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FSMA rules challenging for farmers

USDA washing of squash FSMA produce rules

Equal treatment of domestic and foreign growers, the need for extensive education, training and technical assistance and agricultural water provisions are among farmers’ top concerns as they implement the produce rules of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), according to Bob Ehart, senior policy and science advisor with the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). Ehart spoke to farmers and ranchers from across the country during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2017 Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show.

Signed into law in January 2011, FSMA focuses on the prevention of foodborne illness, including risk-based “preventative controls,” and provides new enforcement authorities such as the ability to ensure the safety of imported foods and to regulate produce. The law directs the creation of an integrated food safety system in partnership with state and local authorities.

As straightforward as Congress’ objectives may have been in crafting FSMA, the rules are exceptionally complex.

“There’s a whole lot of detail in these rules. It’s going to be very difficult to figure out where you fit and what’s expected of you,” Ehart cautioned. “There is a logic associated with it; it’s just not a farmer’s logic.”

Detailing NASDA’s concerns about the water-related FSMA produce rules, Ehart noted how little Food & Drug Administration regulators know about how farmers actually use water.

“Over this past year, FDA asked us to give them examples of the way farmers use water, and in almost every instance, they said, ‘We didn’t know about that.' The complexity of how water gets to a crop is kind of blowing their minds, but they should have known all of this before they wrote the rule,” he said.

Under the rules pertaining to water use and produce, FDA assumes that water is contaminated rather than giving “clean” water a pass. The agency also “requires a frequency of testing we think could be less restrictive for some waters and says farmers can use only one method to test water — a method most environmental labs don’t use,” Ehart continued.

Regarding how FDA is going to make sure foreign produce suppliers are held to the same standards as domestic growers, Ehart asked how the agency can guarantee that the water used to grow fruit imported from Vietnam is as clean as the water used in domestically grown fruit.

With the FSMA produce rules in many cases raising more questions than providing answers, NASDA is in the early stages of piloting an On-Farm Readiness Review (OFRR). Funded by FDA through cooperative grants, the OFRR will be a voluntary program under which farmers can have a third-party inspector visit their farm to determine how they would fare during a FSMA-related inspection.

The group is also developing an OFRR toolkit that will include a detailed checklist that works in the way a farmer would — from pre-harvest to post-harvest — and focuses on water, worker training, sanitation and wildlife.

“It’s also going to be an opportunity for us to learn from people who are way ahead of the curve. From them we can get better ideas about what should be part of our educational program,” Ehart explained.

Ag groups speak out against land grab

USDA National monument designation of Chimney Rock in San Juan National Forest in SW Colorado
Chimney Rock in the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado was designated a national monument on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012.

A coalition of 19 groups with vital interests in protecting the multiple uses of the nation’s public lands urged President-elect Donald Trump to work with Congress to pass legislation to improve accountability and transparency in the designation of national monuments.

According to the letter, the coalition stated that the designation of lands as national monuments or a similar designation without input from communities affected by the decision “can lead — and, in fact, has led — to devastating reductions in economic activity and the loss of jobs in resource-dependent communities.”

The letter follows the introduction Jan. 6 of the Improved National Monument Designation Process Act, championed by Senate Energy & Natural Resources chair Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska). The bill, which has 25 co-sponsors, would require congressional and state approval for the designation of any new monument.

Under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the President has the power to unilaterally designate national monuments without the consent of Congress, state or local governments or affected stakeholders. These designations often come with overreaching and restrictive management provisions in the name of environmental protections. President Barack Obama has taken full advantage of his executive power, using the Antiquities Act more than any other president before him and locking up millions of acres.

“Executive branch abuse of the Antiquities Act has moved far beyond its original intent, with devastating effects for local economies – particularly in rural areas of the West,” Tracy Brunner, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. president, said. “It’s unacceptable for any president to have this much unilateral authority over land management decision-making; impacted local communities and the American people deserve a seat at the table as well.”

