New Farm magazine,
Writers on organic or ecological agriculture, from Sir Albert
Howard's time to our own, have spoken of the importance of
animals in farming. The main reasons are these:
- animals utilize the rougher kinds of land and the rougher
kinds of plant products, which would otherwise go to waste,
- the presence of animals on a farm tends to enforce the
need for crop rotation, and
- animals, by making manure, play an indispensable role
in the fertility cycle.
Nature, as Howard pointed out, never farms without animals;
and so human farmers, who wish to cooperate with nature, must
farm with animals too.
||"I have never know a good stockman
who didn't like animals and take trouble to know them."
But at this-point the discussion has usually stopped, leaving
unasked and unanswered the extremely important question of
getting along with animals. The way that this question is
addressed and solved will have a great deal to do with success
or failure in farming. Its correct solution will reveal a
fourth good reason for farming with animals: satisfaction.
Associating with animals, if we get along comfortably with
them, is one of the finest pleasures. By the same token, if
we don't get along comfortably with them, it can be one of
the worst miseries -- or the animals and for us too.
As a boy and young man, I learned a. good deal about getting
along with animals from my own experience. My father would
send me, sometimes alone, sometimes with help, to move a bunch
of cattle from one pasture to another, or to bring back a
cow or steer that had gotten through a fence. Not always,
but plenty too often, I would lose my patience and temper
and attempt to do the job by the "adversary method"that
is, by running and hollering and throwing rocks. But by resorting
to violence I vastly increased the odds against success. When
you insist on competing in an open field with something bigger
and faster than you are, and maybe more determined, you are
very likely to lose. Anger and impatience being stupid by
nature, it took me years to realize that, once I had lost
patience and temper, I was also dealing with something smarter
than I was. Occasionally, my father would render judgment
by going and doing alone, by patience and good sense, what
two or three of us had failed to do by force.
Impatience comes of being young. When it lasts past youth,
it is a flaw of character. It has lasted past youth with me;
I know so much about it because I have had an unusually long
time to study it. One thing I have noticed is that my own
impatience with animals has always involved a very crude error:
I fail to keep in mind that an animal is an animal, not a
four-legged human. When I am angry at an animal I think I
am nearly always saying to myself that it "knows better"
than to do what it is doing: it is behaving irrationally,
refusing to do what would be easiest for us both, resisting
what would serve its best interest, etc.
Patience, on the other hand, involves exact knowledge. Stockmen
who know what to do next, do it; they don't fly off the handle.
Good stockmen know that a cow is a cow; they know what a cow
is, and what to require and what to expect. They know their
animals individually, and are known by them.
Several years ago I went with one of my uncles to deliver
some Hereford heifers to a notoriously eccentric old woman
who lived alone on a remote hill farm. She was something of
a sight. Years of hard work, exposure and solitude had left
her lean and bent and weathered. She was said to have lived
at times in the barn with her sheep. At present she was living
in a corn crib. Her dress that day was typical: a derelict
work jacket, a pair of pants with one leg ripped from hip
to cuff, a toolarge pair of overshoes with holes that showed
her bare feet, a rag tied around her head.
||"Good stockmen know that a cow
is a cow; they know what a cow is, and what to require
and what to expect. They know their animals individually,
and are known by them."
She met us down on the blacktop and rode with us through
the creek and up the steep, rough road to her place. It was
hard going for a heavily loaded pickup, and as soon as we
got through her gate we proposed to jump the heifers out right
there. But that didn't suit her. She wanted them unloaded
in the barn-an old gray building as ragged as she was; the
siding, I remember, had rotted off in places and she had stuffed
the holes with thorn bushes.
We unloaded the heifers in the barn and left her there with
Her reason for unloading them in the barn, she told us, was
that she wanted to keep them there a few days and talk to
them. She always talked to her cattle, she said.
"Well," I said, "do your cattle understand
what you say when you talk to them?"
"I don't know," she said. "But they mind me
It was all outlandish enough, and maybe that is why I remember
Or maybe I remember it because what she said made sense. I
don't know what she said to her cattle when she talked to
them, or whether or not they "understood," and I
don't think it matters. What she was really saying was that
she liked cattle and that she saw a certain necessity and
usefulness in getting acquainted with those new ones before
they were turned out.
