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.

In praise of gleaning.

In praise of gleaning.

I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.

Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.

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An overnight bag of hay for the goats.

Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.

The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.

As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.

It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.

 

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Deuteronomy 24:19

 

The benefits of topping.

Today has been a day spent topping. When we first started small holding we spent much of our time watching the experienced farmers in the area and then, a couple of days late, copying them. When they started cutting hay, a day late, so did we – when they sheared their flock so did we (although a lot less expertly). Every year I copied them until I understood why they did what they did and when. In the early years one of the greatest mysteries was “topping“; each year, each field was topped at least once. We did this faithfully but ignorantly. (Topping is cutting the grass short and leaving the remains where they fall rather than taking them for hay or silage)

I now know topping is a valuable part of pasture management. It helps keep down thistles, reeds and other weeds. The regular cutting also promotes a better sward of grass which the animals prefer and benefit from. It cuts down the large stems of grass which the animals are not eating and which have become “leggy” and these, and all the other items cut, lie as mulch so that their nutrients go back into the soil. However, topping has also taught me something much more important, it has taught me about belonging.

We have tried in the main to undertake most of the farming tasks we have to do,  either by hand or without heavy machinery. Some of this is through choice, but a great deal is through necessity as machinery is expensive. As farms have become bigger in Britain farm machinery has grown pari passu with this. Although prices are reasonable they are only reasonable if you want to work an area of over 500 hectares. Vaccines are reasonably priced when you buy enough to inject 500 sheep but can be difficult to get in reasonable volumes to do 25. We do not have a standard tractor on the farm. It would be too expensive and the few times we really have needed one it has been possible to call on the aid of a neighbour. There are people with back-hoe diggers, mobile sawmills and cherry pickers in our valley and they are seen as communal resources. As long as you contribute what you can, machinery or labour, you can call on these other resources.

Because our farm is very hilly, some of our pasture would be quite dangerous to drive on in a tractor for fear of overturning. For this additional reason I felt best to keep temptation out of my reach – if I don’t have a tractor I can’t try topping the steep field with it. Further, there was another problem –  the time I needed a tractor and topper was always the time everyone else needed it too. Topping, therefore,  faced us with a dilemma, as the prospect of mowing a 6 acre meadow, by hand, was pretty daunting.

Thankfully the Italians came to our rescue. DSC_3185In Italy, as many of the farms work olive groves and, also because inheritance law has lead to the growth of very small farms, there is a call for small, two-wheeled tractors. There is a steady demand for machinery which works on a smaller scale.  In Italy, and throughout Europe, there are a number of manufacturers of these small multi-talented tractors. Our first purchase was a Goldoni with a field topper. This makes light work of topping even large fields. Around this time of year I have a pleasant few days following the Goldoni at a brisk walking pace as we top each of our fields.

DSC07601.JPGIt is not too strenuous and there is plenty to keep you interested as you top the field. There is the wildlife to watch. Often this is wildlife trying to flee from the advancing topper but fortunately we are slow enough not to catch any. Today’s walk introduced me  to slow worms and toads as well as allowing me to watch the Red Kites circling overhead.

As we DSC07595.JPGare not taking hay these years (we have too many animals and not enough pasture) we let the meadow rest last year. In addition to the animal life we have also been fortunate to see  orchids growing wild near the damp edges.

However, by far the best sight is looking over the field, past the big cherry tree, over the house and seeing the mountains. Whoever, planned our house back in 1796 knew what they were doing;  they chose a wonderfully sheltered spot which avoids the winds without losing the sun. Looking over the field and knowing that, again, you have walked every square foot of that field and checked it is very satisfying. It helps tether you to your place and fosters an affection for your patch of land. I guess this is what starts to develop those attachments to place which bind you to home. Welsh has a word for this –  “hiraeth” – it is similar to  the German “heimat” , but has more  a sense of yearning to be where you belong.DSC_3187

These connections are not truly innate, they arise from being in close proximity to a place over a period of time. They come from working with that area’s nature and getting to know it as it changes throughout the year. It is the sinking of roots into a patch of land so that you feel unsettled when you are not at home. This can occur in the town or the country, a village or the city but it depends on constancy of place and its people. As our lives are much more mobile now;  our working lives often takes us from place to place, and our families likewise can be moving and dispersed over wide areas, for many of us it is difficult to generate this feeling. This is unfortunate as I feel that this connection is also part of the emotion which binds us to our communities. This is the part of the jigsaw that was missing when I worked in the city, this was the bit of me that I felt was lost which drove me to leave.

