Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Draft Animals

I grabbed this post by Dave Thomas from the biochar forum. He muses on how we might do better in the husbandry of male beef animals. I heartily concur that there is room for improvement.

I see a fit with the advent of woodlot management. These are huge land tracts unsuitable for crops but suitable for a well managed tree growing operation. I have posted earlier on the need for refugia type thinking there rather than the present monoculture approach.

I have also posted on the possibility of reforesting the Sahara. All these need a population of ruminants to process the ground cover and possibly the leaf litter. This is likely to create a huge surplus in excess of meat demand that can be offset by aging the herds.

In the meantime, it is obvious that a marketing opportunity exists in sale of properly aged mature beef, properly attested and priced. None of this beef is other than grass fed, unless it is fattened at the end in a feed lot. Since it clearly tastes superior to much younger beef, the differential can be worth a lot. Animal record keeping today is excellent, so that supply integrity is possible.

It will take a handful of dedicated ranchers to launch this market. The restaurant trade will buy in immediately and introduce it to the public.

Dave emphasizes the integration of cattle with crop land which was the dominant agricultural protocol before the advent of factory farming. I certainly concur, but with the added improvement of integrating adjacent woodlands properly. That also opens the door to other ruminants including buffalo and dear.

However, the day of the oxen is long gone, and so is the day of the scythe. Our time is far better used, unless we are hobbyists. I wonder how many folks still know how to properly sharpen a scythe. I wonder even if my muscles still retain the proper memories.

RE: Draft animals: As I have indicated on the list before, A current supply for draft animals in training already exists in the form of dairy bull calves, which are currently either killed and dumped, as happens with many Jersey or Guernsey calves, or turned into baby and pet food or raised as either veal, or raised as beef; usually in a feedlot. A lucky few end up grazing pasture until they are turned into locker beef. Fewer still live a long life as draft animals (oxen).

On a personal level, I once ended the suffering of an ox raised from a dairy calf, (Brown Swiss Breeding) who lived a good life grazing pasture and eating hay and grain and performing useful work for sixteen years, but finally his legs, feet and respiratory system started to fail. We humanely slaughtered him, then canned the meat and boiled the bones for broth. He weighed, in his prime, somewhere around a ton. Now that is a lot of tasty, grass fed beef.

Most steer beef cattle today are slaughtered around two years of age. In my experience such a young animal, although it provides tender meat, is not as rich in real beef flavor. Having experienced well aged meat (That is mature beef, hung until tender in the cooler) from an older, well finished grass fed animals, I can honestly say I agree with real beef epicures in this opinion. Economics, not necessarily what is best for the animals or the consumers, dictates what occurs in today's developed world beef industry. Ideally, in my mind dairy bull calves would be raised as oxen, then humanely slaughtered at an advanced age.

Far from being in conflict with human food production, the grazing animal should form the basis for human food production. The grass/legume pasture - grazing animal complex is the original and best form of no-till production and performs multiple environmental benefits, including: Carbon sequestration, fertility building, production of excellent quality grass-fed animal products as human food and other useful products, recycling of crop residues, feedstock for compost and methane generation and the harvest unit through grazing for pasture cropping as per the posts about this practice in Australia recently.

Properly managed, integrated crop-livestock systems leads to, in my experience again, less land needed for actual production of edible crops such as vegetables, fruit and grains. I rotate a small portion of my one acre parcel from pasture to garden regularly. The pasture builds up fertility and I then apply the compost from livestock bedding to the garden area. The dead pasture plants really provide excellent "tilth" to the garden area. Rotating pasture with cropping essentially eliminates the supposed conflict between livestock forage and human food production. Here I am thinking of grain production as human food production. Vegetable production actually requires a small percentage of land area compared to grain production. Although here again, grain can be rotated with vegetable production on the same ground.

In reality, as fond as I am of good pancakes, bread, and hominy, whether we actually need grain for adequate human nutrition is debatable. For example, look at the websites discussing the "Cave Man diet" and the proponents of the "Atkins' diet". Some argue, however, that we still need grain to feed pigs and poultry, which is also debatable. It appears that if we fill our bellies mainly with vegetables and some fruits and nuts and top it off with grass fed animal products, grass fed poultry products, fish, and other seafood we can keep our Omega 3 levels up where they belong and keep our waistlines in good condition. I tried the Atkins diet for a while and lost 35 pounds and felt great, until the eating of nuts and seeds twice put me in the hospital with bad bouts of diverticulitis. Not everyone can eat the same way; I found out the hard way.

Ultimately, I think there is a role for both animals, draft and otherwise, and sustainably produced biofuels integrated with biochar. For example I am working with a gentleman growing sunflowers for tractor and automobile fuel. The integration of the grazing animal comes in where the expressed sunflower seed residue is used as a great livestock feed supplement, high in beneficial oils; the animals can also graze the crop residue after harvest, or even graze cover crops planted before and after sunflowers to conserve fertility. I anticipate that remaining crop residue not grazed can be used for biochar,biooil, syngas feed stock in conjunction with small wood harvested from orchard trees, nut trees, windbreak trees, berry vines and shrubs.

Not everyone knows that Rudolf Diesel actually intended for the engine he developed to be fueled from agriculturally produced oils, such as peanut oil. Whether he envisioned an agriculture independent of draft animals or not, the fact remains, that draft animals don't efficiently provide all of the forms of energy needed on a truly self sufficient farm. Therefore some form of fuel for powering engines, cook stoves and home heating is or will always be needed for a truly sustainable farm.

Following up on Diesel's vision, I can envision the small garden farm of the not too distant future using vegetable oils as biofuels to run engines and possibly to heat and cook a home, supplemental to wood heat. Manure and other feedstocks, possibly including human waste, can be used as a source of feedstock for methane production; and some wood and crop residue which the animals don't eat can be used as fuel directly or for a compost feedstock and/or for a biochar/biooil/ syngas feedstock.
Draft animals and human labor can still perform much of the field work. For example, I can still mow a significant amount of forage with my European style scythe after work and on weekends. Oxen can haul the forage to the barn or haystack. Many people can be profitably employed in the various aspects of such an envisioned agriculture. But the real seller, in addition to the sustainability aspect, is that because so many of the owner/worker's physical and social needs are met in such a system, the needs for vast amounts of money just to survive is greatly reduced. Therefore, such a system is a buffer to some degree of economic swings that currently affect society so greatly. I think Thomas Jefferson would be pleased.

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