Livestock Farms Get Big

  • Frank Baffi's barn in southern Michigan (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
There are fewer farmers raising pigs, cows and chickens these days.
But the amount of meat being produced in the U.S. continues to increase.
So livestock farms haven’t exactly disappeared. They’ve just gotten bigger.
In the third part of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush reports these big operations have kept food costs down, but those cheap prices come with consequences:


Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
There are fewer farmers raising pigs, cows and chickens these days.
But the amount of meat being produced in the U.S. continues to increase.
So livestock farms haven’t exactly disappeared. They’ve just gotten bigger.
In the third part of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush reports these big operations have kept food costs down, but those cheap prices come
with consequences:

When you picture a typical farm, chances are you probably think of a farm just like Frank

(Sound of farm)

He grows corn and oats on his land. He’s got chickens, a couple of horses, two ducks,
about 30 beef cows. And in this fading red barn, he’s got pigs:

(Sound of claps)

“Hey Pig! C’mon! Get up!”

(Sound of pigs)

In fact, the pigs have been the most profitable thing he’s raised on this farm. Baffi says
he used to sell more than fifty thousand dollars worth of pigs every year. It was enough
to make a living on.

(Sound of pigs)

But as time went on, selling pigs became less profitable. In the 1980s, his expenses went
up and the price he could get for his pigs went down. Baffi says he was faced with a
decision. It was the same decision that many small livestock farmers faced at the time:
“I think it was a whole trend that if you weren’t big you had to get out. It was if you had
20 cows it was you gotta be milkin’ 30, or if you were milking 30 it was oh, you gotta be
milkin’ 100. The reason they weren’t making any money is that they’re not making
enough money for what they sell.”

Frank Baffi blames the drop in prices on the increase in global trade. He says US
producers started to compete with operations overseas, where expenses can often be
cheaper. To keep up, producers in the US got more efficient, and as they did so, prices
continued to drop. Baffi says he tried to get bigger, but he just didn’t have enough

But just down the road there’s a pig farm that is making a profit. Frank Baffi’s neighbor
is Bruce Barton. His dad started the family in the hog business in the 1950s. Barton says
early on his Dad could see what was coming:

“He pretty much expanded because he could see that small farmers were struggling to
survive and ya know we had buy the feed in larger lots you sell your hogs in larger lots.
There was going to be less margin for each hog. You just had to have more, more of

The Bartons raised about 11 pigs when the started out. Now they raise about 100,000.
That may seem like a lot, but their operation is small compared to those that raise over a
million hogs a year.

The size of these big farms trouble many environmentalists. These farms are forced to
deal with large volumes of manure. On average one pig can generate close to two tons of
manure a year. Multiply that by one million and you get the picture. Smaller farms can
spread the manure as fertilizer on their land without much problem and large farms can
use the manure too. It’s just that they need a lot of land to spread the manure on. If they
put too much on a field, it can pollute streams and drinking water wells, and researchers
say, these farms are only going to get bigger.

Jim MacDonald researches farming trends for the US Department of Agriculture. He
says small farmers can make a go of it if they’re able to find a niche market, like
producing organic meat and milk. But MacDonald says the demand for these niche
products is still tiny compared to the demand for things like chicken nuggets and hot

“The overall trend so far, I think, continues to be towards larger operations producing
what we might call generic or commodity like products and their prices continue to fall.”

Prices are falling because these farms continue to get bigger and more efficient. That
means fewer and fewer people are farming. So the idyllic picture we have of the small
farmer is fading.

(Sound of Frank’s farm up)

Last year, Frank Baffi lost more than a thousand dollars on his farm. He mainly relies on
his social security check for his income. A row of empty metal crates line his barn:

“This is where I’d have pigs and this is where they would have their babies. There
probably all used up but I just haven’t had the heart to tear them out. Because I always
thought that I could at least get back to where I was. And the way it looks, you know, the
profitability of this thing, it don’t look like I’m going to go there.”

So the choices you make at the grocery store influence how farms are changing. It’s only
normal: most of us pick the cheaper product. But some people who live near these large
facilities say consumers don’t know the full cost of their choices.

For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

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West Nile Virus Marches West

  • Zoos have helped public health officials monitor the spread of the West Nile virus. Besides concerns about human health, zoos are worried about the birds in their care.

Cooler weather sweeping the Great Lakes region means the end of the mosquito season. It also means a temporary halt to the spread of West Nile virus in the area. But this past summer the virus made headway into the region much faster than experts had expected. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Cooler weather sweeping the Great Lakes region means the end of the mosquito season. It also means a temporary halt to the spread of West Nile virus in the area. But, this past summer the virus made headway into the region much faster than experts had expected. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

It’s extremely rare that West Nile virus causes severe illness in humans. But it does happen. While most people won’t even realize they’re infected, about one fourth of those infected will exhibit some mild symptoms. However, the virus can cause encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain. In very rare cases it can be fatal.