I have never regretted that decision. Yes, I often feel like a fool and out of my depth when I try to grapple with new problems. But facing problems and dealing with them is what makes life enjoyable. Routine, while comforting, needs to be broken every now and then to keep us on our toes. Having to learn new ideas and skills keeps the challenge that we need to keep our spirits up. I stated at the start that when we started small holding we learnt by copying. However, to tell the truth there was one time when we were in the vanguard and leading from the front.  Once, when we thought we might have been trendsetters or to have possibly discovered a new farming technique.

One of our elderly ewes had to be helped when she delivered her lambs. This  was exciting as it was the first time that we had to actually pull a stuck lamb from its mother. Everything that we had read and watched worked as it should and we felt quite smug after having successfully delivered healthy lambs. However, our relief that we managed to do this was quickly tempered by the ewe developing a uterine infection. After a course of penicillin she recovered but lost her entire fleece and was completely bald. We did not know what to do, we feared she’d be cold and come to harm.DSC_0791.JPG

We found an old dog coat, in fetching blue, which we kept on her by bands of duct tape which gave a dashing belted effect. We thought we had done very well and she looked quite handsome. She recovered fully which she would have done anyway, apparently. Local farmers later told us that this was a recognised side-effect of antibiotics and will sort itself out. We watched as the farmers  drove past our field, we noticed as they shook their heads and wondered if they were nodding sagely and thinking “what a wise and fashionable idea, why didn’t we think of it ?” or whether they were convulsing with laughter thinking “what are those idiots up to now ?“. I tend to think that latter was more likely as I haven’t noticed a sudden profusion of colourfully dressed sheep in our local fields.

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Religious freedom; that is, the ability to think freely on religious matters, the right to worship an the manner your religion decides, the freedom of associate with others of your faith, and the freedom to express your faith, through words or actions, is one of the hallmarks of a modern, liberal, civilised society. One of the signs that this has been reached is the tolerance that citizens show towards fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs as them. Thus in a tolerant society people may disagree, even vehemently so, and believe others wrong in their thoughts and deeds but we tolerate these differences and live alongside each other despite them. We do not insist we all think and believe the same way and do not demand that people act, or don’t act , in the same way. We don’t insist that we all abstain from meat on a Friday, nor that we all observe the Sabbath on Saturday, nor do we insist we all face Mecca while we pray.

However, there are some limits to this tolerance. This tolerance does not allow us to commit acts which are harmful to others and we insist that everyone is equal in front of the law. Or rather, with the rare cases of religious exceptions, we insist everyone is equal in front of the law. We tend to think that these exceptions should be rare, and should be based on a clear picture that they are necessary for religious observance, and do not break the natural rights of others. For example, I am sure that no matter how liberal a state became, and no matter how protective it was of religious freedom, that any modern state could countenance an exception to permit ‘child sacrifice’.

That above example was an extreme and therefore easy choice, but what of the difficult choices ? What about when a religions try to preserve archaic practices which we no longer hold to be reasonable ? What about when a religion demands of its adherents that they mutilate the genitals of their young ? This one is difficult . In the UK we allow a religious exemption to mutilate young boys’ genitals , while we circumcise them, but ban and prosecute anyone who tries to mutilate a young girl’s genitals. We cope with a difficult problem by having obvious dual standards. This is how important religious freedom is; it is more acceptable to be incoherent and duplicitous than to infringe any more than is absolutely necessary on the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

