What Our Grandparents Knew About Ecology, Genetics and Ethics:
What does an animal need to be happy?”
Dr. Temple Grandin
Raising livestock is rooted in so much more than reading directions from dry tomes spouting food and shelter basics. The concept of cultivating animals as one would set seeds for a crop of wheat or pour some oil into a tractor is finally been seen as way off the mark. It doesn’t matter how hard agriculture tries to disembody cows, pigs, chickens or sheep, the animal REMAINS. And those animals need to exhibit normal behavior in order to thrive. Stress and growing conditions impact the productivity of plants (and even this is becoming a problem… with GMO’s), but plants do not have minds. As Dr. Jaak Panksepp reminds us, animals have brains. Their brains are connected to their bodies and unlike plants; a living thing with emotions needs to have its intellect valued if it is to flourish. The livestock of our grandparents’ farms were bred to withstand conditions, co-exist within a community, produce at a reasonable level that prevented chronic distress, reproduce naturally and further genetics for vigor and disposition. So what happened? Breeding for super production and other agricultural practices have slowly eroded the foundation blocks of sustainability and balanced unnatural yields or body traits that render animals in consistently precarious states, are in direct opposition to good and rational husbandry.
The slow-food movement is undeniably vindicated by scientific research. Animal welfare is the keystone securing ecological safety, economic practicality and sustainability while simultaneously resurrecting farming as a viable profession. Small scale, heritage breed (both plant and animal) structures preserve biodiversity, which is a known barrier against the danger of small genetic pools. Intensive rearing facilities impact the community and the environment in a negative way (few people would want a commercial feedlot in their neighborhood) that small-scale sustainable farms do not; and research has linked the profligate use of antibiotics in the high stress farm environment to the rise of antibiotic resistance.
Productive animal husbandry focuses on the cultural and behavioral needs of animals in domestication, and within the environment. Understanding the needs of other animals has gone beyond the reduced and antiquated notions of protection from elements and the provision of food and water. We know that the necessities of higher functioning animals go far beyond the husbandry of plants! It is crucial to base practices on the culture and biological constraints of the species being raised in order for that species to thrive and for sustainable welfare to be understood. As Dr. Grandin states, “emotions drive behavior…Emotions come first. You have to go back to the brain to understand animal welfare.”
When we consider production on this broad platform, and set each species WITHIN its natural habitat (as genetically they are STILL tied to it), we see the symbiotic relationship between the animal and the land it will flourish on. Raising livestock, reducing environmental strain and negating cruelty are all intertwined and mutually supportive. Profits are increased with this practice and the slippery slope of ecological catastrophe, including pandemics, is hemmed in.
Several pet food manufacturers have given weight to the what an animal needs to eat is dictated by “what” that animal IS. Advertisers explain that nutrition is steered by the biology of individual species – your dog is a wolf and your feline is a bobcat. These commercials are correct. We need to feed what the animal is designed to eat, because ignoring this leads to poor health and cascading welfare. The disaster of the mad cow outbreak in England is proof of this and the need to add prophylactic antibiotics to feedlot grain upholds the argument.
Cattle – Feeding the Herbivores
These herd ruminants are descended from wild bovines that roamed the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East and Africa. The most famous ancestor of the modern domesticated cow is the European auroch. Modern cows have recently been DNA traced to a single herd of domesticated near-eastern wild ox around 10,000 years ago. As ruminants, cattle are still required to eat and socialize much as their ox ancestors did. In order to cultivate a stress-free environment for cattle they need to be offered a stable herd situation with a variety of grass and broad-leaved plants to fulfill their dietary needs. Cattle were never designed to eat processed grains. They would have had access to seasonal seed heads of grasses, but this is a far nutritional cry from the high-carbohydrate GMO grains manufactured as cattle feed. Cattle fed grain-based diets (over 50%) without significant fiber sources develop illness since the high-carbohydrates of concentrates raise fermentation acids in the rumen disrupting the cow’s digestive balance. The cows can suffer from ulcers, laminitis and liver disease from the results of their digestive flora being disarranged. They regularly fall prey to infections (Tylosin is used to stave off the grain related liver abscesses in order to ensure that the liver won’t be condemned at slaughter). Compilations of research into the effects of grain on cattle health were compiled in 2001! Antibiotics are added to cattle feed mainly to counteract the side effects of feeding the grain as well as to increase the growth rate of the cattle.
