Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results.  Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

Doing the same thing again and again expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

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Don’t you ever wonder about the confidence we have in technology and science? For example, have you ever made a decision based on all the information you had, felt really smart about it, but later learned there was a massive hole in your understanding that made all your genius wrong?

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Let’s get it straight right now: I’m not anti-science. I’m just in favor of pursuing scientific knowledge with a healthy portion of doubt and caution on the side.  Maybe my lack of sophistication is showing, but I’m still pretty darn impressed with the feat of genetic engineering involved in grafting a fruit tree onto hardier roots.  Even though according to this website, it seems to have been used as early as 5000 BC.

“Agriculturalists are charmed. Naturalists are alarmed; ” proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course my work here raising these old-fashioned cattle probably seems kind of irrelevant and quaint to many people who focus on producing maximum output at all costs.  Man is apparently wired to admire things that are complex in procedure and require lots of human tinkering.

Meet Claudia, the High-Tech Cow

Like the breeding program at Fulper Farms, a NJ dairy featured in this NPR article. This is the story of Claudia, a very desirable (and lovely) Holstein dairy cow.  The breeding goal of this farm is to replicate her until they have a farm full of Claudias.  This is the way most modern dairies approach the problem of producing enough milk to pay the bills.

Technological advances like artificial insemination and embryo transplant have made the rate at which humans can forever alter an entire breed of livestock scary-fast.  In just a few generations, we can really make a lasting impact on a breed of livestock and it often takes several generations to know for sure if what you have achieved is good or bad.  And by then, it’s usually too late to take it back.

You see, we still don’t really understand how DNA is bundled.  When you breed animals with a focus on one single desirable trait you’d like to increase, you’re at the same time amplifying several other unintended traits that are likely to be not so nice. And those traits are both physical and behavioral.

Often times, since the animals are intended for food anyway, it doesn’t matter that they can’t reproduce on their own, if they have any parenting skills or if their skeletons and hearts are up to the task of supporting their massive, fast-growing bodies. Doesn’t matter, because these animals aren’t intended to live long enough to be healthy adults anyway.  Which, while I don’t think it’s kind, I suppose the logic is sound.

Other traits affect behavioral characteristics and create animals more difficult to handle, more nervous or aggressive.  Intensely focused programs breeding animals for one trait can interrupt the social patterns relied on by many, many generations causing incidents of suffering and brutality caused by rogue individuals.

I’m no scientist, but I am pretty observant. And the more I observe, the more apparent it becomes that there’s a rhythm and scale to things for a reason.  Nature imposes a system of checks and balances that often seems harsh to us, but serves her purposes well.

As original as we like to believe we are, animal breeding programs, like hemlines and hairstyles are subject to cycles and fashion. Don’t believe me? Look at a few pictures of yourself from the 70’s. How’s that polyester pant suit looking to you today? I dare you to wear it to work tomorrow…

Fashions in animal breeding follow consumer demand for things like all white breast meat, low-fat pork, low-fat dairy and of course the ever-popular larger quantity for lower price. And, like that polyester pant suit, these demands are more likely to be created by companies steering us towards their higher profit choices than by what we actually prefer.

Cows like Claudia serve this dairy well today, but if all cows were like Claudia, without the structured diet and care Claudia gets, her ability to produce huge quantities of milk quickly becomes a liability.  The nutritional requirements to keep a high producing cow like Claudia healthy and fertile even when she’s not producing milk are not easy to meet in a simpler, less manipulated environment.

So, my question is this: Is high production more important than profitability?  If you think it’s painful filling your gas tank each week, imagine being a farmer.  I’m not sure people are aware how reliant conventional farming is on petroleum.

Petroleum is needed to manufacture the synthetic fertilizers conventional farms are so reliant on.  Petroleum is needed to run the gas guzzling machinery needed to grow and harvest the large quantities of grain these cows require. And energy is needed to manage the tons of manure produced by too many cows for their farms to handle. Not to mention the energy requirements of milking and transporting milk.

