Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Busy Month

My schedule has been very full lately, and it looks like I’ll miss this posting target by a week. My apologies. This will be an odds-and-ends post about some events that took place, and topics that came up, in April:
* Presentations
* A demonstration of the power of reducing cost of production in a pasture-based dairy
* Grain-feeding is not the cause, nor grass-feeding the cure, for E. coli O157:H7
* A Nutrition and Metabolism Society get together in the Pacific Northwest
* A hammered dulcimer gathering
All in one post!
On April 9th I spoke to the Douglas County Livestock Association's Spring Livestock Conference. The audience was an engaged one, and I enjoyed some wonderful interaction with several attendees. One of them was Craig Reed, a reporter for the Capital Press. He wrote an article about my presentation, which was posted on the 21st. If I could make a change, it would be in the title, “Expert sees protein as balm for obesity woes.” I’d replace “protein” with “meat” or “fat.” Despite that, I think it’s a pretty good article in a widely distributed agricultural publication. It was also a great exercise in “sharpening-up” the message.
The Power of Reducing Cost of Production
American agriculture has been thoroughly infected with the “more-and-bigger’s-better” virus that seems endemic to the rest of American culture. The focus of American agriculture has been on increasing production per head or per acre, rather than on the cost of that increase production. There’s an old joke about a rancher lamenting the fact that he was losing one dollar for every calf he sold. His solution was “I’d better sell more calves!” Humor only works when there’s truth in it, today’s high prices for cattle and sheep notwithstanding.

There are three economic levers a farmer or rancher can manipulate to influence the profitability of their farm or ranch: the amount of products they produce, the price they get for their products, and what it costs to produce those products. The cost of production may be the most powerful of these levers.
Swallow house - organic fly control
On April 12th I took part in a field trip as part of the Oregon State University Forage Production Class. We visited Jon and Julianne Bansen’s Double J Jerseys farm in Monmouth, Oregon. They are part of the Organic Valley Cooperative. It was a beautiful day, a one-day break in our otherwise cool, rainy “spring. ” The sparrows (the Bansen’s organic fly control) had finally returned the week before, a couple of weeks later than normal. The cows had only recently begun their grazing season. Jon believes that he’s proven what he was told by some New Zealand dairymen – it takes 20 years to become a good grazier. About twenty years ago, their average milk production per cow was pushing 19,000 pounds of milk. The cows were grazing pasture, but they were also receiving approximately 20 pounds of grain per head per day.
April grazing in the Willamette Valley
Jon has learned a great deal since then. His rotation management has improved and he’s made significant investments in his pasture “facilities.” He’s learned a great deal about conserving excess pasture as baleage – grass & clover silage in plastic-wrapped large round bales. Today he feeds approximately 2 pounds of grain per cow per day. His average milk production today is 12,000 pounds of milk per cow. Reduced production?!? Why, that’s un-American!! But here’s the power of the cost of production lever - His feed cost went from 50% of his milk check to 6%! He figures he’s doubled his profit! His cows have a productive life that’s 2.5 times the national average. And Jon feels he and his family (and his cows, too!) have a better quality of life.
Concrete pathways, sound fences,
water in each paddock,
pasture renovation. Essential expenses!
It is important to remember, however, that low cost of production does NOT equal low cost. Proper fences, water for his cows in every paddock, concrete walkways, and pasture renovation all cost. Cutting back on these expenses will NOT produce the results he has achieved.
On April 16th I gave my “Turning the Food Pyramid Upside Down” presentation at the Small Farm Trade Fair in Madras, Oregon. This event, its 35th year as I understand, was produced by the Small Farmer’s Journal. This journal (“A tool for self sufficiency Starting your farm and keeping it going All in unison with nature”) focuses on animal-powered agriculture. The weather wasn’t helpful, but it was still a wonderful weekend. I met a number of interesting folks and learned about a wonderful program, Tera Nova Community Farm, that incorporates organic vegetable production into the education program at a Big Picture school in Beaverton, Oregon. I was reminded that the “small farm” community is a tremendously broad one, with many different philosophies and guiding principles.

