27 August, 2015

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The magic of domestication

A friend of mine linked this article about the changes to various plant foods after domestication a couple days ago. I fund the ways we’ve selectively bred crops to be fascinating — particularly the way teosinte has made such utterly radical changes.

Our changes to animals have been large, but in the cases of livestock those changes haven’t been nearly as radical as what teosinte underwent, at least not physically. When we domesticate animals, the changes tend to be mostly mental: they have a much shorter flight distance and a much larger tolerance for novelty than their wild counterparts. Dogs, of course, are the canonical case of domestication that wrought large physiological changes but even larger mental ones. On the basis of pure physicality my German Shepherds are recognizable as cousins to the wolf; Zille even carries the agouti striping on each hair that gives wolves their camouflage. But mentally they are worlds away from their wild cousins, who would rather eat sheep than herd them and would never dream of being a service animal.

The bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus) is, if not the only ancestor of domesticated goats (Capra aegagrus hircus), then certainly the majority ancestor. Looking at it, it is recognizably a goat, and the “bezoar” color pattern of a lighter body with black markings on legs, belly, and face along with a black dorsal stripe persists in our friendly dairy goats.

Compare this bezoar ibex buck to lovable Sebastian:
A largish goat with freakin enormous black horns curving straight back. The animal has a grayish-brown body with black stripes over the shoulders and black markings on face, legs, and belly.
Image via Wikimedia commons.

A tall, sleek mahogany red goat buck. He has the same black markings as the ibex buck only slightly reduced. He also has flaring moderately sized black horns, pendulous ears speckled with white, a white nose, a white spot on top of his head, and pale spots scattered all over his body. Behind him is Terror, who is his mini-me and shows the juvenile version of the pattern, which involves having less black.
Sebastian shows off the adult bezoar pattern in domesticated goats while Terror shows off the juvenile version.

If I had Alpines instead of Nubian/Spanish crosses, the physical resemblance would be even more striking, since Alpines have retained the upright ears of most goat breeds. Physiologically and skeletally, however, the ancestors of domestic goats and my goats are indistinguishable aside from matters of size (and those magnificent horns!).

In chickens the wild type has been retained as a modern breed, referred to as “Jungle Fowl”, and game breeds originally bred for fighting adhere to it quite closely except in matters of color of tameness. Most domesticated breeds of chicken have had their ability to sit a nest and raise young bred out of them by the advent of incubators and brooders, something that’s been quite the problem for us in establishing a self-replacing free-range flock.

Sheep haven’t had the wild type preserved in domestication, not even by beloved Soays. Though they’re closer to the wild mouflon in size, appearance, and shedding than other breeds, they’re still recognizably touched by selective breeding. But they’re still closer visually and physiologically to their ancestors than teosinte and corn.

Indeed, we may have to go back to dogs and turn to the Chihuahua to find an animal that’s come as far from its ancestors as corn has. The plasticity of plant genomes appears to out-perform that of mammals at least in terms of non-lethal mutations useful to humans.

At any rate, the story of human-guided evolution remains fascinating. Unfortunately the wild equivalents of much of our livestock are in danger of disappearing (the aurochs is already gone). Without care and conservation, our grandchildren may no longer be able to look and see where goats came from.

26 August, 2015

Life Stages: Gwyn, it’s time to stop nursing.

Gwyn, Thea’s daughter, is around five months old. Left to their own devices, a doe will get pregnant again about now and wean the existing baby. But I’ve wethered my two bucks, and Thea shows absolutely zero signs of demanding that Gwyn stop nursing. More worryingly, Thea is scary thin, having poured all her reserves straight into her udder. And Gwyn is huge for her age, nearly as tall as Thea.

Thea and Gwyn, both solid white goats with, um, horn-colored horns, lying down together and looking up at the camera.

Farmers with more land can round up kids (or lambs, or calves) and put them in a pasture separate from their mothers, where they can’t hear or see each other. I don’t have that much land, and having watched goats for a while I’d be loath to do it even if I did. Sudden separation from the herd, even with a group of buddies their own age, is really hard on goats. It’s even harder for mother/daughter pairs, who in the wild would stay together their entire lives.

The solution, in this case, was to put surgical tape over the orifices on Thea’s teats. Weirdly, the addition of tape seems to have caused Gwyn to lose the teats entirely — she acts like she just cannot find them. But day one went really well, the tape stayed on, Gwyn got to stay with her mother but didn’t nurse, and Thea was quite comfortable. This morning I milked her out and discovered Gwyn has been getting a half-gallon of milk per day. No wonder she’s huge and Thea is so skinny!

I’ll be adjusting Thea to being milked once every other day, which should be sustainable for her while providing enough for humans to have milk and cheese. Meanwhile, not-so-little Gwyn is happy and Thea is happy and that makes me happy.

22 August, 2015

21 August, 2015

Sustainability part 5: human labor

Yesterday I talked about sustainability in the micro level and got into money. Today, let’s talk about another micro-level resource that’s seldom considered: human beings.

