Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Importance of Our Heritage Cattle

Recently I came across a very interesting article written by Gearld Fry on the New Farm website. The article was originally published on his website, Bovine Engineering, and is titled, "Intelligent Husbandry of Primary Heritage Breeds Could be Our Key to More-Sustainable Farming and Food." That is one super long title, but it is a great article so I will let it pass!

I believe the opening section of the article is an amazing representation of what is happening in livestock agriculture (and probably crop too) right now and you should probably read it and re-read it several times so it sinks in. But, the basic premise is that at one time our farms were filled with "truly functional family cows" raised by this generations fathers and grandfathers. Once the sons and grandsons returned from educational institutions they bring with them new "knowledge" about creating the perfect herd from a commercial standpoint. Oh, and they learn this knowledge from Universities that are funded by large corporations with greed behind their motives.

So, the son our daughter takes over and starts to implement change using the latest breeding techniques in animal sciences. They create calves that wean bigger and finish bigger and that produce more milk, but they also find that despite all of the vaccinations their cattle keep getting sick and dying for no apparent reason. With all of the inputs, work, burnout, and animal loss their farm becomes increasingly unsustainable...

I think this quote from Mr. Fry sums up best where we are right now as an agirculutral industry (maybe it is a bad thing to be considered an industry) and culture:

As it is, cattle—animals that in their natural state could normally stay fat and healthy on green grass and good hay, and nourish families with wholesome and healthy meat and milk as God intended —have been steadily transformed into what has become a starch-dependent, mongrelized production machine that produces food that tastes like cardboard and causes heart disease and numerous other health problems.

At one time farmers and ranchers never or rarely had to give any sort of treatment to calves while still nursing ... not so today. At one time twice yearly worming wasn't even on the radar ... not so today. At one time cattlemen breed for sick-free cattle who could produce instead of super producing cattle who rarely weren't sick. In the words of Mr. Fry, "My friends, this should not be."

The rest of the article goes on to tell more about the faulty system that we are operating under in today's livestock world. I think this is a must read article for any farmer who believes that their farm should and can be sustainable.

In the article Mr. Fry mentions that there were 8-10 breeds of cattle that were adapted to various environments across our country. I think he raises Devons, so I assume that would be on the list, but I wonder what else. Maybe he mentions on his site or maybe some of you have some guesses? Let us know what you think.

In the meantime, check out the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy to learn more about our heritage breeds that are in danger and consider a breeding program that takes advantage of the genetics that our forefathers perfected over years and years ... not just the ideas of 50 years and research funded by animal medicine companies.

**As you may have noticed from the picture above I suggest Dexter cattle. They may not work for everyone, but the do fit the definition of a dual purpose home cow!**


Yeoman said...

On universities, I don't think we want to be too general in regards to them.

I don't have an agriculture degree, but on universities in general, it seems to me that you get some people who come from the background, and are just academically inclined. They can be pretty good.

You do get industry money. That seems to be the case in everything.

Beyond that, you always get some folks who are actually completely clueless about the practicalities of their field. But they're teaching anyway. They couldn't do it in the real world. But that doesn't apply to all ag profs by any means (it sure does to a lot of law profs, however).

In ag, the oddest material I tend to see is some Agricultural Economic material that comes out the big schools. It's even written in such a way that you have to wonder if the authors know that agriculture involves farming.

farm mama said...

An interesting point, Yeoman. I grew up in Wyoming and my father worked for the University of Wyoming Experimental Farm in Torrington in the summers. He never went further than graduating from high school, but had raised animals and crops all his life. As you know, most crops in Wyoming require irrigation, and that was his main duty. He used to come home very frustrated because a young university graduate (his boss) would insist on telling him how to irrigate - and it just didn't work!! Text book learning is great, but only as a foundation to build on. You MUST be open to learning from those with experience, even if they don't have the academic credentials.

Yeoman said...

"He used to come home very frustrated because a young university graduate (his boss) would insist on telling him how to irrigate - and it just didn't work!"

Probably the oddest thing of that nature I ever heard was from a law school professor.