Central Oregon pasture in April
More New Conventional Wisdom

Early in April, a fellow member of the Nutrition and Metabolism Society told me about an upcoming webinar. Thanks to him, on April 19th I “attended” the Washington State University webinar “Pre-harvest E. coli O157:H7 in cattle” by Dr David Smith from the University of Nebraska.

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is an important food born pathogen. And, I’m afraid, it’s another example of the new conventional wisdom. I have frequently heard or read someone from the organic, grassfed, and/or low-carb/primal/paleo communities say that grain-feeding produces or promotes E. coli O157:H7 while grass feeding eliminates or reduces it. The science, I’m afraid does not support this claim. In fact, studies show that there is no difference in the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in live animals fed a variety of diets (Fegan, et al., 2004, Van Baale, et al., 2011)

A very small USDA study of a handful of cattle in 1998 did suggest that feeding cattle hay could reduce E. coli O157:H7 (Diego-Gonzales, et al., 1998), but that small study’s findings were never duplicated in larger research. More than a decade later, a large, accumulated body of research strongly suggests that E. coli O157:H7 appears to be a natural bacterium found in the gut of cattle regardless of production system.

“Organic” and “natural” methods don’t seem to impact bacteria in the gut either. In 2009, researchers examined the incidence of pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 in organic and naturally raised cattle and concluded, “Our study found similar prevalences of E. coli O157:H7 in the feces of organically and naturally raised beef cattle, and our prevalence estimates for cattle in these types of production systems are similar to those reported previously for conventionally raised feedlot cattle.” (Reinstein, et al., 2009)

Proper butchering, handling, and preparation practices are the best defense against E. coli O157:H7 and other food-borne illnesses. The good news is that, despite (or perhaps because of) increased vigilance and improved diagnostic technologies, the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 contamination and disease have declined dramatically.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) show that the presence of E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef products declined by 63 percent between 2000 and 2009 to approximately one third of one percent of ground beef samples tested. That means that the pathogen will only be found in approximately 1 in 300 samples (USDA).

In 2010 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that food-borne illnesses are declining. In particular, the CDC said that the U.S. had achieved its Healthy People 2010 public health goal of less than one E. coli O157:H7 illness per 100,000 people (CDC, 2010). This decline has occurred as public health tracking has expanded significantly. In 1993 few states tracked E. coli O157:H7 infections in people. Today, every state in the U.S. routinely monitors the incidence of these infections and reports to federal officials. The observation of a decline, under these conditions of increased scrutiny, is encouraging.

While an E. coli infection is a serious illness, especially for the young, elderly, or those with a compromised immune system, it causes less than a tenth of the total deaths due to Salmonella or Listeria. Less than 3% of all deaths due to food-borne pathogens in the US each year are due to E. coli O157:H7, while Salmonella and Listeria are responsible for 31 and 28 percent, respectively (Mead, et al., 1999).

But one E. coli O157:H7 illness in 100,000 people per year sounds pretty high, doesn’t it? Well let’s compare it to your one-year risk of dying* as a result of: a car accident (approximately one out of 6500); murder or falling (one in 16,500); walking across the street (one in 48,500); drowning or fire (one in 88,000) (Bailey, 2006).

* less than 1% of E. coli O157:H7 cases are fatal (Mead, et al., 1999)


Bailey, R. 2006. "Don't Be Terrorized: You're more likely to die of a car accident, drowning, fire, or murder." Accessed at, May 8, 2011.

CDC. 2010. CDC Press Release, "CDC Report Shows Success in Fighting E. coli O157:H7." April 23, 2010, Accessed at, May 8, 2011.

Diego-Gonzales, F., T. R. Callaway, M. G. Kizoulis, and J. B. Russell. 1998. "Grain Feeding and the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant Escherichia coli from Cattle." Science 11 September 1998: 281(5383)1666-1668.