“The size and magnitude of recent monument designations grossly fail to meet the intent of Congress and objective of the law,” the letter said. The coalition told Trump that landowners, grazing permitees, loggers, forest products companies, miners and local governments should be fully involved as affected partners in any process to execute federal land use designations that restrict public use and access.

“The lack of local or congressional input and approval of a president’s monument designation often generates significant controversy and economic hardship at the local level,” the coalition stated. “Unfortunately, the law does not provide explicit requirements for the president to consult with local and state authorities. The detrimental effects of a monument designation frequently cause residents, elected state and county officials and local stakeholders who have major interests in the lands to push Congress for reform.”

Specifically, the groups said they would work toward congressional revisions of the Antiquities Act to require that any presidential national monument proclamation be subject to congressional approval and limited to no more than 5,000 acres, per the original intent of the act. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration locked up more than 5.6 million acres of (non-aquatic) land through use of the Antiquities Act to designate or expand additional monuments.

“We strongly oppose the ongoing misuse of the Antiquities Act by the executive branch and request your administration to work swiftly to resolve these conflicts and work with Congress to pass legislation to improve accountability and transparency in the designation of national monuments,” the coalition told Trump. “Such reform will ensure that the will of local communities are respected and true American antiquities can be protected.”

“Public land ranchers own nearly 120 million acres of private land and manage more than 250 million acres of land under management of the federal government,” Public Lands Council president Dave Eliason said. “These ranchers provide food and fiber for the nation, protect open spaces and critical wildlife habitat and promote healthy watersheds for the public. Sen. Murkowski’s bill is critical to protecting local input into decisions that can make or break a community.”

WTO ruling could bolster U.S. beef exports to Indonesia

cargo ship

The World Trade Organization recently issued a decision that could provide further momentum for U.S. beef exports to Indonesia. The ruling addressed a complaint filed by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and its counterpart agency in New Zealand, which contended that Indonesia’s import restrictions on a range of products – including beef – violate its obligations as a WTO member.

As the complaint was making its way through the WTO process, the Indonesian government eased several of its restrictive measures on imported beef, which resulted in increased trade in 2016.

“Indonesia has been heavily regulated in terms of the way it controls its importers — what they can import, when they can import, how they can import it,” explained Joel Haggard, U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific. “They began to loosen some of those restrictions early in the spring, but the commercial effects really came into place late last year.”

One really big positive change for the U.S. and other exporters, Haggard said, was the elimination of the restrictions on the products that can be imported. “Some of those cuts would be items like knuckles and some of those hind-quarter cuts, plus some offal items. Livers and hearts are now eligible. Those items were previously not allowed to be imported, and now they are,” he said.

Through November, U.S. exports to Indonesia reached $33 million – a new single-year record.

According to Haggard, however, the WTO ruling is still important because it may help address the volatile and unpredictable nature of Indonesia’s import policies. This, he said, would increase U.S. exporters’ level of interest in the market and allow Indonesian importers to secure the products most in demand.

“Indonesia’s relaxation of its rules may be a part of their strategy to show that they are coming more into line with the WTO, but they still have controls in place that limit free behavior of importers to import what they want, whenever they want. The capriciousness of the import regime has been one of the main factors in lowering the interest level of the United States industry in the market,” Haggard said.

If the changes stay for a while, Haggard said he thinks more program business will be developed, “and if the United States can get new plants listed, then I think we’ll be able to expand our volumes.”

Outlook for U.S. crop prices continues to be below average

ears of corn

The U.S. grain price outlook and crop demand for 2017-18 will likely show no major changes, according to Dr. Pat Westhoff, director of the University of Missouri's Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

This is unless a major disruption in outside factors occurs, such as weather or foreign market changes, Westhoff added. Prices will continue to be below average and lower than 2016, based on trends, he said.

Westhoff spoke at the American Farm Bureau Federation's 2017 Annual Convention and IDEAg Trade Show about global crop trends in crop production and demand for the upcoming year.