When I was in law school, one of the courses we all took was water law, as water is a critical resource in Wyoming. As it happens, very few Wyoming lawyers ever do anything with water law again, but our system is somewhat unique, and it is important that people learn it.

Anyhow, the professor who was there at the time has since moved on, but he was in a pitched extended argument with rancher legislator Pat O'Toole over the proposed Sandstone Dam. While the prof really knew the law on the topic, he didn't know irrigating at all. He lost me at the point that he argued, in class, that he thought the law in the state should be changed to require every irrigation ditch to be concrete lined.

Concrete lining does reduce loss to the soil, to be sure, but it doesn't match the reality of Wyoming's agricultural set up at all. There's miles and miles of shallow, unlined ditches which receive sporadic use. No way on earth any farmer or rancher could afford to line them.

Likewise, an equally buffoonish opinion has come out of current law school prof, Deb Donahue. Donahue wrote some work that was run in a local paper (if I recall correctly) lamenting the destruction of the prairie by agriculture, and noting that she was writing or recalling what she could see out her window in Laramie. Well, if you see the prairie in Laramie that's because you are likely in one of the newer houses. Cow's eating grass is one thing. Houses built on the grass is another. That's the real destruction.

farm mama said...

My father had mostly dirt irrigation ditches. The main ditch coming into our farm was cement. Several advantages having dirt ones - if you need to move one or add one, it is a simply matter to take the plow and make one. Another advantage that my brother appreciated when we were kids were the masses of earthworms that would accumulate up against the canvas dam in a newly drained ditch. He would go out early on summer mornings and pick them up, put them in a large galvanized metal washtub of dirt, and sell them to fishermen. I've been away from the farm for over 40 years, but I could still set a canvas dam or start water flowing through an irrigation tube. The bane of my father's life was gophers - he'd get the water set right where he wanted it, and come back later and it would be running down a gopher hole and going some other place. He also "rode ditch" every summer - travelled along the main canals that carried water from farm to farm, cleaning out debris and checking the headgates. He usually did that on horseback.

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman and Farm Mama ... that for the interesting thoughts on the subject. Not being a full on college grad (just an AA) I realize that I am making generalizations ... but, being in Iowa and being immersed in the agricultural news and community I do see that much of their methods are based on using all of the new products that hit the market each year.

Yeoman said...

Well an AA is nothing to be ashamed of.

As at total aside here, I've often noted that rural families here place a huge importance on education. It's interesting.

I'm in favor of education, but I'm well educated too. I know, therefore, that an education doesn't mean I'm smarter than anyone else, it just means that I'm well educated.

In contrast, as much as I value education, and note that in the future our kids will require a good education even more than we do, given the evolution of the economy, rural families here often place a huge importance on it, beyond it's real value.

Again, it has a real value.\

I've watched my wife and father in law do that. My wife attended the community college here, and my father in law went right to work on the ranch. I think they both feel that they're a bit disadvantaged in the world as a result, but they're both highly intelligent, and I don't think they were hampered by not going on. But they seem to think so.

I suppose that I'm overeducated, and fail to appreciate that.

Anyone else observe this phenomenon?

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman ... I guess I have never thought about how rural American values education. I know that here in Iowa (a very rural) state we say that we value education ... although our actions aren't backing that up like they used to.

I know that I value education just for the simple reason that it is important to learn how to learn!

Yeoman said...

I don't have much familiarity with more urban states, but rural states in this context are interesting.

North Dakota, a state dominated by agriculture, is absolutely fanatic about education. The number of small colleges it has is one example of that. In part, I think that might reflect a Scandinavian influence, as that culture seems to have highly valued education. In another sense, however, I think it reflects the curious rural inferiority American ruralist have. People are oddly ashamed of being from rural areas, and seek to educate themselves out of it.

Indeed, I've noticed that a notable percentage of ND expats we have seem eager to distance themselves from that state, while the remainder are quite proud of it. I like it, so I can't see why people are ashamed.

Here in Wyoming, most communities are serious about education, and the school districts are the biggest employers in nearly every county. At the same time, however, they struggle against the fact that the state bases its economy on oil production. That operates against an effective educational system, as oil workers are so often transient, and their families tend to be as well.

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