Student Member Spotlight Q&A: Sarah

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Our members are the lifeblood of our organization. They are students, farmers, researchers, department heads, industry experts, food scientists, agronomists–the list goes on. No matter their background, we all have the same wish: to assemble, create and share credible, balanced, science-based information. 

Read about who makes up CAST in our Member Spotlight series. In this post, you will meet  Sarah, a third-year doctoral student at the University of California-Davis.

The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

Meet Sarah

picture-of-sarah-on-horse

A third-year doctoral student studying animal science at UC-Davis, and a 2018 CAST Science Communication Scholarship winner

What are you studying?
I am studying beef cattle sustainability and system dynamics. 

What agricultural issues are most important to you?
Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article where the first line read, “[The] city that banned plastic bags and plastic peanuts is now taking on factory farms that pump antibiotics into livestock.” This article is only one of countless articles condemning agricultural practices with little to no information regarding current animal welfare, food safety, or environmental sustainability practices. 

Furthermore, with only 2% of U.S. citizens in agriculture, the rampant stream of anti-animal agricultural media will only continue to increase, dictating the immediate need for scientific educators to broadcast the truth about the economic, social, and environmental contribution of livestock in our society. 

As a beef cattle sustainability specialist, I will utilize my scientific foundation and knowledge of beef cattle production to aid in ameliorating the agricultural education barriers to help ensure food security and sustainability.

How has CAST been a part of your life? 
Although I have been extremely fortunate to work and learn from ranchers and scientists across the country, there is still a great deal more to learn and more to do. As a CAST scholarship winner, I have been fortunate to take part in important opportunities to improve my agricultural education and outreach so I may become a better teacher, a more informed scientist, and one-day leader in agricultural sciences.

What is your current research?
Today’s consumers have become increasingly concerned regarding food animal production in relation to human health and environmental sustainability. Among many consumers, grass-fed beef is regarded as the “healthier” and more environmentally sustainable beef option as compared to traditional (grain-fed) beef production.  As such, there is now an increase in the demand for niche beef production systems, causing producers to speculate if incorporating grass-fed beef into their production system would be economically adventitious.  

Although previous research has compared grass-fed and grain-fed beef production, no empirical research has been performed to examine the validity of both consumer and producer concerns using current CA grass-fed production practices. Therefore, we are conducting research to compare the environmental footprint, economic outcomes, food safety and meat composition and food safety of three varying beef production systems in northern CA. 

For this proposal we aim to create a grass-fed beef budget tool to aid producers in grass-fed production decisions using the results of the current research trial. The three treatments include (24 steers per treatment): 

  1. Conventional or grain-fed beef (CON), 
  2. 20 month grass-fed beef (20GF) 
  3. 20 month grass-fed with a 45 day grain finishing (45G), and 
  4. 26 month grass-fed beef (26GF).   


By performing this study many consumer and producer questions will be addressed including: 

  1. What are the input and output costs of each production system given current economic and environmental conditions?, 
  2. Which production system maximizes total human edible food?, 
  3. What are the varying carbon footprints of each system on a calorie and kg of protein basis?, 
  4. What beef production system limits pathogenic E. coli production, and 
  5. What are the differing meat compositions between treatments and will consumers prefer one of the two grass-fed treatments compared to grain fed beef?


Overall, with continual interest in food sustainability within California and across the country, it is imperative that we provide a tool to answer these beef production questions so that producers, consumers, legislators, and stakeholders across the beef supply chain can make informed production decisions.

Passionate students studying an aspect of agriculture, like Sarah, will not only help advance their field through their research, but also provide the necessary communications with audiences who will be affected by this type of research.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your story and how CAST has impacted your student career.

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