Problems with Industrializing Livestock

Seems that a quiet revolution has been taking place in the raising of a type of livestock most of us never think about: bees. Many of our friends raise and keep bees, and we buy as much of our honey from them as possible. Once our orchard matures, we plan to begin keeping our own hives.

Today’s New York Times describes the unexpected consequences that have arisen from the dramatic commercialization and consolodation in the beekeeping industry.

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

Beekeepers have fought regional bee crises before, but this is the first national affliction. Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why.

Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.


Once the domain of hobbyists with a handful of backyard hives, beekeeping has become increasingly commercial and consolidated. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.

Pressure has been building on the bee industry. The costs to maintain hives, also known as colonies, are rising along with the strain on bees of being bred to pollinate rather than just make honey. And beekeepers are losing out to suburban sprawl in their quest for spots where bees can forage for nectar to stay healthy and strong during the pollination season.

“There are less beekeepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate,” Mr. Browning said. “While this sounds sweet for the bee business, with so much added loss and expense due to disease, pests and higher equipment costs, profitability is actually falling.”


It could just be that the bees are stressed out. Bees are being raised to survive a shorter offseason, to be ready to pollinate once the almond bloom begins in February. That has most likely lowered their immunity to viruses.

Mites have also damaged bee colonies, and the insecticides used to try to kill mites are harming the ability of queen bees to spawn as many worker bees. The queens are living half as long as they did just a few years ago.

Researchers are also concerned that the willingness of beekeepers to truck their colonies from coast to coast could be adding to bees’ stress, helping to spread viruses and mites and otherwise accelerating whatever is afflicting them.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the “strong immune suppression” investigators have observed “could be the AIDS of the bee industry,” making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off.

It never ceases to amaze me when industrial farm operations seem to think they can scale their operations up indefinitely, without consequence. And, from the story, it sounds like the problem isn’t just the beekeepers: it’s the massive size of the consolodated orchards, which require these large numbers of bees. I wonder how much of a collapse it will take before small, local beekeepers re-emerge with heritage bees and beekeeping techniques to pick up the pieces — and the growers scale back to a more managable size.

But Does It Work?

That’s one of the questions I’m most frequently asked about Natural Family Planning (NFP).

Now, a scientific journal has published a major study agreeing that the answer is YES.

Researchers have found that a method of natural family planning that uses two indicators to identify the fertile phase in a woman’s menstrual cycle is as effective as the contraceptive pill for avoiding unplanned pregnancies if used correctly, according to a report published online in Europe’s leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction today (21 February).

The symptothermal method (STM) is a form of natural family planning (NFP) that enables couples to identify accurately the time of the woman’s fertile phase by measuring her temperature and observing cervical secretions. In the largest, prospective study of STM, the researchers found that if the couples then either abstained from sex or used a barrier method during the fertile period, the rate of unplanned pregnancies per year was 0.4% and 0.6% respectively. Out of all the 900 women who took part in the study, including those who had unprotected sex during their fertile period, 1.8 per 100 became unintentionally pregnant.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who have used NFP faithfully; in our own experience, the method is extremely reliable for identifying fertile and infertile periods of a woman’s cycle — even when the cycles themselves are irregular or disrupted. In years of using NFP, we’ve never had a “method surprise” pregnancy (the .4% referred to in the study), and we know of only one couple which has. As the full study details, the key to achieving this level of effectiveness is following all the rules and not cutting corners around the edges of the fertile times. But even for those who do not have the most serious reasons for avoiding pregnancy, and can therefore cut some of those corners, the study confirms that the pregnancy rate is still quite low.

But when people ask if NFP “works,” I think they’re wondering about more than the pregnancy rate. There are usually other, unspoken, concerns embedded in that question. Chief among these is often “What impact will it have on our marriage if we can’t have sex any time we want to?” That’s a real concern, because particularly for those with the most serious health reasons for postponing pregnancy, NFP can mean long stretches of abstaining. For most couples, the average seems to be between seven and fourteen days; at the extreme, for a small number of couples, it can stretch to 21 days or more.

Can that be difficult? Absolutely. Can it sometimes put a strain on a relationship? Sure. But I keep coming back to the rhetorical question that a childbirth instructor asked us many years ago, in a different context: “Should life’s most significant events be free from pain?” For many of us, we don’t really learn what we’re made of and how much love we have until we voluntarily embrace some kind of sacrifice for our beloved. And when that sacrifice is a shared one, that both spouses cheerfully embrace out of love for each other, and experience together, it can help elevate a husband and wife’s relationship to a much higher level.

The key is that the husband and wife have to decide, together, that the other’s fertility is not a disease to be medicated away or “barriered” away, but rather a gift and a healthy, integral, organic part of the whole person. Husband and wife must tell each other, I love and want to be united with all of you, the way you are, not just a portion of you. And I want to give you all of myself, the way I am, not just a portion of myself. And if this isn’t the right time for a pregnancy, we can wait. I can wait for you.

And then a funny thing happens. While the two of you are waiting, together, you rediscover and renew your relationship. You spend time together in other ways. You talk, every month, about why the two of you are doing this and whether this might be the time to add another person to the community of love which is your family. That’s when your relationship begins to reach a depth and level of maturity you couldn’t have imagined before. And that’s when you can’t imagine ever going back.


One consequence of having kids with food allergies is that you end up reading food labels more closely, and decyphering what various words really mean. For example, “natural flavors” usually means “MSG”.

