Unfortunately this blog needs the reader to understand the basics agricultural science and animal husbandry. I will try and simply these as best I can and I hope that what follows is not too dry nor technical. I am sure that any reader of average intelligence will be able to grasp the fundamental principles with only a modicum of effort. Let us start with the basics – the animal. Figure 1 is a schematic of a basic farm animal and, as we will show later, is a satisfactory diagram for all livestock including cattle, sheep, pigs and even poultry or exotic species such as llamas or alpacas.
As you will see from Figure 1 there are two ends to your animal : the front (or pointy) end and the back (or round) end. One of the first tasks in farming is to be able to tell these ends apart. The front end the the usual end that leads when the animal is moving and the end it will present to you when it wants to be fed, or wishes to injure you. For this reason, the pointy end often comes complete with jaggy horns or sharp teeth. While the front, or pointy, end is the prettier end it is also usually the more dangerous.
The round back end is the end that follows when the animal is moving. This is the end you will see when you are trying to capture your animal. Something you will learn quickly, when you have animals, is that all your animals are faster than you when you want to catch them. You will spend a lot of your time looking at the rear ends of your animals as it disappears into the distance. A primary reason for knowing the ‘ends’ of your animals is that it helps understand the throughput of the animal. The front end, to use the modern computer jargon, is the input end while the back, or round, end is where all the output arises.
The rear end has multiple outputs. At the bottom , on some species, there are dangly bits; these, with a bit of manipulation, give production of milk and subsequent dairy products. Above this is the first of two openings. This one, if all your stockmanship has gone well, will give rise to meat production by giving new small versions of the animal. Above this is the most prolific output opening. This is the source of animal excrement something the budding farmer has to become familiar with very quickly as they will spend a large part of their time covered in this.
It is a mistake to call this last product animal waste. It is only waste if you waste it. The entire agricultural revolution that allowed humankind to start to grow and colonise the world was based on animal excrement. Humans discovered that by rotating crops, interspersing harvests with periods leaving the ground fallow, and using animals to manure the fields they could make land much more productive and stop the loss of nutrients from the soil that otherwise would follow on taking the crops as produce. This allowed a sustainable cycle to be developed. The soil gave nourishment to the plants, the animals and we ate the plants, and then we and the animals nourished the soil. Ultimately by being buried in it when we died.
This revolution allowed us to expand as a species and provided the energy and population growth which permitted the next great revolution : the Industrial revolution. In this there was the formation of large towns and cities and a growing disconnection between town and country. This broke the cycle that had been established. Now nourishment was taken from the land and moved to the towns for consumption. In the urban areas the excrement was not returned to the countryside and the nourishment was not returned to the land. There had been systems where ‘nightsoil’ was collected and returned to be used as manure but after the link between cholera and human excrement became known this fell from favour. The problem became much worse with the development of flushing toilets and sewers which meant the excrement was sent out to sea where sometimes it us harmful rather than contributing to a growing cycle.
Even Karl Marx was aware of this problem and he wrote :-
“Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum, and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population, crammed together in large towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country.“Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1894
For a while this breach in the cycle was filled by importing large amounts of guano (bird poo) from across the other side of the world until the discovery of the Haber-Bosch Process which allowed the production of chemical fertilisers. All modern agriculture now uses this method of chemical enrichment of the soil to try and compensate for the loss of sustainable and natural ways for farming. However, there are serious concerns that this method of working is not sustainable and we are ignoring potential irreparable damage to our soils.
Indeed, rather than dealing with this threat we are increasing its risk. Our growing use of monoculture crops and the practice of feedlot farming (where animals are penned and fed concentrated feedstuffs, usually cereals, to rapidly fatten them) further break the sustainable cycles we know we need. Even with regard to waste we have not learnt much. We have, on rather faulty logic, essentially ended the recycling of food waste by feeding swill to animals (usually pigs). Now this food waste which could have, after going through the guts of a pig, given manure for the land and food for the people (and hence reduced the need for production) instead finds its way into landfill. At best it finds its way into anaerobic digestion plants to create biofuels which is a very inefficient way of dealing with it. This is only considered because the food waste is considered ‘waste‘, were it considered a resource it would not be undervalued like this.
So, in conclusion, the round end, although it is often the smelly and dirty end of your animal, is possibly the most important part of the beast and what comes out of it should be treasured and not squandered. There are good reasons to think that this also applies to our own round ends and we should seriously think how we start using the one thing all of us manage to effortlessly produce.
If this sparks an interest the book Humanure may be well worth reading.