom are increasingly raising their voices and voting their consciences — with those of retailers, processors and producers.”

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