Please don’t take this as a slam for farmers like Claudia’s owners,  the Fulper family. I have nothing but admiration for what is an obviously well run dairy.  It just seems apparent that by focusing only on this as the single approach to the problem of low profitability, we are eliminating diversity in all areas: genetic diversity of livestock & seedstock, rampant loss of biological diversity and economic diversity as well.  A broader base of smaller, local dairy processors and a variety of applications for milk is needed to offset the market dominance of a small number of mega-processors.

If a cow can eat more simply, be productive longer, require little to no veterinary care and be significantly less reliant on petroleum products, is that not also increasing profitability?  If a dairy makes less milk but that milk is of the highest quality and costs significantly less to produce, are the numbers irrelevant because they lack enough zeroes to impress our Fortune 500 jaded minds?

My old-fashioned cows could not be more self-sufficient.  They harvest most of their own food, stay fat on very simple food we can grow ourselves, require almost zero veterinary care, thrive in simple facilities and remain productive members of the herd for four or more times longer than the typical Holstein dairy cow.

And a dairy farm using cows like mine has not one top shelf product to sell, but two.  Give us time and we’ll come up with even more.  The beef from these cows isn’t an afterthought sold at auction barn prices. It’s a first-rate gourmet product adding a second income stream to broaden the farm’s security.  And in these times of dairy volatility, having milk in more than one bucket sounds like an awfully good idea to me.

If you listened to the NPR clip as well as read the story, you’ll notice that they clearly stated that despite the technological advances, the farm is less profitable than it was in the 50’s and 60’s when they had a fraction of the cows and did more by hand. WHAT?

It’s true. Our industrial system of meat and dairy was productive and useful in its time. But all things run on a spectrum and that time seems to be waning. The system will be around huffing and wheezing for a long time, but shouldn’t we be working on a backup plan?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t count imported Milk Protein Concentrate from China a backup plan…

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

in which we interrupt our usual Thursday programming…

in which we interrupt our usual Thursday programming…

I sure was hoping that this morning I could wade the frozen creek in a pair of floppy, over-sized men's wellies..

This is an interruption of my planned Thursday everything. This morning, I went extra early to check on the Ladies because I am officially on baby watch. Udders are swelling and tails are switching, so something is bound to happen soon.

A mysterious full moon still out as I hit my chores this clear chilly dawn - never loses its magic for me

The full moon & perfectly clear, starry sky were so exceptional last night. This morning it was dawn when I started out so I got to enjoy the crisp, sparkling early morning lunar show again. So luminous and big, so heavily round, still and magically ripe – is it a sign?? Well, apparently not. No babies this morning. The Ladies were all still in bed looking at me with sleepy, blinking eyes.

I think I’m starting to get on their nerves – they keep looking at each other and then back at me with that “What does she want now?” look. They say the least I could do is bring snacks next time….

I admit I’m a super-vigilant fence tester. At least twice a day I check all my fences. Even I think it may be excessive, but then I find something amiss and my obsessive behavior is reinforced. I figure it’s always less work to find out before the Ladies do, or even more importantly, before the bull.

Things seem strangely still; I check the box and sure enough, battery’s dead.  Since I know it was just freshly charged, something must be shorting the fence wires. So, off  I go inspecting every piece and corner of the fence. Is a branch touching the wire? Did a deer crash through? Did the stream wash over the bottom wire?  Nope, nope and no.  I’m really hoping all is good with the part that crosses the creek because that’s a bear to mess with and I really don’t feel like wading in the frozen creek before breakfast.

Of course, as soon as I had that thought, it was guaranteed.

That’s exactly where the fence was down. Why not last week when everything was warm and sunny? Who knows, but welcome to my world.  It’s cold; I’m glad I wore the long underwear, since now I have to get the tallest pair of boots I have – a pair of over-sized  men’s wellies – and go wading. The water is just a tiny bit lower than the tops of my boots, so if I screw up at all, I’ll have a boot full of frigid water. Not a nice way to start my day. I really wish I had eaten something warm  before I came – I’m hungry and this could take a while…

Gingerly I make my way into the creek with my axe, wire cutter & insulators.  The wire is underwater and frozen into the creek, so I have to use my axe to first chop a hole for me to stand in, and then chop a path to free the wire.