As many of my readers know, I’m disabled by chronic pain and fatigue. This means I’m more focused than many on ways to conserve human effort, and if I’m brutally honest it’s at the heart of many of my sustainability efforts. For instance, I talked about conserving the genetics of disease- and parasite-resistant livestock. Not only does this mean I need to use fewer medical interventions, it means I’m spared having to wrestle a relatively large, extremely irate ruminant while I attempt to administer those medical interventions. Having free range poultry means no need to shovel out a chicken coop. Using no-till and biointensive growing methods for plant crops not only sustains and improves soil health and conserves water but also means that once a bed is established we never again have to engage in the heavy work of digging it over.

A guinea hen struts past the camera, head cocked.
Most tilling here is done by poultry, who will pick out and eat weed seeds and grubs while they do it.

Still, it’s unavoidable that some heavy labor is involved. Deep bedding the ruminant stall may mean I don’t have to dig it out weekly, but it still needs to be dug out. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who can be bribed with food and are willing to help with farm tasks from mucking out stalls to rounding up sheep and loading them in the car. Communal labor used to be a major part of agriculture, as neighbors gathered to shuck corn, build barns, shear sheep, boil down syrup from sorghum or maple sap, etc etc. Industrialization has indeed conserved human labor, but it’s also undoubtedly isolated farmers. Another sad knock on effect has been to isolate the vast majority of human beings from the sources of their food.

Agriculture must be healthy and sustaining for the human beings it serves. While there’s no going back to pre-industrial agriculture while still feeding everyone in industrialized nations, the choices we’ve made to produce that food have been questionable at times. We’ve reached a point where agriculture at the macro and micro levels can be dangerous to everyone it touches, from farm withers exposed to pesticides to consumers eating fish contaminated by bacteria from manure run off to the Chesapeake Bay with its dead spot fed in part by excess nitrogen run off from surrounding farms.

A crowd of goats and sheep chews their way into a stand of brush.
We certainly don’t need to do any bush hogging here.

Yet calls for more sustainable agriculture practice often fail to resonate, perhaps because they often center livestock. It is very difficult for many people to relate to a chicken, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short that chicken’s life is. Framed with human beings at the center, sustainable agricultural practice becomes more relatable, which in turn may lead to pushes for legislation that supports and subsidizes more ethical practices the way we currently support and subsidize industrial ag.

Meanwhile, down here at the micro level, me and my friends will be shoveling out this goat stall.

20 August, 2015

19 August, 2015

Sustainability, part 3: genetics

It is no secret that the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is of great concern. While regulations for meat and milk withdrawal times do a reasonable job at keeping antibiotics out of the food supply, large populations of livestock receiving subtherapeutic amounts of antibiotics over long periods of time has contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Life, as Dr. Ian Malcolm tells us in the movie Jurassic Park. Bacteria are no exception.

If you’ve read the first two entries in this week’s series, you may recall that leaving my property better than I found it is something of a theme right alongside sustainable agriculture. The same goes for the gene pool of the livestock I keep. Standard farming methods require the use of dewormers, supplements, antibiotics — whether synthetic or natural, animal owners use a whole host of interventions designed to keep animals healthy.

I am not averse to treating acute illness or parasite infestation in my animals, but with every use of every intervention, we run the risk of that intervention no longer working. This is true both of synthetic medications made in a lab and herbal treatments: they all use chemicals toxic to bacteria or parasites in order to kill the problem organism. Unfortunately this can cause an unskillfully treated flock or herd to become a tiny evolution lab as pathogens and parasites find a way to thrive, becoming resistant.

What does all of this mean for sustainability? For me it means selecting hardy breeds and/or only breeding animals who thrive without these interventions. I’m not concerned with whether or not an animal has a parasite load, for instance. Any animal living and foraging outdoors is going to have one. What concerns me is whether or not an animal needs constant intervention to moderate her parasite load to a level she can handle. If so, these aren’t genes I want to add to my program, and the animal in question will be sold or culled.

Our chickens and guineas, living free range, are the most ruthlessly culled, but not by us. Birds that don’t thrive usually get picked off by predators before we even notice there’s a problem. The result is a core flock that is hardy, wily, and excellent parents. They aren’t purebred anything, making their offspring not particularly marketable in today’s pet chicken economy, but they are birds that my ancestors would have recognized as good livestock — unlike the purebred flocks that have lived confined and medicated and coddled for so long that they’ve forgotten how to even sit a clutch of eggs.

The goats are a slower game, since it takes so much longer to raise a new generation. Here I crossed in Baylis line Spanish, renowned for their hardiness and good hooves, to improve my beloved but relatively fragile dairy goats. Being a large investment per animal and living confined, it’s much easier for me to spot signs of acute illness and parasite infestation and act on them, but if it’s happening too often then an animal must move on. There’s a small market for my outcrosses, since there are still people who value hardiness and low-input care in goats over pedigree. Certainly it’s easier to sell the babies than it is with the chickens!

Two small, graceful Soay ewes. One is auburn, the other dark brown. Both have creamy markings under their chins and bellies, relatively long legs, and elegant quarter-circle horns.
The Soay ewes invite you to admire their phenotype and cherish their genotype.