Cattle are highly social “bunch” herd animals (prey animals that group into defensive groups when put under threat) that roam methodically over distances to find suitable and varied vegetation and water sources. They have an evolving and ever-changing social structure with a complex and nuanced herd dynamic. Cows develop strong affinities and bonds in their herd and when these bonds are altered or shifted, the animals become stressed and, in the case of dairy animals, milk production falls. The inherent curiosity and explorative nature of cows makes an enriched environment imperative to allowing them to investigate and interact with their environment.
Why does all of this matter? If you want to raise cattle without chronic stress – and chronic stress leads to disease outbreak – and in a manner that puts little pressure on the environment, you need to allow for the natural roam/graze actions of the cow. In fact, when cattle are raised in suitable ecologies (those that can naturally cultivate grasses, legumes and various broadleaf greens) their grazing and fertilizing enhances the local ecosystem – this would be similar to the beneficial niche occupied by the buffalo of the Great Plains. Cattle are designed to digest a variety of plants, as the lilting and accurate “salad bar” metaphor of Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms; this includes grasses, dandelions and other herb plants such as vetch. Diverse and flourishing pastures are the key to proper pasture-based nutrition. Fields must be biodiverse. Cattle, like sheep (goats are browsers), will graze many plant species and will select which plants they will need to serve nutritional requirements and gaps. The only additional supplements needed by cattle are minerals/salts and clean water.
• Grasses: Timothy, fescue, rye, brome, foxtail, orchard, Bermuda, witch grass
• Legumes: alfalfa, clover, trefoil, vetch, sainfoin
• Herbs and broadleaf: dandelion, wild garlic, tree shoots/seedlings, thistles/lettuces, plantain, lamb’s quarters, sorrel, purslane, wild amaranth, pigweed
Chickens – Feeding the Omnivores
Gallus Domesticus. This beautiful Southeast Asian pheasant is one of the most misunderstood animals in agriculture. Treated more like toasters or gumball dispensers, these intelligent and social birds need a flock of publicists and lawyers to stop the landslide of bad press. Descended from the now endangered jungle fowl, the domestic chicken is the closest living relative of the dinosaur! These descendants of the velociraptors are turning prevailing theories of brain structure on its head. Able to demonstrate self-control, display theory of mind (understanding that others can have thoughts and ideas just as you do), plan ahead, worry, deceive and comprehend abstract concepts such as reciprocal language and “feigning” are prevalent in birds – most notably in the chicken.
Behaviorist, Dr. Nichols, opens talks by listing these cognitive traits. She jokes, as “a trick at conferences, I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I’m talking about monkeys.” Having cognitive abilities that allow for understanding self and others’ intentions and the ability to exercise observational learning are not curiosities, they are crucial to survival in a prey species such as the chicken. You need the ability to consider the future if you have to plan for 21 days of safety (hatch time for the chicken egg) to reproduce. Recent behavior scholarship has identified the prevalence of the chicken and other animal’s employing empathy (being able to comprehend another’s emotions) in order to be wary of predators and to maintain flock wellbeing. Just as in proper cattle keeping (or pig keeping, or goat keeping, or…), considering the cognitive functioning of chickens is the main framework for keepers to plan and prepare the perfect environment for this type of livestock. Ranging on “enriched” areas, chicken pastures must have cover and a variety of plants, trees and brush that assist the birds in foraging while keeping the flock members’ minds engaged. A stressed or fearful bird, like a stressed and deprived cow, will not be able to maintain health or production. Chronic stress weakens the immune system. Chickens also need a quiet and enclosed place to nest. A laying bird is not intending to provide you breakfast; it is the bird engaging in reproduction.