When these practices do not involve the suffereing and rights of people, but rather relate to animals, we become even less logical. It is generally accepted that if we are to kill, to eat, large animals such as hens, sheep or cattle, then they should be stunned into insensibility before the final act of killing the animal is performed. There is a clear body of evidence that animals which are not stunned and who bleed to death suffer pain and distress during this process. (For a summary by the RSPCA and British Veterinary Society see here). Therefore it is against the law to kill an animal by bleeding unless it has been stunned beforehand. Except if there is a religious excemption such as exists for the halal or kosher slaughter of animals. In most cases, even those animals who are slaughtered under kosher or halal regulations are still stunned before slaughter but it is estimated that up to 1 in 5 animals killed under these relgulations are killed without being stunned.

I am of a liberal disposition. I do not agree with this method of killing and think those that do this are doing a great diservice to the animal and to their faith. I argue with them and hope that, given time, they will see the error of their ways and behave better – either by stunning their animals or by deciding not to eat them at all. If you can only eat the animal if it has suffered it would seem inhumane to eat it, especially as there is no necessity to eat meat at all. I will, and have, argued strongly on this topic but because I am a tolerant individual I must tolerate their right to do this. It is one of the costs of maintaining our society, I would not seek to ban them but would urge them to reconsider their practice.

Unfortunately, I fear that an aspect of this problem is not being dealt with fairly and that a lack of openness and honesty is causing unnecesary suffering for animals. Many animals in abbatoires are killed in accordance with halal practice and the numbers killed thus exceeds the number needed for sale clearly labelled as killed under these religious excemptions. It is felt wiser in the slaughterhouse to do more animals this way than needed as they can be sold as normal while an animal killed humanely can not be sold as halal or kosher.

There is obviously no harm which will befall someone should they eat halal slaughtered meat unknowingly, though an observant religious person finding they had unwittingly eaten meat not slaughtered in such a fashion may worry for their souls (Though I believe the religions themselves give dispensation for such accidents). So many animals are killed without stunning but no mention is made of this on the labelling except when it is sold explicitly as halal meat. It has been suggested that almost every kebab sold in Wales is mad from meat slaughtered to halal standard (some stunned, some not) but no mention of this will be made at the point of sale. This is the very definition of unnecessary suffering , if I eat meat killed without stunning when I have no religious need to do so, then that the suffering of that animal was unnecessary and should have been avoided.

We already place labels on our food, various pleasant red tractors, or green trees, to ressure us that our animals had a good life and were well cared for. But we seem reluctant to place a label which lets us know that the animal didn’t suffer at death. I can understand the retailers’ reluctance; they clearly know that if there was a label saying halal slaughter some buyers would avoid that product because they do not want to be party to unnecessary animal suffering. They would prefer that we remain ignorant and continue to make the purchase unhindered by any moral deliberation.  Unfortunately they thus remove a choice we may wish to make to support better animal husbandry.

I fear our legislators also wish to avoid this issue but for a darker and more sinister reason. I believe that  they fear, that should they insist on labels saying ‘humane slaughter’, or something similar, then people may ask for a debate on how far religious exceptions in law can go in our society. They fear that they may unleash public anger. They tend to believe that for every person troubled by issues of religious tolerance and animal welfare there is a bigoted, racist, islamophobic or anti-Semitic  doppelgänger who will be released, and therefore it is best just to keep quiet about all of this.

Unfortunately keeping quiet and hiding secrets never encourages anyone to change. Those to whom you lied never find themselves pleasantly surprised when they find out the secrets you kept from them. It is more likely that when people find the truth they tend to become angry and hostile. Thus, if anything, this strategy of hidding the religious exemptions from humane slaughter is, in the long term, likely to increase animosity between groups and reduce the drivers for change and increased societal harmony. A simple label “killed humanely” would reassure those of us who eat meat, it might make some of us who eat meat think about whether we should continue to do so, and would hardly be offputting to someone who felt that their alternative methods were appropriate (Though it may make them think).

Surely it is just as important to know the animal was cared for when it was killed as to know that it was treated fairly while alive ? It might even be the very least we could do.