Fegan, N., P. Vanderlinde, G. Higgs, and P. Desmarchelier. 2004. "The prevalence and concentration of Escherichia coli O157 in faeces of cattle from different production systems at slaughter." Journal of Applied Microbiology. 97, 362-370. Accessed at May 8, 2011.

Mead, P. S., L. S., V. Dietz, L. F. McCaig, J. S. Bresee, C. Shapiro, P. M. Griffin, and R. V. Tauxe. 1999. "Synopses: Food-Related Illness and Death in the United States." Vol. 5 No. 5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia. Accessed at, May 8, 2011.

Reinstein, S., J. T. Fox, X. Shi, M. J. Alam, D. G. Renter, and T. G. Nagaraja. 2009. "Prevalence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Organically and Naturally Raised Beef Cattle." Applied and Environmental Microbiology.75(16):5421-5423.

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Microbiological Testing Program for Escherichia coli O157:H7." Accessed at, May 8, 2011.

Van Baale, M. J., J. M. Sargeant, D. P. Gnad, B. M. DeBey, K. F. Lechtenberg, and T. G. Nagaraja. 2004. "Effect of Forage or Grain Diets with or without Monensin on Ruminal Persistence and Fecal Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Cattle." Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 70(9):5336-5342. Accessed at, May 8, 2011.

A cell biologist, an author, a psychiatrist and a forage agronomist meet for dinner …

No, that isn’t the opening line of a joke. It really happened!

Judy Barnes Baker, Dr. Ann Childers, yours truly, and Dr. Richard Feinman
On April 21st I met with Judy Barnes Baker, Dr. Ann Childers, and Dr. Feinman, founder of the Nutrition and Metabolism Society, for a get together and brainstorming session in Portland. We enjoyed a lovely dinner at Veritable Quandary.

Judy Barnes Baker, is the author of Carb Wars; Sugar is the New Fat. She has posted on our meeting at her blog Carb Wars.

Dr. Ann Childers, a fellow member of the Healthy Nation Coalition as well as the Nutrition and Metabolism Society, is a child and adult-trained psychiatric physician who focuses on nutrition in treating her patients. Anyone interested in mind-diet interactions should follow her blog.

I’d met Dr. Feinman in Seattle last year at the joint meeting of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians and Nutrition and Metabolism Society. His scientific background and his passion about confronting the conventional make him a fascinating dinner partner. He’s recently started blogging, and it’s well worth reading.

The mission statement of the Nutrition and Metabolism Society states:

"The Metabolism Society is dedicated to addressing the problems of obesity, diabetes & cardiovascular disease through public awareness and education. The Society believes specifically that the therapeutic potential of carbohydrate-restricted diets for the treatment of these diseases is under-investigated and under-utilized. The Society seeks to support research in this area....Our mission is to improve current nutritional guidelines and to see that sound scientific information is provided for the public."

You can be a part of this important work by joining the Metabolism Society for only $10.00 a year! More information about ways you can support truth in science is here:


Because music is important to our health, too
Steve Schneider, Dee Dee Tibbits, Yours Truly, Lawrence Huntley,
Mick Doherty (my teacher), Rick Fogel (made my dulcimer)

April ended and May began with the Spring Fling Rendezvous Hammered Dulcimer Gathering in Sandy, Oregon. I’ve organized and produced this event for the past twelve years. For the last eight years it has been held at Oral Hull Park, which is run by the Oral Hull Foundation for the Blind (a truly worth cause if you’re looking for a cause to support). This year’s three featured instructors, Dee Dee Tibbits, Steve Schneider, and Kendra Ward (and her husband Bob Bence) joined the “local boys” (Mick Doherty, Rick Fogel, Lawrence Huntley, and Carl Thor). These instructors provided a wonderful weekend for 42 hammered dulcimer players from eight different states. I’ve posted several pictures, if you’re interested: vol 1 and vol 2.

Now to get back on track and post on the 15th! It will be on some more items of new conventional wisdom - hormone and antibiotic use in animal agriculture.