What's in a name?


What exactly is a vegetarian fed chicken egg? The thought occurred to me while I was making breakfast last weekend. We have our own laying hens, and our egg cartons are usually given to us by friends and neighbors. I rarely pay attention to what kind of carton I have, but this one caught my attention.

As a guy who makes somewhere north of 350 tons of chicken feed for other farms each year, I feel confident in saying that nearly all commercial chicken feeds are technically vegetarian! (corn/soybean meal/minerals/calcium) Some specialty feeds could have some fish meals, blood meals or bone meals included in the mix, but the market is most definitely not overrun with non-vegetarian poultry feeds.

It is perhaps more than a little ironic that chickens are not actually vegetarians at all. Chickens allowed to forage for themselves will find all sorts of bugs, worms and other small critters to supplement their diets. Exclusively vegetarian fed chickens more likely mean the chickens never see the outdoors their whole life. If anything, an egg carton should proclaim 'Non-Vegetarian Fed' to indicate the chicken has time outside and finds bugs and worms!

So, why the egg carton billboard?

The answer is because it is sounds like something that a consumer should want, and it is also technically true. It's easy marketing that requires no action on their part. This led me to think about how our farm promotes our products and what we are actually saying when we market our practices verses what we think we are saying. One thing we typically advertise is non-GMO feed, but what is that and how is it different from any other feed?

What are GM crops?

Nearly all crops have been modified over the centuries by mankind. Corn has evolved from a grass like plant with 5-7 kernels per plant that were very hard and dry to the corn we know today that has over 800 kernels per plant and usage specific varieties such as field corn, sweet corn, decorative corn and even broom corn. This was accomplished by repeatedly selecting the seeds of the best plants to replant. (best tasting, easiest to grind, largest kernels, most colorful, most kernels etc.) Over time, farmers also learned to select for other traits related to growing the crops when saving their seeds. Some of these include drought tolerance, stalk strength and natural resistance to diseases. If seeds are saved from the best corn during a drought year, over time the overall drought resistance will improve.

Seed laboratories take a similar approach by attempting to create tolerances to diseases and herbicides in a lab setting. The big difference between selective breeding or natural selection and GM plants is that the particular DNA strand for the desired trait(s) are purposefully added to the seed.

The DNA is added to the seed by bombarding it with particles, usually in a fine metal dust in a process similar to inoculation, or by using a bacterium that will transfer the desired DNA. After that process, the resulting plants have their genome analyzed to see if they have the desired trait. Any that do not have the trait, or do not have the trait in the correct spot in the genome are destroyed. Once a viable plant exists, it is reproduced in more conventional ways to create commercially available seed. The final product is usually a seed that is resistant to particular herbicides, diseases or both. Roundup is the most widely known, but definitely not the only herbicide that seed can be purchased with resistance to. GMO's have revolutionized agriculture and have cemented their place as a tool for crop producers to use.

So, why do we use non-GMO feeds?

We spray before we plant to provide weed control long enough to let the corn get established. At that point, the corn provides enough shade to prevent too many weed issues for the remainder of the season. While it is an approved practice to spray Round-Up, insecticides and fungicides on growing corn, that is not something we do.

Since we aren't going to use the technology to spray Round-Up directly on our growing crops, there's no need to pay extra for it. GMO seed corn can cost $150 more per bag than conventional seed corn!

In the interest of full disclosure, we do raise GMO soybeans as part of our crop rotation, which does not go into our feeds. It is an important tool to get hard to handle weeds under control in our fields in years when corn will not be grown there.

Another factor in our decision to grow non-GMO corn is that we are one of the few options for non-GMO feeds in the area for our partner farms. It would be impractical to grow both GMO and non-GMO corn on the same farm with the same equipment and keep everything separate. Corn that is sold as non-GMO can be tested for contamination and rejected if any is found. This contamination can come from planting and harvesting equipment or even by cross pollination while growing! It just makes more sense for us to grow exclusively non-GMO corn.

Lastly, nature is resilient and can adapt to nearly anything, including herbicides. There is a growing problem in agriculture of weed resistance. This happens when nature mimics the GM process, and the herbicide doesn't quite kill all of the weeds. The few survivors produce seeds, and the offspring are more likely to also not be killed by that particular herbicide. Over time, herbicide effectiveness is compromised.

One way to combat weed resistance is to not spray the same herbicide year after year. We rotate herbicide traits on our soybeans and use a completely unrelated herbicide group when we spray corn fields before planting. As a result, we hope to maintain weed control on our farm.

The takeaway:

The next time you shop for groceries or look in your pantry, take a look at all of the on-product advertisements and think about what they are really saying. If you shop local, ask your farmer about their own process or their take on a product advertisement you saw. If you have questions about anything we do, just ask! We're planning to publish this blog every week going forward, and we will likely reach a point where we will need more topics.

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