Zoos have been helpful in monitoring the spread of the disease. It was first identified here in the U.S. by the Bronx zoo in the fall of 1999 after crows started dying in the New York area. Since then, zoos across the U-S have kept watch on their birds and animals. In part to protect them and in part to help health officials track the progress of the virus.

Scientists thought the virus would slowly make its way to neighboring states. But, it’s spread much more quickly than expected. It wasn’t supposed to hit states as far west as Illinois and Wisconsin until sometime next year. But it made it even farther west with reports of it in Missouri.

Researchers have learned the virus is carried by birds such as crows, blue jays, hawks and Canada geese. Dominic Travis is a veterinary epidemiologist at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He says since West Nile virus infects birds, experts suggested it would spread southward from New York. That’s because many birds, including some infected with the virus would travel south for the winter. Others, though, said it could spread west.

“And, the westward race won. We were fairly surprised that it came past the Michigan and western Ohio area, but we’ve been prepared because we started this surveillance system and started working with the CDC and USDA and everybody last spring for this specific eventuality.”

Travis says zoos across the Midwest started monitoring for West Nile virus this past spring. They worked with local health officials to determine if the disease had spread to birds in the area.

While birds carry the disease, mosquitoes spread it. So, officials at he Lincoln Park Zoo have been trapping mosquitoes and drawing blood from its animals, testing for West Nile virus. They’ve also been working to reduce the chance that animals will be bitten by mosquitoes. Again. Dominic Travis.

“The two strategies are try and limit the mosquito and if you can’t limit the mosquito, limit the contact.”

Most zoos are hesitant to use insecticides to kill the mosquitoes. So, instead, they try to eliminate places where they can breed. Basically, that’s anywhere a puddle of water stands for more than four days. Travis says that helps meet strategy number one, limiting the mosquito.

“So, a) if you don’t have mosquitoes, the risk is fairly low, and b) if you can’t get rid of all your mosquitoes, then you want to stop mosquitoes from biting the animals and so you do things to keep them separate. And those are –depending on the birds, the size, the situation, the zoo– those are keeping them in during mosquito feeding hours or some people have mosquito nets that they’re incorporating and so on and so forth.”

Zoos are especially worried because they’re responsible for some very rare birds, in some cases the last of a species.

At the Saint Louis Zoo, a huge outdoor flight cage and several other outdoor cages make up the zoo’s bird garden. Zookeeper Frank Fischer says outside bird exhibits are at highest risk.

“We’re making sure that, trying to make sure that none of our birds, even the birds in the outside exhibits here in the bird garden don’t contract any of that disease, say, from crows or our blue jays or birds of that type.”

While birds are most at risk of infection, they’re not the only species hit by the virus. In the U.S., as many as a dozen people have died after being bitten by a mosquito carrying West Nile virus. And even more horses have died. People and horses are considered incidental victims. That is, they don’t carry the disease and they don’t spread it. But they can be infected. A veterinarian in southwestern Illinois, Don Van Walleghen, says he’s gotten a lot of calls from worried customers, asking about West Nile virus.

“Basically, they want to know, is it here? Is it a concern for me?”

And because it’s such a recent phenomenon Van Walleghen’s customers have a lot of other questions. They bring in dead birds, wondering if their dog or cat that was playing with the bird might be infected. So far, aside from horses and people, there have been no reports of other animals, livestock or pets, being infected by West Nile virus, or spreading it.

“In humans, if you are a human bitten by a mosquito that had this disease, you could not transmit it to your kids or to anything else. So, at least that limits the disease from even being thought of as any kind of epidemic.”

But it is spreading. Experts hope that weather conditions next year are not good for mosquito production. But even a relatively normal to dry season as this past year was has not seemed to slow the spread of West Nile virus. If next year is wetter, experts say the virus could spread farther and infection rates could rise. That’s why health and agriculture experts are reminding people to work toward reducing the mosquito population next year. They recommend everything from keeping roof gutters unclogged to prevent standing water, to landscaping yards and driveways to eliminate puddles. Anything that will slow mosquito production next year will hopefully slow the spread of the West Nile virus. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Horse Disease Spreading?

A form of encephalitis may be killing horses in the northern Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner explains:


A form of Encephalitis may be killing horses in the Northern Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Jo Wagner reports.

Twenty-eight horses with likely cases of “Eastern Equine Encephalitis” have died in Wisconsin in the past few weeks. A national lab has confirmed the disease in one of the horses. It is transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Health officials are concerned about the possible outbreak, because mosquitoes can also transfer the disease to humans where it causes flu-like symptoms — in some cases it can even kill people. So researchers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are trapping mosquitoes to test for the virus. In the meantime, Wisconsin state veterinarian Clarence Siroky says residents in several counties are scrambling to get their horses vaccinated.

“What we’re going to see is less and less horses involved but that doesn’t mean there’s less of a problem out there.”

That’s because, while there is a vaccine for horses, there’s none for humans.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Jo Wagner.