By the standards of the time, I suppose, the old woman was
"crazy.'." But it's part of the real insanity of
the time that "crazy" people sometimes make better
sense than "sane" people. That woman's approach
to cattle husbandry was not "efficient" and "businesslike"
in the manner of modern "sanity" which would have
regarded those same heifers as "units of production."
But as I think it over, I realize that I have never known
a good stockman who didn't like animals and take trouble to
know them in just this "crazy" way. In fact, I don't
think I have ever known a good stockman who didn't talk to
his animals. For the good stockman, ownership becomes a complex
relationship, based on liking and familiarity.
I would argue that nothing is more important in getting along
with animals-and in successfully producing them for the market-than
this sort of relationship. Even though it cannot be reduced
to a science or computed in dollars, it can have practical
and profitable results.
The difference between a farmer who likes livestock and one
who doesn't is much greater than it may appear, even if they
know an equal amount. The farmer who likes his animals will
pay attention to them because it pleases and satisfies him
to do so, and so he will pay them a lot more attention than
the farmer who pays attention only out of obligation.
||"The farmer who likes his animals
will pay attention to them because it pleases and satisfies
him to do so, and so he will pay them a lot more attention
than the farmer who pays attention only out of obligation."
And liking leads to familiarity. The farmer who likes his
animals and pays close attention to them acquires all sorts
of useful information. Hunting them up and counting them,
moving them from place to place, taking care of them, he studies
the quality of their flesh, their carriage and gait, the attitude
of their heads and ears, the look of their eyes the condition
of their hair and all these are a kind of necessary speech
Such knowledge of animals is both useful and pleasing. It
lightens work; it avoids some bad surprises; and it saves
aggravation and hollering. I think you can pretty well judge
your skill as a stockman by the amount of commotion you make.
The better you understand your animals (and yourself), the
less commotion you will need to make.
And it works both ways. As you learn about your animals they
learn about you. As you move around them, you speak to them;
they learn the sound of , your voice and grow comfortable
with it. They learn what to.expect from you.
The best example of this sort of familiarity I have seen was
in the Peruvian Andes. Except for small stone corrals, the
farmers there build no fences. The stock-cattle, hogs, sheep,
horses, donkeys-are brought in and confined at night. In the
morning, when the farm families go to their fields to work,
they take the stock along as they go. The animals spend the
day grazing around the cultivated fields. I saw many animals
grazing in the neighborhood of fields in which grain crops
were standing ripe, and I did not see so much as a track in
one of those fields. If an animal threatened to get out of
place, a hiss or a shout or a well-aimed rock would turn it
back where it belonged, but such measures were not often necessary.
This astonished me because it was obviously based on an elaborate
understanding between people and animals as to what was and
was not permitted.
Nothing in my experience compared with it. Those people were
not carrying on just a relationship with their animals, but
a working collaboration that far surpassed anything that our
fenced pastures could suggest. It was the result of a familiarity
worked out, it seemed to me, over many generations of both
animals and people. And it made mixed farming possible in
a country impossible to fence.
When you speak of the usefulness of familiarity with animals,
you are beginning to describe the advantages of small scale
in livestock production. Farmers with large herds tend to
feel that they can "absorb" a few losses here and
there. Small farmers with small populations of animals will
be inclined to resist such an assumption; they want to save
every calf or lamb. And having fewer to attend to, they have
a better chance of doing so.
Small herds, it seems to me, are almost always gentler and
easier to work with than large ones. And this too pays off.
An animal that you can get up to and help in the field or
get to the barn easily when it is sick or giving birth will
stand a better chance than one you have to run after and struggle
In suggesting that patience and familiarity and knowhow will
get you farther with livestock than force, I don't mean to
imply that force is never necessary. Sometimes it is. You
can be too gentle as well as too rough. There will be times
when you have to make an animal do your will, just as there
are times when you have to require obedience from a child,
and for at least three of the same reasons: for its own good,
for your protection and because you are (you hope) the smartest.
No animal is going to submit willingly to being doctored.
And a determined bull or a disgruntled old cow may not be
much impressed by waves and shouts.
But even when necessary, force is destructive or useless without
restraint, patience, and understanding. The ideal is to know
how much is required, and to use only that much.