“Lots of pressure will be placed on labor markets where there hasn't been in the last several years,” he said, adding that this a result of poor labor markets and a slowing rate of population growth.

Most of the immediate population growth will occur in the age range of people who are not of working age in the U.S., adding to the stress on the labor market, he explained.

Yields for global grains and oilseeds have increased by roughly 1% per year since 1980; this is the same rate as the global growth in population, Westhoff said. Similarly, the area harvested for wheat, rice, corn and soybeans around the world increased 17% between 2002 and 2014, while world per capita consumption saw a 16% yearly increase.

“China and biofuels accounted for all the growth in per capita consumption since 1980,” Westhoff said. Ethanol production and an increase in China's consumption per capita have had the greatest effect on global grain and oilseed markets. “Remove those two factors, and we have about the same per capita use of grains and oilseeds,” Westhoff said.

Recently, biofuel growth has slowed, and there are questions about the future of demand growth in China as well. The grain and oilseed markets stand to continue current trends because of this, according to Westhoff.

“World production of the four major crops — corn, wheat, soybeans and rice — increased by nearly 50% since 2002. 2016 will be the fourth straight year with above-trend global yields for these crops,” he said.

Westhoff also addressed the outlooks on global and U.S. markets for the major crop markets of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice separately — but predicted that not much change will occur.

Research trials focus on winter pasture stocking strategies

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell Stocker calves released onto pasture
Stocker calves being placed on pasture, a mixture of Mayton rye and Nelson ryegrass, as part of a Texas A&M AgriLife Research winter pasture trial focused on optimal stocking rates for winter pastures.

Profits in stocker production can be as green as winter pastures when conditions are right and producers apply correct stocking strategies, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Research forage physiologist Dr. Monte Rouquette.

Research trials at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Overton, Texas, are focusing on identifying optimal strategies and stocking rates for producers.

Rouquette said his research on proper stocking rates for winter pastures considers various hypothetical scenarios producers might face when investing in winter and spring forages.

For producers, success or failure in their investment in small grain and ryegrass seed, planting and fertilizing is determined by the weight gained by each calf and gain per acre by April or May, Rouquette said. The average daily gain, gain per animal and gain per acre will determine whether a producer’s decision to plant winter pastures was worthwhile, he explained.

Rouquette said evaluating profits after the fact is always easy, but his goal is to provide producers with “advance warning” and expectation for gains from different stocking strategies.

“The research emphasis is to evaluate stocking strategies for stocker cattle and for cows and calves,” he said. “The opportunities are to know the extent of forage growth to expect in the fall, winter and spring and what kind of stocking rate needs to be used to make appropriate forage utilization. That is where you can make or break an opportunity for profit.”

Rouquette incorporates different stocking strategies based on the timing of forage production and stocking rates. He may use moderate to light stocking rates and strategies in the fall but then increase the stocking rate in the spring — February through April — to match the forage growth.

“Sometimes we miss the optimum gains with a treatment, and sometimes we hit it, but that is what we are looking at: how to optimize the use of the available forage,” he said.

To start his most recent trial, Rouquette placed two 600 lb. winter-born weaned stocker calves — 1,200 lb. of bodyweight — per acre on several separate winter pastures of Mayton rye and Nelson ryegrass mix planted in October and fertilized in late November. Rouquette said the winter pastures are planted with 100 lb. of Mayton rye and 30 lb. of Nelson ryegrass per acre and then receive 150-200 lb. of nitrogen per acre in split applications. Winter and spring stocking rates vary with climatic conditions, he said. Experiments with certain forage varieties and/or stocking rates last two to five seasons.

Rouquette’s research has historically involved several different varieties and variety mixtures of forages, including Elbon rye, Gulf and TAM 90 ryegrasses.

The grazing strategies Rouquette incorporates are based on plot data information that have been collected over the past 30 years, as well as on data compiled by forage breeders, forage physiologists and soil fertility researchers at Overton.

The small plot research identifies varieties that are good for east Texas soils and weather conditions, when to plant, when to fertilize, when to initiate stocking and how many animals to stock per acre.