Youth Rodeo on the Rise

No matter where you travel around the region, you’ll find kids
playing all kinds of organized sports – from baseball to bowling. But a
growing number of young people around the Great Lakes are embracing a
sport that’s traditionally been practiced in the Western U-S. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:


About a dozen boys and girls are gathered outside on a chilly, windy afternoon in Kent City,

Michigan dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and hats. They’ve gome to practice the sport of rodeo. The

athletes specialize in different events, including barrel racing, goat tying and steer wrestling.

Tonight, they’re at Sue and Andy Sharp’s house to practice. Most of the kids bring their own

horses, and the Sharps have a few steers for roping and wrestling.

SUE: “You would like to be able to practice once or twice a week at least, if possible. Not all

the kids can do that, though, because some don’t have a place near them, and they have to travel

quite a ways.”

The Sharps met when they were both competing on the Pro Rodeo Circuit. But now, they’re passing on

their skills to a new generation of riders.

“In 1974, when I first started, and before that, there were rodeos. But nowhere near as many are

there now. When they went through the phase of the urban cowboy, it really started to grow east of

the Mississippi and got more notoriety and people started to get involved, and that’s continued


Still, rodeo riders aren’t exactly commonplace in these parts, but their ranks are steadily

growing – fed by the increasing number of high school rodeo teams and 4-H programs. In fact,

several of the current youth rodeo champs come from the Great Lakes States. Wisconsin is home to

the world champion high school bareback rider. Indiana hosts the world champion in pole bending.

And Michigan is the home of the national champion bull rider.

With programs like the Little Britches Rodeo Association, kids as young as toddlers can get

involved in the sport. Tonight, Cody Schmitz has the distinction of being the youngest one at the

practice session.

CODY: “I’m a bull rider.”

NELSON: “You’re a bull rider. How old are you?”

CODY: “Ten.”

NELSON: “Ten. And you ride a bull.”

CODY: “But I don’t ride, like, big bulls. I ride, like, these steers and stuff.”

Cody says just like other athletes, he gets nervous before a ride.

CODY: “You get butterflies and stuff, but once you get on, then they just go away and you’re just

having fun and sitting there. But it’s not very good to hang up.

NELSON: “What does that mean, to hang up?”

CODY: “Hang up as in, your hand’s still stuck in the rope and then it’s pulling and stuff. Well,

it’s not very good.”

Cody weighs about ninety pounds and stands just under five feet. But the steers can weigh hundreds

of pounds, so it’s a kind of understatement to say that rodeo can be dangerous. Just ask Matt

Kostel. He used to compete, but now he just watches from the sidelines.

“Had a little accident with a bull. He caught me in the forehead right here with a horn and put me

in the hospital. And they put plates in my forehead and screws and had to do reconstructive

surgery on me.”

Even so, Kostel hopes to someday return to the sport. For many – like Cody Schmitz – the rewards

outweigh the risks. Riders can win cash and even college scholarships. Cody’s only been competing

for a couple of years, but he’s already set his sights on becoming a pro. At tonight’s practice,

he’s decked out in a protective vest and mouth guard – ready to ride a steer.

(sound of rosin rubbing on rope)

“All right! Come on, Cody!”

Cody’s fourteen-year-old brother, Eric, helps him get ready: rubbing rosin on the rope for a

better grip. Then Eric and some of the other boys gather ’round to give Cody some final bits of


ERIC: “No matter what he does, keep shuffling your feet. Feel comfortable – start kicking.”

GUY 2: “Get right up on your hands, don’t get off it.”

Then Cody gives the signal, and they’re off.

GUYS: “Look at ’em buck, Cody! Look at ’em buck!”

The steer almost immediately throws cody to the ground, and the whole thing’s over in a matter of

seconds. Cody’s hurting from a hard fall on his elbow. But after a pep talk from his brother Eric,

he’s soon up and ready to ride again.

ERIC: “How bad do you want it?”

CODY: “Bad.”

ERIC: “Then you better try. Because without trying, you ain’t got nothing, right?”

CODY: “Right.”

This ride goes better for Cody. He’s able to hold on a little longer before getting bucked off.

It’s a close-knit group here tonight – not just the brothers, but all of the riders. And most say

they’ll continue riding, either as pros or just for fun, because, as Eric Schmitz says, rodeo is

as much a lifestyle as it is a sport.

“I mean, everybody’s together, everybody’s friends, you help each other out. I don’t know how to

explain it – it’s just kind of a cowboy deal, I guess. And I couldn’t imagine myself doing a thing


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Wendy Nelson in Kent City, Michigan.

Wild Horses on the Auction Block

In the early seventies, Congress ruled that the Bureau of Land
Management had to manage wild horses and burros because the horses had
historical significance. But that federal protection created a
population explosion. So the government has maintained an adoption
program to thin out the population. Over the next 6 months the program
will be at various sites in the Great Lakes Region. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Tom Scheck reports: