Beef farming: tough choices

Lynn Utesch walks toward his horses on a windy afternoon, Friday, April 18.

Lynn Utesch walks toward his horses on a windy afternoon, Friday, April 18.

When Lynn Utesch strides out onto his farmland, his cows flock to him.

And then they follow him around, almost like dogs. 

For the past 25 years, Kewaunee, Wis. resident Utesch has raised grass-fed beef — “beyond-organic beef” as he puts it. His farm is in the minority in Kewaunee County where concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, reign supreme.

With 15 CAFOs housing 1,000 or more cows each, Kewaunee County has the second highest number in the state and is facing the environmental consequences of agriculture on a grand scale. 

That has Utesch concerned. 

“From a farming perspective, our current model doesn’t farm for the future generations,” said Utesch. “We’re actually poisoning ourselves with our practices.”

Utesch and his wife Nancy started raising cattle when they lived on Washington

The Utesch's cows graze out on a pasture. Spring brings the muddy season, creating a small stream between the cow's field and the rest of the farm.

The Utesch’s cows graze out on a pasture. Spring brings the muddy season, creating a small stream between the cow’s field and the rest of the farm.

Island, an island at the tip of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula with a population just shy of 700 people.

“When you have limited land, limited resources, you become very aware of your environment,” Utesch said. 

Instead of following the conventional model of beef farming which includes feed lots and growth-enhancing technology, the Uteschs allow their cows to move from pasture to pasture in a rotational grazing system. 

“Rotational grazing is probably the most environmentally friendly because it replicates buffalo herds,” Utesch said. By keeping his cattle moving, Lynn Utesch allows the grass to rebuild and deepen its roots as well as give the cows the nutrition they need. 

“We have the biological life that comes with it,” said Utesch, who is particularly proud of the dung beetles and earth worms that have made a home of his soil and cow pies. 

The Uteschs' great pyerenees are more than happy to run up and great strangers.

The Uteschs’ great pyrenees are more than happy to run up and greet strangers.

Life on the Utesch’s farm runs on an invisible ecological clock. The chickens, turkeys and ducks that pepper the fields are both protected and kept in check by several cats, two great pyrenees and a border collie. The Utesch’s 25 mother cows and 17 calves are free to use the always-open barn but rarely do. They prefer to stick to the sloping hills. The evidence shows; the fields are littered with cow pies. Instead of the hallmark manure smell, however, the pies decompose quickly, barely giving off a scent and acting as a natural fertilizer.  

But the farm lacks the efficiency of conventionally produced beef. Americans need their beef and a lot of it. 

Grass-fed cows take longer than conventionally or naturally raised beef to reach the required weight for slaughter. That weight only keeps going up. So conventional beef farmers have worked to streamline the whole process so they can get as much meat out of the cow while using the least amount of resources. They can also manage far greater numbers of cows. 

“As the global population increases it’s ever more essential to have more (rather than less) efficient systems,” Montana State University – Bozeman Animal Science Professor Jude Capper said in an email. 

Capper’s research has shown that while there is room for improvement in all types of beef farming, conventional beef farming has outstripped others over the last 30 years in reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of beef. 

Between the amount of land it takes to raise grass-fed cows as well as the methane the cows produce over their lifetime, Capper said that the model of farming could be a waste of resources in a world strapped for land, fuels and water. She stressed the importance of doing more with less. Grassland pasture accounted for more than 613 million acres across the U.S. in 2007, according to the USDA.

Sheep graze beneath the farm's solar panels. They are very skittish, running away as anyone approaches.

Sheep graze beneath the farm’s solar panels. They are very skittish, running away as soon as anyone approaches.

Utesch said that while there may be some added greenhouse gas emissions from his cows, the CAFOs’ practice of storing manure and using liquid manure is the real problem. Gordon Stevenson agrees. A 26-year veteran of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Stevenson used to head up runoff management. 

“It’s cheaper to pump liquid than it is to push and lift solids,” said Stevenson. “Fifty years ago, most dairy operations only had solid manure. Right now, they’re using liquid manure. Literally, we have oceans of it.” 

Lake Michigan’s Green Bay now has its own dead zone like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. As Stevenson explained, the liquid manure gets into ground water and streams. The manure is full of nitrates and phosphorous which cause excessive plant growth, or eutrophication, and chokes out other life in that underwater area. 

“The landscape is starting to bleed from too much excess,” said Stevenson. 

Stevenson, who knows the Uteschs, said that grass-fed farming is best because it accounts for the  carrying capacity of the land, and that helps minimize nutrient-overloaded runoff. 

“Those farmers pay very close attention to what’s going on their land,” said Stevenson. “An operation like that is very ecologically compatible.” 

Capper said that runoff can occur from any beef system. “That’s simply a function of size, not an indication that the management system is inherently better or worse,” she said. 

When it comes to the impact of beef farming systems on the environment, it’s a bit of a wash. Conventional beef farming has the upper hand on the smooth production model. But the Uteschs’ environmental stewardship has enriched both their land and their lives. 

So the choice between beef systems comes down to other factors. Stevenson said that consumers need to ask themselves:

Lynn Utesch shows off his compost. The pile of scarps smells no more offensive than everyday dirt.

Lynn Utesch shows off his compost. The pile of scraps smells no more offensive than everyday dirt.

does it matter how the product was produced?

For the Uteschs, though, their cows are their family. 

“These cows are not just a commodity,” said Utesch. “They’re not to be mistreated. It’s just not fair to them.” 


Let’s talk about food waste

On its surface, food waste doesn’t seem like a big issue. We throw out moldy leftovers and burnt toast like it’s no big deal. But all that trash has a big impact on our environment. How big? Find out by watching this video.

Still want more? Check out these sources:

EPA food recovery information

NPR article about wasted calories

NRDC research summary

Interactive Element

If I manage to find someone to profile, I would like to do a fusion table that shows the median income per household in Chicago community areas and overlay that with where Chicago factories are located. Factories tend to have more pollution issues than residential areas. With the income and factories together, it would possibly show how the two are linked (even though correlation does not imply causation.)  I’ve looked into this a bit, and while I think it would be perfect for the story, I may have trouble finding the data. So I’ll just keep my finger crossed that this all pulls through (and by fingers crossed I mean frantic phone calls and online searches).
Census data , community areas and the environmental complaints against certain buildings might be useful for this map:


My Dreamcast

TV news is dying now, and it will be dead in the near future. At least, TV news as we know it.

To attract a younger, educated audience my newscast won’t be on TV.  Every day, a videocast will be offered for viewers to download and carry with them on their phone or tablet like podcasts. They’ll be free to retweet or share this content. When graphics appear on screen, viewers will be able to interact with them (this is the future after all.)

It will do away with flashing banners and scrolling headlines. Instead, it’ll incorporate a clean design that is less clunky. It will use plenty of  graphics and charts that add to stories rather than become them. Remote standups will only be used when they are relevant and current. Rather than have someone visit a courthouse hours after an event took place, a visual summary of the events could be used. Or there could be an interview with an expert on the possible implications of the case. Vox pops won’t do very much with a supreme court case.

Anchors will not be required to wear blazers, but rather they can wear comfortable, stylish clothing. While the type of news coverage will stay the same, the writing will take some cues from other types of media and move towards a more feature-like feel. The stories will focus on actual news that needs to be told visually. If a story doesn’t have good visuals, why bother telling it through a visual medium?

To cover a story in a low-income neighborhood, this newscast would only followup with a remote standup if there was still something happening there. Otherwise, an interview with a family member may be appropriate depending on the situation. Graphics showing other recent shootings in the area may be used as well or a database of recent victims. With allegations of political corruption, a viewer could be linked to relevant public records and a fitting graphic would appear on screen. As for long-term investigations, the newscast would pair a special reporter with the assignment and have them prepare a pre-recorded segment with interviews and relevant visuals. In the end, it would be available as a full report online.

Viewers would be encouraged to interact with this show via social media. However, there is no need to over saturate viewers with content. This TV newscast will stick to visual and video content online, no long written or audio portions. The show would move away from heavy-handed sound effects and visuals.

It would strive to be accurate, fair and simple. The focus would be on the story and how it is best told.

See student surveys:

Front of TV Survey

Back of TV Survey

Open City Apps Critique

Edifice MapsThis app seems to try to paint a picture of Chicago’s buildings environmental “footprints.” I’m guessing by footprint, they mean how much energy each building uses, although I’m not quite sure. The environmental footprint map works fine, but I had trouble getting the demolitions, violations and construction tabs to work for me. It was easy to use, though, and the information was easily accessible.  As far as I can tell, a user (specifically an urban or social scientist) should be able to look at these maps and get an idea of building ebb and flow in Chicago. It can show where development in occurring, where development should occur and other issues easily linked to social justice and equality.