A more comprehensive look at Rouquette’s stocking strategies is available here.

Previous small plot data suggested that cereal grain rye is the most productive forage during cold winter months, he said.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell

Stocker calves graze on a lush green Mayton rye and Nelson ryegrass winter pasture. Dr. Monte Rouquette, Texas A&M AgriLife Research forage physiologist, Overton, is researching stocking rates for winter pasture in an attempt to provide producers with information that will produce optimal gains per calf per acre.

The rye/ryegrass mix has a minor forage production peak in the fall, Rouquette said, followed by almost no growth in January. By Feb. 15, when days begin getting longer and nights and days start to get warmer, the pastures begin what Rouquette calls the “spring flush.”

Rouquette said the winter pastures can produce forage from mid-February through late April to support stocking rates two to three times the fall stocking rate, if weather conditions allow and pastures are fertilized properly.

Producers have a lot to consider when it comes to maximizing their investment in animals, including forage, he said. Animal health is paramount because a dead animal is a total loss.

There is the cost of cattle, the estimated cost of gain by cattle before sale and the eventual price of cattle at market, he said. Producers must also consider what the value of their cattle is in October and what the predicted value will be based on expected gains and the market in April or May.

Producers should expect an average gain of 2-3 lb. per day from calves, but gains depend on stocking rates and the amount of forage available for consumption, Rouquette said. Too many animals can overgraze a pasture, and too few can lead to unused forage, he said.

Producers should have several plans that can be employed if factors such as uncooperative weather or overstocking occur, he said. For instance, producers might move the cattle to a pasture that is not overseeded, where hay or supplements can be provided, as a sacrifice area when forage growth cannot provide adequate nutrition for cattle. This would be better than allowing the winter pasture to be overgrazed below 2-3 in., which doesn’t produce proper regrowth, especially during the spring flush.

“You’ve got to have an escape route in case you’ve grazed forage too severely,” he said. “Most producers don’t plan to overstock, but if they are not prepared for the next 30 days of weather events and prepared to make adjustments to their stocking rates, they could find themselves in trouble.”

Rouquette said winter grazing requires constant checking and possible adjustments, whether it’s removing or adding cattle, adding fertilizer or moving electric fencing. It’s better to be in a position where cattle are added to adjust to spring flush than removing cattle because pastures are overstocked, he said.

A great indicator of proper stocking rates can be made by a visual appraisal of the height of forage and spot grazing, which means areas of refusal where cattle have defecated and moved to graze other parts of the pasture, Rouquette said.

“Probably the most difficult thing in production is making a stocking rate work, but it’s always better to be lightly stocked and have to put more calves and cows in a pasture for adjustment rather than have too many stocker cattle and not have options other than to sell at too light a weight,” he said.

APHIS updates epidemiology of screwworm outbreak in Florida Keys

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) released an epidemiology report outlining its initial findings of New World Screwworm (NWS) in Key deer from the National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key, Fla.

APHIS initiated the investigation to determine the origin of the screwworm fly and to try to understand how it may have been introduced.

Although the investigation did not identify a specific pathway, APHIS said it did help identify the most likely source of introduction, including a detailed evaluation of whether fly larvae was carried on a human or an animal into the U.S. This means that people may have entered the country unknowingly infested with NWS larvae, or they may have unknowingly brought in animals infested with NWS larvae. The report also states that NWS was most likely introduced in the lower Florida Keys during the spring of 2016, and Key deer provided a very suitable host for the fly to become established.

As part of its investigation, APHIS issued a questionnaire to veterinarians and animal facilities throughout the Keys to help identify the NWS infestation source. An ongoing public survey was also distributed to identify any cases of screwworm in people or pets during 2016. No human cases were reported to local health departments, and few data exist on international flights and watercraft with animals arriving in the Keys. The local Customs & Border Patrol office did not report any findings of aircraft or watercraft with suspected diseased animals.

