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I’m confident that working with animals has made me more mindful of how I relate to other people. Gardeners, this column isn’t a slight against what we can learn from plants. We can learn plenty from them too. But for now, I want to concentrate on what I’ve learned from a lifetime of raising livestock.
1. Train early and seriously. The longer bad habits persist, and the later in life training starts, the harder it is to get control of your animals.
The smartest farm animal is the pig. In my experience, no animal trains better to electric fence, but no animal tests the fence as much. When we buy weaner pigs at about 40 pounds, we put them in a solid physical pen and train them to electric fence within a few days of them becoming acclimated to their new digs (literally). A portable energizer connected to a short wire 3 feet away from the end of their pen offers a 10,000-volt lesson. As we say around here, “When you’re training to electric fence, you want their first experience to be memorable.” Don’t dillydally around with halfway voltage. Make it hot.
To keep it consistent during the training period, we put a spring in the middle of that wire to keep it from breaking when the pigs run through it. Without the spring, the pigs would keep breaking the wire every time they went over or under it, and it would be more of a sideshow than a consistent training thread.
Early and aggressive exposure to limits and expectations enables a lifetime of enjoyment. If you can’t go to bed at night knowing your animals will be where they’re supposed to be tomorrow morning, you can never really sleep. To be effective, electric fence must be sufficiently energized, tight, visible, and the right height. If any of these is wrong, you’ll have issues.
Setting expectations early certainly works well with people. Children respond to clear, consistent discipline. Teachers must establish clear expectations on the first day of class, or they’ll be dealing with uncontrollable students the rest of the year. New employees respond to clear and direct rules early. Failure to communicate protocols leaves too much to interpretation, lets bad habits develop, facilitates inappropriate activities, and generally moves an organization into dysfunction.
Too many times, I’ve seen people get animals for the first time and put them in a haphazard pen of baling twine, duct tape, and half-rotten pallets, and then complain about their “stupid animals” that won’t stay home. Folks, these animals have 24/7 to survey their situation, find weaknesses, and generally wreak havoc on your plans and sanity. They don’t need to visit the doctor, go to school, get licenses, or fill out mortgage paperwork. They’re simply doing and being exactly what they were created and designed to do and be. Don’t blame the pig.
I’m not saying children are pigs. But children, like animals, have lots of time to figure out the holes in our plans. Direct them early and consistently, and they’ll usually give you less grief later on.
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2. Each animal has a unique gift. They’re quite different. For example, we use pigs to turn our compost. A big pig will dig 3 feet deep. That’s some serious pig power to oxygenate a compost pile.
A chicken likes to turn things too, but a hen doesn’t have the strength of a pig. Her scratching is much daintier. I wouldn’t run pigs in an orchard, even though they’d love to pick up dropped apples. They’d dig deep divots and expose fragile hair roots. Chickens are better for orchards because they’re lighter and will still eat dropped fruit and bugs. But ducks — now there’s the orchardist’s best friend.
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Even among ducks, Indian Runners distinguish themselves for their voracious bug appetites and inability to scratch divots. You’d never ask a duck to turn compost, but ducks are perfect for gardens and orchards.
But unless you have a lot of ducks, they’ll never keep up with the grass. Cows eat the most grass, but they’re heavy on the ground, often hurting tender tree root hairs in the top couple of inches of soil. They also scratch heavily against trees, causing too much damage. Sheep, historically used as orchard and vineyard grazers, are much lighter on the ground and can’t reach as high to nibble leaves or fruit.
I’ll never forget being mesmerized for an hour in an olive grove north of San Francisco by a flock of goats pruning suckers. They climbed 12 feet high into the trees, pruning all that inner sucker growth. They also mowed the grass under the trees. Certainly no other herbivore would climb 12 feet up into an olive tree and prune it for you. But a goat would never scrounge through a cow pie and eat out the fly maggots, either. We have chickens to thank for that wonderful talent.
I could go on in this vein, but by now I think my point is clear: Every animal has a distinctive gift, and it’s up to us as caretakers who raise livestock to place each animal in a habitat that will honor, respect, and affirm its gift. Wow. If that doesn’t sound like something people could use, I don’t know what does.
Every person has a unique ability. Starting with children, we need to figure out what those gifts are and feed their natural bent, because people are all different. I can’t read a blueprint to save my soul. I’m completely verbal. But other people love blueprints. They don’t want to hear me describe an Eggmobile; they want to see the drawings. In the same way, no animal is worthless. Each has something to contribute, and if an animal isn’t contributing, usually it’s because we, as caretakers, have failed to honor its distinctiveness. Ditto for people.
Our culture is desperate for people-affirming vocations, noble visions, and sacred missions. We need writers and speakers, builders and dismantlers. We need engineers and prophets, scientists and poets. Imagine if, as a society, in our marriages and families and communities, we’d honor the specialness of people as we farmers honor the specialness of our animals. We’d never put a pig in a tomato patch. We’d never put a chicken in a dog pen. And yet we routinely squeeze people into boxes of performance and institutional trajectories because that’s what society needs or expects, not because it’s a context that facilitates flourishing. I could want to milk a pig forever, but I’ll get a lot further milking a cow.
Photo by Nicolas Calzas
3. Be gentle. Perhaps the most common admonition I need to give urban visitors to our farm, especially to children, is to move slowly and speak softly. Suddenness scares animals.
Animals respond to deliberate, systematic interaction. Perhaps the most advanced thing we do on our farm is sorting cows. Each cow has a flight zone, and a cow’s field of vision is about 330 degrees. You never want to come at a cow in her blind spot, right at her rear. As a prey animal, she’ll think she’s being attacked and will either take flight or whirl around to get a good look at you — and scare you to death in the process.
Cows move forward if you walk toward their shoulders. If you walk toward their necks, they’ll back up. These responses are subtle enough that when you become a master of stockmanship, you can tilt your head and affect movement. Bud Williams, the late great guru of animal handling, always said that if something isn’t working, you should slow down. Frustrated? Slow down. Cattle won’t go where you want them? Slow down.
Sudden changes frighten people too. As do yelling and screaming. You’ll never get a cow settled if you’re yelling and beating her. But if you scratch her tail head, rub behind her ears, and coo gently, she’ll quit quivering and gradually settle. People respond the same way. Be fun. Be gentle. Don’t threaten and stomp. Coo.
We caretakers are certainly smarter than our animals. We can yell and strike and frighten. But we’ll get along much better if we subjugate those base tendencies and move slowly, methodically, respectfully, quietly, and gently. As our uninitiated visitors learn, it takes more strength to be gentle than to be bombastic and agitated.
We can learn a lot from raising livestock and interacting with our animals, God bless ‘em. With all they have to teach me, I learn more every day.
Joel Salatin and his family own and operate Polyface Farm, arguably the nation's most famous farm since it was profiled in Michael Pollan's New York Times bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma and two subsequent documentaries, Food, Inc. and Fresh. An accomplished author and public speaker, Salatin has authored seven books. Recognition for his ecological and local-based farming advocacy includes an honorary doctorate, the Heinz Award, and many leadership awards.