Stressed animals do not reproduce
Animals with this type of brain “power,” like the chicken and the pig, require higher levels of nutrition. Designed to forage in the dense marginal bush of tropical forests, the chicken is an omnivore that eats a wide variety of plant, fruit, seed and animal protein. Unlike ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep), chickens require grain. Since this bird is a master of multi-tasking, range areas and fixtures within that area need to cater to the dynamic personality of the chicken. Chickens require free access to organic grain, oyster shell, fruits and green forage, insect and other “clean” sources of protein, fresh water and seed/scratch grains.
Failure to provide enriched range will yield the same weakened results as that of poor cattle pasture. But in chickens the impact is also fixed on the cover accessibility of forage areas. Chickens search for food near areas of cover. Cattle graze open grasslands and rest periodically to regurgitate – chew their cud. A chicken is a run and hide prey species and it feels vulnerable (and IS vulnerable – a “sitting” duck) in the open. A scared chicken is not a thriving chicken. A cow in the open, being a bunch and run prey animal, feels secure because it can see the predators. However, with cover brush and with the cows offering security by being present, chickens can be raised alongside cattle (it is not safe to range chickens with pigs). Chickens will sift through the cattle manure facilitating decomposition and seed propagation, will eat insects including disease causing ticks, and will provide the diverse fauna that would mimic a natural setting – think, African Savanna. Mixing species, like mixing crops, is a long-standing agricultural practice. Flora and fauna coexist in healthy ecologies – you would never see a wild and exclusive patch of any one plant or animal. Nature knows what it is doing.
Issues stemming from poor poultry environments:
• Predator losses
• Chronic stress and disease
• Nutritional deficiencies (feather eating, pecking, egg eating)
• Behavioral nuisances – fighting, loss of thrift, pecking, low egg production
• Pest infestation from lack of dust-bath areas
• Tired ground and parasites (parasites also reflect a weakened immune system)
The direct correlation between welfare and proper nutrition is not a new research revelation. Cornell University conducted a study of intensive rearing and feed uniformity (feeding pelleted formulas exclusively) over 30 years ago. The study concluded that intensive, non-free-range caged birds exhibited a high mortality rate. A World Poultry study from 1996 noticed that stressors directly caused a dramatic increase in disease. The study found that a hen from a healthy environment, such as at pasture or in a well maintained free-range system with proper flock density, required 50,000 salmonella cells to become ill. A weakened, caged laying bird held in dense population conditions required only 10 bacterial cells to become clinically infected with salmonella.
What Consumers are Saying.
Oklahoma State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics found that 90% of the public considered farm animal welfare as a major purchase point priority. Consumer demand for ecologically sound food production is supported by the “fact” research showing that animals not allowed to exhibit or exercise normal behavior, live in sanitary conditions and to eat biologically required feed, will not produce quality products and are a time bomb for disease outbreaks. Good welfare equals quality food.
A 2010 university study discovered that unlike eggs from “commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.” And this finding parallels the nutritional differences in grass-raised beef. Major milk brands are now offering pasture-raised non-homogenized milk.
Bioethicists and behaviorists such as Temple Grandin, Brian Hare, Christine Nicol, Jaak Panksepp and Erich Jarvis, vindicate that welfare is a necessity not a perk. Sustainability and good practice in agriculture is influencing consumers and the food industry. The public wants to see humane farming, and several major food manufacturers such as Tim Horton’s, Aramark, Mc’Donalds and Unliver are pledging to buy from humane meat and egg producers. The biggest hurdle, stated by Tim Horton’s, was the lack of available producers.
Well, we need to get free-ranging! Grandpa and grandma were right. If they were here they’d say… “We told ya so.”