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Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

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The Next Generation of Chickens

On Monday our black game hen, a native born resident of the Manor, brought eight little puffballs on legs out to see the world.

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A black hen with black skin and five little black and white chicks plus three little yellow chicks with brown stripes on their backs. They're kicking through waste hay in an area where I just planted fall wheat because of course they are.

We are happy to see these little guys, and hope a good chunk of them survive (free ranging leads to high mortality levels for baby chickens). Both their parents were hatched here, hardy survivors of everything the piedmont has thrown at them from foxes to parasites. They represent the next step in my quest to be the world’s laziest chicken keeper with a flock of hardy, wily birds who need very little from me to thrive and live as chickens are meant to live: roaming around eating seeds and bugs and greenery, dust bathing and sunbathing instead of penned up and dealing with commercial food and accumulations of their own waste. Furthermore, they’re integral parts of our soil improvement plan (as I’ve mentioned before).

Godspeed, little chickens. May you grow and thrive and hopefully at least one of you is a spare rooster we can eat.

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Answering Googled Questions: Why Are Purebred Livestock Important?

The quick answer to this question is “predictability”. A well-established breed will allow you to make educated guesses about things like milk production, feed efficiency, and even behavior. Nubian dairy goats, for instance, are known for being loud as well as good (but generally not phenomenal) producers of milk. Breeds of livestock selected for meat production build muscle and fat quickly. Leghorn chickens are flighty, spooky bastards but lay eggs like nobody’s business. In short, with purebred livestock you know pretty well what you’re getting.

A close up of a male goat's face, mostly white but with black horns and a black nose and dramatic mahogany brown stripes running from his horns, across his eyes, to the corners of his mouth. He has a short but luxurious beard and he's sticking his tongue out.
Sanglant is the product of a cross between a Nubian doe and a Baylis line Spanish buck.

This leads, of course, to the problem of shrinking gene pools. Closed herd books are a double-edged blade (or, hah, a mixed blessing). As the average coefficient of inbreeding increases in a given breed, individuals become more and more prone to inbreeding depression. You’ll get animals who just don’t thrive, who have weak immune systems. At that point, careful outcrossing may be the only way to save the breed. Done well, it will preserve the breed’s essential characteristics while revitalizing the dying gene pool.

But I digress. Purebred livestock are important because they offer farmers predictability in their stock and when carefully stewarded preserve genetic resources handed down to us by our own ancestors. Pure breeds can offer us a glimpse of what our forebears thought was valuable and important to preserve, and should the major commercial breeds of livestock be endangered by disease or environment, other breeds may step in to save them with a genetic contribution or indeed replace them. The lovely variety of livestock breeds also allows farmers to select animals that will be economical to raise under whatever system the farmer has decided to use, from organic pasture-raised gourmet foods to backyard food sources to industrial production destined for supermarket shelves.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How smart are sheep?

When I asked on Twitter for my followers to inspire today’s blog post, two people almost immediately wanted to know: are sheep as stupid as people think they are?

All five Soays march toward me in a determined fashion, led by Urdo the wether.

It’s a little bit of a complicated question. The short answer is no, sheep are in their own way bright and curious creatures, if flighty as hell compared to goats. Sheep can be trained, and while a flock is at first glance a mindless mob, there’s actually some really interesting social dynamics going on.

But they’re not, y’know, geniuses. Let me demonstrate with an anecdote. Periodically when we’re moving fences, a couple Soays escape. We’ve set up a sheep trap consisting of a 4 foot tall puppy exercise pen with a dish of grain in it and a long string attached to the door so it can be closed from a distance. Inevitably (and quite quickly now that they know about the grain) if I sit quietly on the milk stand, the escaped sheep will walk right into the sheep trap and I will pull the door gently shut behind them.

This trick wouldn’t work on goats. A goat would remember where the door is and charge it, and given that I’m holding it shut with tension on a long rope cobbled together from pieces of baling twine, the goat would escape. The sheep, however, totally forget where the door was and spin in confused circles, so we latch the door, lean over and grab the sheep, and take them back to the flock. It works every time, and in fact the more it happens the easier it gets, because the escaped sheep beeline for the trap and its dish of grain. Supposing I did manage to trap a goat, they’d never set foot in that pen again. Goats have great memories and hold a grudge; sheep brains seem to be easily short-circuited by a pan of sweet feed.

At the same time, none of the Soays have ever gotten their horns caught in the hay feeder, whereas any goat that can get their horns through it will, and then will forget how to get their horns back out, leading to us taping a Stick of Shame to them to prevent them getting trapped.

Frankie, a brown and white wether, has a Stick taped across his horns and extending three or four inches out on each side. He does not ahead to be amused.

So the question of sheep intellect isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Certainly they are smarter than people think they are, but a really bright sheep still isn’t all that smart. But they are curious, gentle creatures, and a pleasure to keep.

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Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. The Schaumburg pest control at http://www.bigfootpestcontrol.com/ have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

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A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.