farm family in pasture

What is “Sustainable Farming?”

Recently, a group of dietetic interns from Northern Illinois University were given the opportunity to tour Steve Ward’s pig farm and Alan Adams’ cattle farm to see the first step in the food production process for themselves. They learned about the science behind livestock farming and asked their own questions about how a farmer’s choices affect food safety. Here is what they learned:

To the consumer, sustainable farming is responsible farming. To major businesses, sustainable farming is successful farming. To the farmer, it is both. Illinois beef and pork are produced using environmentally-friendly practices and ethical conservation efforts. The farmers we visited in DeKalb County use efficient practices for pork and beef production while conserving as many resources as possible.

At its core, sustainable agriculture is about using food for its highest purpose and moving nutrients through the food system – from the soil, to animals, to people, and then back to the land to grow more food.
While animal protein production has historically been demonized as being non-sustainable, we had the opportunity to see firsthand how these industries have become leaders in the sustainability movement. From the barns themselves, to the practices used out in the fields, farmers have fine-tuned their processes to create greener environments. Farmers are proud of their beautiful land and cherish its value. Keeping the air clean and the natural environment healthy is vital to their own personal health, and the well-being of their families, neighbors, and communities. We were given the opportunity to learn about the strategies used to reduce the environmental impact of livestock agriculture while on our field trip.
To start, farms have engineered their animal housing to allow for the recycling of materials. The manure from the animals goes through slatted floors and is collected in a pit below. From there, it is contained safely until the farmers empty the manure and inject the manure into the soil to be used as a natural fertilizer for their crops (crops that, in turn, become feed for the animals). This is an important process, as manure is often the only source of plant nutrients and, unlike chemical fertilizers, provides the organic matter necessary for maintaining the nutritious soil structure. It’s true that farms have a distinct smell, but many people would be surprised to discover how mild it is.
In addition to recycling nutrients, farmers have also become experts in recycling materials. In their feedlot operations, swine and cattle are fed scientifically balanced, grain-based diets. Food companies, retailers and restaurants can partner with farmers in order to recycle food scraps that are inedible to humans, thereby avoiding landfills or incineration. For example, the by-product of ethanol distilleries can be recycled in cattle feed, where it is used as a nutritious (and likely tasty) ingredient in their diets. Local vegetable processing plant by-products are also common additions to a cattle’s feed. While many believe 100% grass-fed beef is the only environmentally friendly beef, the conventionally raised beef cattle are still largely grass-fed. On our field trip to the cattle farm, we were told the cattle are “grass-fed, grain finished” which means they spend the majority of their lives grazing in fields of grass, but switch to grains at the end-of-production stage. The “grain finished” stage is highly important for the consumer-desired marbling seen in high quality beef.
While no single thing can guarantee success on a farm, efficiency goes a long way. Having the opportunity to see the Wardand Adams Family Farms first-hand through Illinois Farm Families, opened our eyes and reassured us that these farmers are doing everything they can to better not only their animals, but their land as well. In this case, responsible and successful go hand-in-hand. It was nice to learn that farms in our area and across the country are working to reduce their environmental impact and keep the air, water, and land clean and healthy.

Authored by Rachel McBride, Sarah Dreifke and Jessie Brunner.