FERN’s Friday Feed: Why so many cows eat toxic grass

Welcome to FERN’s Friday Feed (#FFF), where we share the stories from this week that made us stop and think.

The struggle to solve ranchers’ ‘fescue toxicosis’ problem

FERN and Grist

“America’s ‘fescue belt,’ named for an exotic grass called tall fescue, dominates the pastureland from Missouri and Arkansas in the west to the coast of the Carolinas in the east. Within that swath,” writes Robert Langellier, “a quarter of the nation’s cows — more than 15 million in all — graze fields that stay green through the winter while the rest of the region’s grasses turn brown and go dormant. But the fescue these cows are eating is toxic. The animals lose hooves. Parts of their tails and the tips of their ears slough off. For most of the year, they spend any moderately warm day standing in ponds and creeks trying to reduce fevers. They breathe heavily, fail to put on weight, and produce less milk. Some fail to conceive, and some of the calves they do conceive die. The disorder, fescue toxicosis, costs the livestock industry up to $2 billion a year in lost production.”

Here come the robot fish!

Hakai Magazine

“Human technology has long drawn inspiration from the natural world: The first airplanes were modeled after birds. The designer of Velcro was inspired by the irksome burrs he often had to pick off his dog. And in recent years,” writes Annie Roth, “engineers eager to explore the world’s oceans have been taking cues from the creatures that do it best: fish. Around the world, researchers developing robots that look and swim like fish say their aquatic automatons are cheaper, easier to use, and less disruptive to sea life than the remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) scientists use today. In a recent review of the technology’s advances, scientists claim only a few technical problems stand in the way of a robotic fish revolution.”

On Tuscan farms, migrant women laborers face exploitation

New Lines Magazine

“In beautiful Tuscany, famous for its ancient landscapes and delicious cuisine, there is a class of people who are deprived of their rights and, often, of hope. From dawn to dusk they work stooped over, picking fruit and vegetables that will become the ingredients of Italy’s most famous dishes — 12 hours a day in the summer heat and a somewhat shorter day in the cold of winter,” writes Floriana Bulfon. “The laborers are mostly women; many of them are passing through Italy on the last leg of a journey that began in sub-Saharan Africa. They walked across deserts, survived dangerous sea voyages and violent traffickers, Libyan prisons and Mediterranean storms — only to end up in the hands of yet another type of torturer, the so-called ‘caporali’ (corporals), gang masters who recruit and oversee the laborers on behalf of farm owners.”

What the right’s embrace of raw milk says about our politics


“With Trump has come a new GOP electorate, one more rural, more working class, less ideological and generally more distrustful of lobbyists, big business and ‘the experts.’ And that has been a big help for a cause that is bucking just about every one of those groups. Long a fringe health food for new-age hippies and fad-chasing liberal foodies, raw milk has won over the hearts and minds of GOP legislators and regulators in the last few years,” writes Marc Novicoff. “Though raw milk’s appeal remains small, its increasing popularity among Republicans nevertheless demonstrates a scrambling of the political poles in which the American left-of-center, long associated with anti-establishment sentiment, has become more deferential to institutions as the right-of-center, long associated with the establishment, has seized the iconoclastic fervor inherent in America’s DNA.”

A life and death in beer


“Storytelling is vital to Ebb and Flow Fermentations, a mixed-fermentation brewery that uses wild yeast, lactic acid bacteria and other microbes in addition to traditional brewer’s yeast to produce unconventional flavors, including beet sours, Belgian ales finished on dandelions and barrel-aged cucumber-and-dill blondes, for example. DeWayne Schaaf and his crew must educate curious and often skeptical drinkers about what their beers are and how they are made. He also finds that it often helps to explain why they are made. The tale behind Barncat—a Belgian-inspired tart sour—and its sibling beers is especially dear to Schaaf. He discovered the wild yeast strain that gives life to those beers in his backyard. That strain is also one of the only living connections to his father that Schaaf has left.”