Things that were great:

  • It’s professional looking. The maps are simple and the app layout sticks with that theme.
  • The datasets they used lend themselves as visual elements. Some data doesn’t work as a map but making these sets maps helps put the data into context.
  • It’s not just one facet of buildings in Chicago. While I’m used to thinking of their environmental impact, buildings have more significance than just how much energy they consume and rainwater they save.

Things that were not-so-great:

  • I have absolutely no idea what environmental footprint means. If I don’t know then I don’t care. All I need is a little explanation on that tab.
  • I may know what the violations for, but several of them are petty. Some include a broken window pane. Is that necessary? Why does that matter? Clean datasets people.
  • All the specific site data is vague and clearly imported directly from Chicago’s data portal.  It’s not formatted well, either. That breaks with their overall design style and makes it look less professional.
  • It’s not apparent how to use this app or who should use it. All it needs is one paragraph on the map page.


Look at Cook: The budget app is a little clearer on its purpose. It gives a comparison of what Cook County budgeted and spent from 1993 to 2012. My guess is that the app is just to inform people on how much and where Cook County spends its money. It encourages people to think critically about how the county government runs and if it’s financially responsible. A user should get a quick snapshot of all that information, especially because the app breaks it down by fund and then by department.

Things that were great:

  • It presents a lot of information in a very digestible format. The charts they used clearly show Cook County’s budgeted and spent money.
  • Again, the app is well designed. I like the colors as well as layout. It isn’t overcrowded with information, so users are not overwhelmed with Cook County budgets.
  • The numbers coupled with the charts as well as percent change from previous years puts the data in context. The breakdown helps, too. They’re dealing with billions of dollars, and it’s hard for most people to understand just how much money that is. Even a 0.5 percent change can make a big difference in dollar amount.

Things that were not-so-great:

  • The 2012 information still isn’t up there. It’s 2014. I know it takes time to get the records from the city, but come on. If the point is to inform tax payers, the creators need to keep them informed with the most recent numbers.
  • While they did a great job putting the numbers in context, I think it could be even more relatable. The budget draws from sales and property taxes among other fees; what does that look like? How do Cook County residents’ taxes color the budget? I’m curious.
  • The app poses some questions at the end. It also gives contact information for Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey. But if it is trying to facilitate a conversation, I think the site creators could offer a forum. This open data is all about being transparent, so they should toss it out to the crowd.

Pilsen factory pollution cleanup needs a push

It’s taken nearly 11 years, but the Illinois EPA has cleaned up lead contamination in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood… almost.

In Pilsen, the buildings pass easily between factory and home. Broken railroad tracks line pothole-infested roads. The remains of Chicago’s industrial past don’t dampen the neighborhood’s vibrancy. No, the factories are more subtle than that. Years of waste have led to potential soil and air pollution.

Two factory sites in particular have been the focus of community concern: Loewenthal Metals Corp. and H. Kramer. Both are nestled in a residential area, both are within a block of a school, and both had dangerous levels of lead found in their soil.

Lead in soil presents any number of risks. It’s dangerous to the health of the community members, especially children. If a child has chronic exposure to even low amounts of lead, it can stunt growth, shorten attention spans and create learning disabilities among other issues.

Lead doesn’t do the environment any favors either. While lead in small amounts is normal, high levels can wipe out important microorganisms in soil. That in turn can adversely affect the area’s ecosystem. Likewise, lead can leach into groundwater.

With all that in mind, the community members of Pilsen worked with federal and state agencies to clean their neighborhood.

Where have all the safe products gone?

Some of the greatest risks to the environment sit on the back shelf of a broom closet. Chemical-based products like all-purpose cleaners and deicers can be dangerous for both the environment and humans. So the Environmental Protection Agency  started Design for the Environment’s Safer Product Labeling Program. The hope is that consumers can make better choices about what they’re bringing into their homes.

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Several companies have partnered with the EPA to create these products. Here are the top five safer product producers . 

  1. Method Products in San Fransico. The company offers 158 products all of which are a huge help around the house. Target and Home Depot keeps Method stocked on their shelves.
  2. Bissell Homecare in Grand Rapids, Mich. To accompany their vacuums, Bissell has a huge line of
  3. Clean Control Corporation in Georgia has helped edge the state up to producing 70 safer products. Their Earth Choice line covers a whole host of household cleaning items.
  4. Earth Friendly Products in Wood Dale, Ill. comes in fourth. The company boasts using no ammonia, bleach or phosphates in their products.
  5.  LotusLand Products’ Green Planet Pets is doing its part to keep chemicals out of the home and out of groundwater. Based in Texas, LotusLand doesn’t limit itself to only pet products. They’ve also branched out across the cleaning product arena.