Getting Along With Animals

For the good stockman, ownership becomes a complex relationship, based on liking and familiarity.

By Wendell Berry

New Farm magazine, September/October, 1979:
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:

  1. animals utilize the rougher kinds of land and the rougher kinds of plant products, which would otherwise go to waste,
  2. the presence of animals on a farm tends to enforce the need for crop rotation, and
  3. 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 them.

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 mighty well."

It was all outlandish enough, and maybe that is why I remember it.

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 to him.

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 with.

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.