3 June, 2013

The Case Against Purebred Livestock

The more I work with chickens and goats (and dogs for that matter), the more convinced I am that the designation “purebred” for animals is not only useless but harmful, and that livestock shows, in which animals are judged for conformation rather than production, are a poison to agriculture.

There’s certainly a case to be made in favor of purebreds, in that they can be very predictable in terms of appearance, behavior, and important measures like feed conversion (the amount of food an animal needs to produce milk, eggs, meat, wool, or some combination thereof). But the downside is that limiting the gene pool artificially is actively harmful to populations.

In goats, we’re starting to see a problem in Nubians because of the G6S mutation, a recessive that can cause a goat to fail to thrive and then drop dead suddenly at quite a young age. Scientists estimate that 25% of the population of Nubians has it, and so far not nearly enough breeders are testing for G6S status on their Nuban herds, which means it can pop up unexpectedly. For the small breeder for whom each animal is a friend and pet as well as milk producer, the emotional impact can be terrible. For commercial dairies, it can represent a serious loss of income to have doelings start dropping dead.

Among chickens, you see formerly productive breeds that are no just feathery lawn ornaments. The Buckeye, for instance, was bred to be a thrifty, hardy free-range bird that required minimal human input to put meat and eggs on the table. Extensive breeding has made it a bird that is more comfortable sitting in coops eating pellets from a feeder rather than a wily hunter of bugs and seeds. When I went looking for a free-range Buckeye flock to try and bring some actually useful Buckeye genetics in, I couldn’t find a single one within range of me, and there were perishing few nationwide.

The popularization of the incubator, brooders, and wide availability of pelleted feed, along with the growing crop of people who just want a couple hens for the back yard, means that the chickens our great-great-grandparents knew are hard to find. Incubators allow every single egg to hatch, even those that produce weak chicks who need coddling in a brooder. Likewise the coddling in a brooder allows chicks to live that don’t have the physiology to handle local weather conditions, diseases, and parasites. These chicks grow up to be the chickens who need constant deworming, climate-controlled coops, and other interventions to survive. Which is all very good and well if you want a couple hens for your backyards while relaxing on your Blue Oak Patio Furniture. When you want meat and eggs for your table that sort of chicken is not terribly useful.

Meanwhile, people like to pay premium prices for “purebred”, show-quality chickens, or even just purebred rare chickens. Often these birds are the product of extremely limited gene pools. While some people will assert with a straight face that inbreeding does not affect chickens, they are either lying because they want to sell you poultry or they’re woefully ignorant. Loss of genetic diversity will get you chickens who fail to thrive, drop dead mysteriously and unexpectedly, who have poor feed conversion rates, and who are so damn stupid they won’t even come in out of the rain (nota bene: show quality silkies are NOTORIOUS for this).

Part of the problem, a big part of the problem, is that people are raising livestock for pets these days. Our ancestors avoided the pitfalls of inbreeding by ruthlessly culling any animal who didn’t perform and putting it on the dinner table. Today’s “homesteaders” are often unwilling to cull this hard, and that goes triple for people who are hoping to cash in on the craze for expensive rare breed livestock.

And therein lies the rub. While it’s important to preserve these reservoirs of genetic diversity, it’s equally important that they not be degraded into uselessness by a refusal to cull animals that don’t perform by removing them from the gene pool one way or another. Otherwise we just wind up with more sad fat Buckeye chickens sitting in cages at shows, unable to fulfill the promise of their ancestors.

27 August, 2012

Holding Pattern

The school semester has started up, which means I have added a full-time class load to the goats and chickens and dogs and cats. This time around at least I’m not trying to also juggle working full time. My whole goal for this semester is to get through it without the kind of life-changing upheaval that had me giving up entirely on Math last time, as the news I was about to lose my job hit at the same time as math class hit statistics, a branch of math that I’ve never learned before. Didn’t learn it that time, either, I must admit.