To gain more insight, APHIS is working with USDA's Agricultural Research Service to attempt to genotype the fly or isolate the genetic makeup and compare it to existing fly populations throughout the world.

While the agency continues this work to determine how NWS may have entered the Keys, APHIS and its partners are working aggressively to eliminate the pest. Since October, APHIS has worked closely with federal, state and local partners on an aggressive screwworm eradication program in Florida.

The sterile insect technique is the most effective tool available to eliminate dangerous flies like screwworm. APHIS maintains a facility in Panama that produces millions of sterilized flies, which allowed the agency to quickly bring this technology to Florida. These sterilized flies are used to prevent the spread of NWS and similar pests. The sterile insect technique allows for sterilized flies to be released in the area to mate with wild screwworm flies and breed themselves out of existence. This program has been used to successfully control screwworms since the 1950s in the U.S., Mexico and Central America.

To date, APHIS has released more than 80 million sterile pupae from 25 sites both within the infected zone and the barrier zone. The last confirmed case of screwworms in Florida was Jan. 5, 2017. APHIS said it plans to release sterile screwworm flies for the next three months until it can be sure that screwworms have been eliminated from the Florida Keys. Ongoing surveillance and area assessments will continue.

To view the report in its entirety, click here.

Ag labor, overregulation top priorities for Farm Bureau

AFBF Zippy Duvall speaks at AFBF annual convention

When it comes to the biggest challenges facing farmers, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farm group, said labor and overregulation are the two topics that desperately need a fix in farm country.

“Many of the farmers and ranchers I’ve met with say that if we don’t fix our ag labor problem, none of the other issues will matter,” Duvall said.

Duvall reminded the 5,000 farmers and ranchers in attendance at the annual meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., that a reliable and profitable supply of labor is central to economic sustainability. He called on Congress to pass legislation to ensure that farm laborers can work without fear of deportation.

“Without a legal supply of labor, too many farmers face lost crops, and they can’t compete on the world market,” Duvall said, adding that President-elect Donald Trump "says he wants to keep American jobs from going overseas. One way he can do that is by keeping America’s food production in America.”

“President-elect Trump cares about immigration reform. He has talked about it for years, and we know that he wants to find a solution. We want to solve it, too, and his team has promised us that agriculture will have a seat at the table. So, there is hope, if we take action and make our voices heard,” Duvall said.

Just like labor, another crucial issue is overregulation, Duvall noted. “So many farmers have told me: If we don’t fix this, none of the other issues will matter, because of overregulation,” he said.

Duvall pointed to the impacts of the federal "waters of the U.S." rule, the mismanagement of wild horses and burros in Utah, rotting trees, pine beetles and fire risks threatening national forests and more.

He cited the situation with California wheat farmer John Duarte, who was fined for plowing his land under the Clean Water Act as the Army Corps of Engineers tried to claim that he created “small mountain ranges.”

“There’s nothing funny about the federal government coming onto our land and dictating what we can and can’t do with our own farms,” Duvall said. “It amounts to federal control of what we do – and it is unwarranted and unlawful.”

He noted that in order to make real progress, the regulatory process needs to be reformed, as legal battles take years and millions of dollars. He is optimistic about making progress with the new Congress and President, adding that Trump has already said regulatory reform is at the top of his agenda.

Proposed WIC program revisions have dairy groups concerned

Rick Brady, School Nutrition Association boy drinking milk carton

A new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine (NAS) proposes updated revisions to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC) to better align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and promote and support breastfeeding.

The committee that carried out the study and wrote the report recommended cost-neutral changes that include adding fish, increasing the amount of whole grains and increasing vegetables and fruits as a trade-off for decreasing juice, milk, legumes, peanut butter and infant vegetables, fruits and meats. It also recommended allowing women to receive the quantity of formula needed to support any level of breastfeeding. The proposed changes will save approximately $220 million program wide from 2018 to 2022, NAS estimated.