We were surprised that it was so difficult to find tuna that doesn’t include additives. But we have found exactly one brand of tuna that has nothing but tuna, water, and salt. It’s made by Polar, and is the only brand that doesn’t make our children sick. It’s usually about twenty-nine cents more expensive than the sale price of other brands, and harder to find, so when I make tuna for myself I’ve tended to use cheaper store brands.

And then something interesting happened. When our dog, Tabasco, emerged from being trapped in the station wagon for four days, we opened a can of cheap store brand tuna for her. She sniffed at it, but wouldn’t eat. “But she loves the Polar tuna,” my wife observed.

I took a closer look at the store brand. The ingredient list included “soy,” which all of our dogs dislike intensely. Soy? In Tuna? How many phytoestrogens had I been ingesting with this tuna? And who knows what the other additives really are. I also buy major brand tuna when it goes on sale (Polar tuna never seems to go on sale), and have some of those on the shelf. I browsed a couple of different major tuna brand websites, and had a lot of trouble getting details about what’s added to them. They list nutrition information (calories, protein, etc), but not ingredients. Kind of makes you wonder why it’s so hard to find an ingredient list. Polar is very up front about what is — and what is not — in their product.

Anyway, when I opened a can of tuna for lunch on Ash Wednesday, I reached for the Polar tuna. “Daddy is eating our tuna!” the kids exclaimed. “Yeah,” I replied, “I figure that if the dog won’t eat the other tuna, maybe Daddy shouldn’t be eating it, either.”

I didn’t intend it as a joke, but the kids thought my comment was very funny. So did my wife.

I think we’ll be giving all that other tuna away to the local food bank. Twenty-nine extra cents is suddenly seeming like a bargain.

What season is this, anyway?

I’m not a big fan of Wal-Mart, and prefer to shop at small retailers closer to home. Someday, I’ll post more on that.

For now, suffice it to say that we do some shopping at Wal-Mart. I was at the big Super Wal-Mart in Champaign last night, looking for a variety of items. As I searched for distilled white vinegar, I had to traverse the grocery section. And there I discovered…an entire long aisle dedicated to EASTER CANDY. Yes, you read that right. Easter Candy.

I realize that there isn’t a lot of money to be made in Lenten Retail. I wasn’t expecting an aisle of fresh fish and tomato soup or anything. But give me a break! This was the day after Ash Wednesday. Easter is still over six weeks away. Are they really expecting us to stock up on chocolate bunnies and jelly beans and keep them on the pantry shelf for six weeks?

And it’s not just Wal-Mart. The Meijer across the street was already putting the Easter candy up on Monday of this week, before Lent had even begun. I thought it was a clearence rack with leftover Valentines candy. But closer inspection revealed full priced chocolate bunnies. Sheesh.

Maybe I just don’t understand retail, but it seems that something is seriously out of whack with the way this system is set up.

The kids are alright

The newborn goat kids had a great first night, thanks in part to the heat lamp borrowed from the chicken brooder. They were still a little damp with amniotic fluid at bedtime, but cuddled up together under the heat lamp they looked very comfortable. Wish I’d had my camera with me, because the sight was priceless.

This morning, when we came out to do the chores, both of them were fluffy and totally dry — and, best of all, both were up and nursing. I turned off the heat lamp, but left it out there in case we get another sub-zero snap before the end of winter.

Our children have named the goat kids “Button” and “Marigold”. Not sure which is which at this point, but that’ll all get sorted out. These goat kids are cross-breeds, so it’s not like we’ll be registering them. (We couldn’t find a Saanen buck in time for breeding season, and we figured Saanen-Toggenburg kids were better than no kids at all.) Some neighbors raise Toggenburgs, and sold us “Eight Bits,” the kid buck we ended up using for breeding.

On our farm, only animals that we intend to keep get names. That includes all the female sheep, the breeding rams, the female goats, the breeding buck, and the roosters. (There are too many laying hens to name, and they all look alike anyway, but each of the roosters is quite distinctive.) All the animals that will be butchered get named “Hamburger,” “Lamb Chop,” or the like. If we get a male goat kid, I’m lobbying for naming him “Chev,” short for “Chevon,” which is what the French call goat meat.

We’re Kidding!

Went out to the barn about an hour ago to do the evening chores, and discovered a newborn kid at the feet of Queen Anne’s Lace The Goat!

The other goat (Double Play) was bleating, and was clearly trying to take over some of the motherly duties (licking it off, etc.) as if it was her own.

I called my wife, and she and our children quickly came out to the barn to see. Soon after everyone assembled in the barn, the second kid dropped out.

Together, we moved Double Play out of the kidding stall and into the area where the sheep had been during/after the blizzard. She’s been protesting loudly, and has jumped the stall a couple of times already; she clearly wants in on the kidding action.

We spread a deep layer of fresh straw into the kidding stall, and helped the first kid begin nursing. As it’s fairly cold out (though not nearly as bad as last week), I set up one of the 250 watt infrared heat lamps we use for brooding chicks and parked both kids under it.

Right now, we’ve decided to clear everyone out of the barn so Queen Anne’s Lace The Goat can finish licking off the kids and get them nursing. At least with the sheep, we’ve found that leaving a new animal family alone is the best thing we can do. God has given these mother animals very powerful instincts, and the less we interfere in the process the better. I’ll check back in a little bit, just to make sure all is progressing and they’re not shivering too much.

The best news is that both kids appear to be females. Given what a wonderful dairy animal QAL has been, we’re hoping that at least one of these two will grow up to be an excellent milk producer.