Anyway, once this semester and a computer competency test are out of the way, I’ll have my associate’s degree and have to pick a real major and decide what I want to be when I grow up. I’m trying not to think about it as it’s kind of stressful and I’ve got enough going on.

Meanwhile, Annabelle is due to give birth any minute now. We’re just waiting on her tail ligaments to soften to declare that she’s about to have babies; as some of you may recall Josie taunted me like this for nearly a month. At least this time I know when Annabelle was bred so I have a definite date range. Esk is due right after her, so this fall will see a crop of bouncing baby goats. Tiny ones. I predict amazing amounts of cuteness.

The barn I ordered will get here sometime in the next couple weeks. I’m sincerely hoping it gets here before Annabelle gives birth, because it will make the whole labor and delivery thing way easier, but I’m not holding my breath. Knowing goats, Annabelle will have her babies some weekday morning at 0300, and at 0800 the barn place will call me and offer to deliver the barn. This is how the world works when goats are involved.

To try and keep myself sane I’ve been making sure I take time every morning to sit with the goats and enjoy their company. It’s pretty peaceful out there. You can see pics from my Morning Breakfast Meetings with Goats at my Flickr account or, if you’re on Instagram, you can find me as mixedblessings (of course).

28 March, 2012

Learning new skills, exciting signs of self-sufficiency

Yesterday we trimmed Josie’s front hooves. As it turns out, goats are about as thrilled at having their feet done as dogs are about getting their toenails trimmed. So I’m working on finding a treat that goats cannot resist so I can get out the clicker and clicker-train my goats to at least stand still for foot trimming if not actually enjoy it. So far Esk and Annabelle have refused apples and baby carrots; I need to try those on Josie who is a less picky eater than they are. They were also highly skeptical about their pelleted feed until they saw Josie start eating it, so if she will nom the carrots and apples I may have a hit.

In other news, we sold eggs for eating and then the proceeds mostly paid for siding for the goat house, which is a nice feeling. So far the livestock have basically been a drain on resources, but I’m hoping with me home and able to dedicate more time to things like egg sales and hatching baby chickens to sell (not to mention sales of baby goats) that they will become more self-supporting.

In other other news, I have today, Thursday, and half of Friday left before I am free of my job. I am pretty excited. So far my plans involve a lot of sleeping.

22 March, 2012

Poor lawnmowers, excellent edgers!

All right. So I did pick up two tiny adorable Nigerian Dwarf goats, and then as things do they kind of got out of hand and I picked up a pregnant Oberhasli mix doe who is a year old. This way Daniel and I will have milk and cheese this spring, summer, and fall, and the little girls get a chance to be a year and a half old or so before I breed them, which I think is better for all concerned.

Things I have learned about goats:
They make very poor lawnmowers. Well, I knew that from my reading and talking to other goat owners. They do, however, make excellent edgers. They’ve been living in the backyard while the goat fence got installed, and during their free-range time they have been working in a very dedicated fashion to clean up the dead leaves piled along the fence and also the dried grass stuck in it. What good goats. But what you actually wanted was goat pics, right? Right. Let’s see if I can make this work.

Two tiny goats, not more than knee-high, stand with their heads turned looking at the camera.  The one in front, slightly smaller, is white with orangey-red spots, while her sister is mostly white with a pale creamy red stripe down her back and patches of the same color at her knees and ankles.
That’s Eskanazi, affectionately known as “Esk” in front with the spots, and Annabelle in back. They’re the Nigerian Dwarf does I picked up last Friday evening. Esk loves people and loves to be petted, while Annabelle is a little shy.

A close-up of the face of a doe.  She is mostly a russety goldeny red-brown, with a black muzzle and black stripes at her eyes and on the front of her face.  On top of her head is a perfect halo of russety goldeny red-brown surrounded by black.
And this is Josephine, who should give birth towards the end of April or beginning of May. She’s an Oberhasli mix. Oberhasli are an alpine dairy breed whose milk is mostly used to make cheese. I am so looking forward to home-made cheese!