A program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service, WIC is one of the largest nutrition programs in the U.S., providing not only access to specific foods but also nutrition education and health and social service referrals for low-income infants, children up to age 5 and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or postpartum. In 2015, the program served approximately 8 million women, infants and children – which included a little more than half the infants and 30% of children ages one to five in the U.S. – at a cost of about $6.2 billion. WIC food "packages" allow participants to obtain foods that provide specific nutrients for pregnancy, growth and development.

Most foods that already provided at least 100% of the recommended intake of several nutrients and food groups were proposed to be reduced, such as juice, dairy, peanut butter, legumes and infant foods.

“The NAS committee’s recommendations would undermine the nutritional value of the WIC program to needy Americans. It is contradictory that the NAS report would both acknowledge that many WIC participants are not getting enough milk yet at the same time suggest further reducing the milk served through the program,” said Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, and Dr. Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Food Assn.

“Milk, cheese and yogurt are the number-one source of nine essential nutrients in children’s diets: protein, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, vitamins A, B12, D and riboflavin. The reason dairy foods are included in the WIC package is that no other food source can deliver such a wide range of vital nutrients to mothers and young children. Cutting back on dairy is a step in the wrong direction,” Mulhern and Dykes said.

The committee did make recommendations that encourage dairy consumption by WIC participants, including continuing to allow the substitution of cheese and expanding options for substituting yogurt, as well as making it easier for participants to purchase yogurt in popular sizes. The committee also recognized that many plant-based beverages, such as those derived from almonds and rice, are not nutritionally equivalent to milk.

“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers this report, we will work to highlight the value to all Americans of the nutrition that only milk and dairy products can provide,” Dykes and Mulhern said.

Unibio begins producing natural protein

Unibio, a biotechnology company with advanced technology for producing single-cell protein from natural gas, recently announced the successful opening of its first production facility in Kalundborg, Denmark, marking a significant milestone in the company’s development.

Unibio chief executive officer Henrik Busch-Larsen said, “The crucial advantage of UniProtein is that the technology is scalable and environmentally friendly compared with fish meal and soy protein. We can produce natural protein in a plant using methane gas, and therefore, the production of UniProtein is not limited by fishing quotas or the use of pesticides, and it is weather-independent. Unibio’s technology, thus, provides animal feed producers access to a sustainable protein source of very high quality."

Unibio is the developer of an innovative single-cell protein production technology called the U-Loop technology, which converts natural gas into a highly concentrated protein for sustainable food production targeting the animal compound feed markets.

The protein-rich biomass (72.9% protein) in the product can be used as a direct supplement in animal feed. The key product characteristics include:

* Developed naturally without any genetic manipulation;

* Long shelf life and stable production process;

* High protein quality allows for a more efficient diet with fewer quantities required, thus minimizing nitrogen excretion;

* Already tested as feed for salmon, calves, pigs and chickens, with positive results in terms of acceptance and growth rates, and

* Approved by the European Union as an ingredient in animal feed.

The production facility has a capacity to produce up to 80 metric tons of product per year. Unibio said all output from the plant has been sold to Vestjyllands Andel, an animal feed manufacturer in Denmark, as part of an offtake agreement signed earlier in the year.

In addition, Unibio signed its first license agreement with a client based in Eastern Europe earlier this year, with the target to supply UniProtein to the European and Russian markets. As a result of this agreement, a second full-size commercial plant is planned and expected to be completed and producing product by the second half of 2017.

Busch-Larsen said, “With the recent completion of the final upgrades to our technology and the completion of the plant, we are ready to commence the commercial roll-out and deliver on our agreement with Vestjyllands Andel. We have been encouraged by the increasing number of inquiries to license our technology and look forward to continue to work towards the global roll-out of our technology. “

In October, the company announced the completion of final upgrades in its production processes related to achieving high gas transfer in the U-Loop technology that would lead to significant improvements in yields from the fermentation process. The patented technology provides the optimal conditions for the bacteria to grow by continuously adding oxygen, natural gas, catalysts and minerals. Natural gas (methane) is converted into a highly concentrated protein source.