Lastly, the Soay sheep offer their own conundrum as I learn to shift to conservation breeding. To remove a Soay ewe from the gene pool is a monumental act, although not so much for a ram provided he has plenty of brothers. Each kid is precious to the small Soay genetic legacy but the ewes, who can only produce one or two offspring per year, are most precious of all. Here, the best way to maintain hardiness is to try like hell to avoid inbreeding depression while at the same time matching the most disease and parasite resistant rams with ewes whose bloodlines need a little boost in that area.

The maintenance of animals who can establish a detente in the arms race with parasites and pathogens on their own means that when I really need a medical intervention for one, it will work. It means that when I sell an animal, the new owner isn’t also getting a load of well-evolved parasites that laugh at the thought of fenbendazole. And it means that I’m not constantly rounding animals up to give them shots of antibiotics, drenches of dewormer, or other unpleasantness for the animal.

Sustainability isn’t the fast game of this year’s show season, milk test, crop of lambs. And hilariously, in this case, it means not only selecting for and protecting livestock gene pools, but conserving the gene pools of parasites and bacteria as well, to maintain populations susceptible to medical intervention for as long as I can.

18 August, 2015

17 August, 2015

What does “sustainability” mean?

Along with words like “heirloom”, “heritage”, “pasture-raised”, and “green”, “sustainable” is one of those food buzzwords that’s been getting a lot of play. The problem of course is that there are no hard and fast definitions for any of them, which can lead to a lot of frustration for consumers.

So I thought I’d write a little bit about what sustainability means to me, and what approaches I take to meet my own sustainability goals.

For me, sustainable agriculture is all about being conservative. Not in the sense of being a political conservative, or voting for the Republican party, but in the sense of using the fewest resources possible to accomplish the greatest good. This week I’ll be talking about the most important resources I have to work with.

The first resource to conserve for sustainability is the soil. Those of you who have been around a while may remember that a previous property owner  scraped up all the topsoil and sold it, leaving us with red clay subsoil rich in potassium and phosphorus, but with zero nitrogen. When we did our original soil tests, the nitrogen test didn’t even react.

There are two other problems with having red clay as our only soil to work with: one, it compacts if you so much as look at it too hard; and two, once compacted the rain runs right off it in rivers and takes soil nutrients with it, or else forms mucky, soggy puddles that are bad for plants, animal hooves, and keeping your shoes on and your feet dry unless you’re wearing well-fitted boots. Waterproof ones.

Our greatest assets in the struggle to not just conserve soil but to improve it are the flora and fauna. First we ran the goats through the sections of the property covered in small, scrubby, invasive pine trees. Once the goats had killed the trees, we cut them to allow sunlight to reach the earth. Then we started planting, using wildlife food plots with added clover and vetch seeds. Alsike clover and vetch are both nitrogen fixers that do pretty well in heavy clay soils, and the turnips and chicory sink big roots that break up and loosen the soil. Annual grasses have a part to play as well, since they send their roots into the first few inches of soil and then die back, leaving organic material behind that feeds future generations of grasses.

Meanwhile, the goats and poultry are eating the plants and creating manure. As they scratch and peck their way through the pasture sections, the poultry break up the hard soil surface and any organic material (including manure) on it, mixing them together and planting whatever seeds they don’t eat. Our industrious flock of chickens and guinea fowl is a topsoil-creation machine.

A guinea cock, dark grey with tiny white spots in rows in his feathers and featuring a naked head that is mostly white except for bright red wattles, heavy black eye makeup, and a brown fin like a very silly hat, stands on the edge of a tire.
A guinea cock contemplates all the work he has to do to create topsoil.

Native fungi are another surprising ally in the soil improvement fight. Primary decomposers take advantage of the tree roots left in the ground. As the mycelium feeds on the wood, it releases nutrients into the soil to feed the surrounding plants. Unfortunately for me and my taste for mushrooms, I haven’t yet found any edible species growing here, but I do plan to establish some later this summer. Mycorrhizae form symbiotic relationships with plants, attaching to their roots and helping the plant draw more nourishment from the soil, improving things as they go.  The better the soil gets, the more able we are tho feed the livestock from the pasture we have on hand.

The tiniest helpers are, of course, bacteria. Along with fungi, anaerobic soil bacteria decompose organic matter, releasing nutrients for plants. Aerobic bacteria are crucial to the nitrogen cycle, and it’s friendly little bacteria who make it possible for legumes to do their handy nitrogen-fixing trick.

Back in 2012 I also wrote about keeping soil nutrients on the farm. That brief post still holds true: every product of the farm that leaves takes some of our soil with it. We try to counteract that whenever possible, for instance by burying offal and bones from the slaughter of livestock, but it’s inevitable that we’ll lose just a little. I’m too Southern and enjoy sharing food with people too much to keep it all here.

A handful of radishes in gold and red with vibrant green leafy tops and a little dirt still clinging to them.
I ate all these radishes myself, though. They were delicious.

In my next post, I’ll look at water as a resource for conservation and protection.

15 August, 2015

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