Carefully I chop my way across the ice to the downed wires

I’m doing my best CSI work and I cannot decide whether the wire was pushed OUT by the cows, or IN by the deer. The area is full of frozen footprints from both cow and deer and with the wire coiled up underwater, I can’t tell which way it went.

But I have my theory.

It’s her. I’m sure of it. H.O.N.E.Y. I told you how bold she was. With her new posse, Bess and Sass. Fanny stays out of it – she’s not an adventurous sort of girl.  Their first sunny day in this new pasture, I caught them exploring the creek. As far as I can tell, these three were the first to cross over and start to explore the tiny triangle on the other side.  Who was front and center? You guessed it – Honey.

I hustle the girls back over - Bess & Sass trot right back; Honey takes her sweet time

Honey giving the new fence job some serious contemplation. She's got a plan, I'm sure

 

 

 

 

 

 

Needless to say, that small part of fencing was not my best work and I immediately got my tools and re-worked it so they aren’t able to cross the creek.

Honey was not pleased and I’ve seen her giving the new fence job some very serious consideration. A few days ago, during evening bed check, I could hear the tell-tale popping sound of electric wire touching metal. Sure enough, it was my new wire crossing the creek. Someone twisted the wire so it was touching the metal fencepost. I must not have missed the event by long since the battery hadn’t been drained. Honey, Bess & Sass were innocently grazing nearby, pretending to take no notice of me.

Honey hiding behind her Mom? Puh-lease. Honey doesn't have a shy bone in her body.

Of course I’ll never know for sure. The fence is fixed, I’m cold but dry and I hope the culprit got a good hefty shock so she’ll think twice the next time.

And now, back to our regular programming….

In which we say a surprised hello

In which we say a surprised hello

Who says Hannah is too old? Welcome Hannah's new little girl.....

Who says Hannah is too old? Welcome Hannah’s new little girl…..

Hannah, Mrs. B, Hannah Banana, whatever we call her, Hannah is a girl who knows just how awesome she is. The only one of the Ladies who answers to her own name, Hannah is truly the matriarch of our herd.

She came to us from New Hampshire with her daughters Ruby and Sprite, son Hodil and granddaughter Sally.

Her contribution to our herd has been multiplied many, many times. Ruby has given us Regina and Rose, Hodil is father to nearly all of our calves this year and will be again next year. Sally has had Saralee and Sammy and Sprite has given us Spritzer. Last year, Hannah had another girl, Hannabelle and now, today, wonder of wonders, the old girl did it again.

Though Hannah was with Rocco the bull all winter, we really didn’t expect Hannah to have any more babies. I guess she showed us who’s too old. Hannah is very proud of her role as a mother and apparently isn’t about to give it up.

I wish we could teach all our daughters to be as free of self doubt as Hannah. With an udder like a saggy bag of rocks, wrinkly ankles like loose pantyhose and long, flat feet, it would be easy for Hannah to focus on her flaws and lose self esteem surrounded as she is by young, gorgeous Ladies.

But that’s not Hannah’s style; she frets not one bit – she knows she’s got it going on. She sashays her wide self right into the center of all the action and everyone had better just step back and make room.

Having Hannah for a mother is the best advantage a calf can get...

Having Hannah for a mother is the best advantage a calf can get…

More handsome than beautiful, Hannah is a large, imposing Lady with a rich, chestnut coat and stately posture. A couple of blinks of her big, brown eyes and you’ll do whatever she says.  She is a great girl and has been such a help teaching the younger Ladies the ropes. Like the advantage gained by attending the best prep school, any calf gets a boost from being Hannah’s kid.

Here she is, minutes old, getting ready to make her first effort to stand up. Hard to manage those big feet and legs at first....

Here she is, minutes old, getting ready to make her first effort to stand up. Hard to manage those big feet and legs at first….

Today’s young Lady looks like she’s off to a bright start – we expect great things from Hannah’s calves. She’s already got her eye on her sister Rose – I can see those two beauties will be fast friends as soon as our new girl is allowed to go off and play.

Welcome little Lady!

A new baby is an exciting event for the herd. Everyone needs to see the new kid. Then, excitement over, it’s back to work everyone!