Animal Husbandry 101

Animal Husbandry 101

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.

Figure 1

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.

Sheep and true democracy.

Sheep and true democracy.

It is fair to say I will never be described as saintly; I have never mastered piety, my good works, such as they have been, are mundane, and  I too easily slip into my vices. I imagine, that the majority of us, I am better described as a sinner than as a saint. However, over the past year and a half I have developed a saintly aspect, rather small but perfectly formed, I have developed the patience of a saint and I have needed it.

I live and work in a rural, agricultural part of the country where the majority of my neighbours, mainly farmers, voted in favour of Brexit. I tend, like my friends, to have liberal views and to be welcoming of change. I also voted in favour of Brexit. Since the referendum there has been a steady barrage of complaint – “How did you come to make this dreadful mistake ? The area you live in needs EU money. Farming can’t manage without subsidies ?Without the EU illiberal policies will threaten the fabric of our civil society”

Now it is perfectly reasonable that after a vote discussion will continue. I am sure that, had the vote had gone the other way,  I would still have argued my cause. But the wilful blindness which refuses to see any shades of grey in an argument is starting to become irksome. The tendency  so see every mishap as a consequence of our impending exit from the EU is largely boring. Having kept up with the newspapers,  I am sure after we leave, by failing to be part of the European Weather Consortium, we will be prone to worse winters and plagues of frogs. The Guardian and Independent, in particular, now have become almost mirror images of the Daily Mail in their search for hysterical straplines.

This, however, is not the problem. This is just the normal push and shove of political debate and anyone with an IQ adequate to be literate can see this and handle the details appropriately. Where my patience is stretched is peoples’ inability to see the larger issue. Again and again it was stated that people voted for Brexit to “take back control“, some people argued the issue in terms of ‘sovereignty’ others in terms of a ‘democratic deficit’ which had developed over the years. All argued that democracy was less effective in the EU as decision making had become remote and removed from the people. For most people who voted for Brexit this was the single biggest issue – Democracy works when people are involved in it, not otherwise.

Now this is the first stress on my saintly patience.  I like others voted to improve democracy but now I am told I voted for lots of other (usually disreputable) reasons and we really need to look again at the vote because we got it wrong. So, just like the Irish after their wrong decision in their first referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we are being encouraged to “do it again but get it right this time“. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but can these people not see the irony of questioning a referendum that voted for greater democratic involvement and suggesting that the “experts” know better and we better vote again.

The second stress on my saintly demeanour is when we are rebuked for failing to see the financial benefits that the EU gives us and, without which, we would be in dire straits. The maths are easy, the UK is a net contributor to the EU, so we give more in than we get out. Precise figures aside we can decide how to spend this money. It is suggested that this will be better done by bureaucrats in Brussels rather than bureaucrats in London, especially when this argument is played to a Scots or Welsh ear. Why on earth should this be the case ? Apart from having a racist tinge to it, “Those terrible English”, it also seems so improbable. A bureaucrat in London has a shared history and culture with us, he has probably heard of Falkirk and Fishguard, he probably has family members and friends from our area of the world, he may have even had a romance with someone who hailed from our neck of the woods. This bureaucrat might just conceivably be on our side! But even if not we could vote them out if they let us down, something impossible for the politicians making the decisions in Europe.

And finally, there is the stress to me and my sheep. My activities, and my neighbours, are controlled by the Common Agricultural Policy. For over a generation this has set all aspects of agricultural policy in the U.K. –  No planning, no development, no vision, no change has started here. Do you know who is the Minister of Agriculture ? (*)  When was the last time you heard discussion of our farming policies ? In a rural area, such as where I live, we need to be able to think about agriculture, it is the very stuff of life and not something that can be left to bureaucrats. Especially when the plans these bureaucrats create result in subsidies to Lord Iveagh of £900,000 a year or the poor racehorse owner, Khallid Abdulla Al Saud, getting only £400,000 annually. If public money is going to subsides agriculture we need to democratically control how it is used. This means bringing the control back to the area where the activity occurs and to the people who do the work and know what can and should be done. No-one wants subsidies that allow inappropriate businesses and practices to thrive, we don’t want a repeat of butter mountains nor wine lakes, and we can only avoid this by closer democratic scrutiny and accountability. The same fate that affects my sheep has also affected the fish through the Common Fisheries Policy and many other areas of industry.

Tony Benn was right when he said that the suggesting EU membership was “asking the British people to destroy democracy” because if ‘you cut the umbilical cord that links the lawmakers with the people, you destroy the stability of this country’. So, as a first step, let is get power brought back from Europe to Westminster, then from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff, and hopefully later even more closely to home. We need to review and improve our agriculture and stewardship of the land. The changes needed will be best decided locally and what works well in Meirionydd may not be the best plan for Morbihan nor Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Brexit is an opportunity to refresh our democratic involvement and to refresh our industries, let us not waste it.

By all means point out my errors and explain why European Union can be a beneficial thing. I know the reasons I voted and, I am sad to say, that I am more certain as the  undemocratic nature of the EU has become evermore apparent; in its both its handling of the Brexit negotiations and its stance towards Catalonia). Explain routes to counter these problems, see if you can get the EU to rekindle interest in subsidiarity, suggest alternative plans, but lets be constructive in our debate on the future. Don’t force sainthood on me by testing my patience by obdurate calls that the majority of the populace was stupid and hoodwinked. Please don’t repeat your mantra “forgive them, for they know not what they do”, I did know and if necessary would do it again.

 

 


(*) A trick question as it has been merged into the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and it is Michael Gove, for the time being


While the Daily Prompt prompted this tirade it was also triggered (and there was no trigger warning!) by the excellent article by Jon Holbrook on spiked-online.