As scientists delve into the synergistic intricacies of animal relationships in historic ecological templates, they discover more and more the positive work animals can accomplish. From bison pruning prairies to beavers building ponds, animal contributions have protected water and built soil. A herd of millions of bison marauding through our neighborhoods would be incompatible with modern civilization, however, and a gigantic beaver pond across the interstate could be seriously disruptive. Fortunately, domestic livestock have filled these historic roles, working alongside humans to build civilization. Please enjoy with me, then, a brief look at critter services and livestock productivity on the farm.
Let's start with chickens. The ultimate sanitizer, the noble chicken stands between a farmstead and pathogens. Our friendly hens eat ticks, grubs, slugs, and insects. At Polyface Farm, the Eggmobiles (portable hen houses) disgorge 800 deposits of manure every morning on newly grazed pasture.
Chickens not only eat bugs in cow patties and then spread them out; they also harvest tons of newly exposed grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects living in the pasture. When the cows prune off the insects’ hiding places, the birds harvest them and turn them into fresh eggs. This works around a goat pen or cow milking stand too. Few animals are as energetic and faithful as the chicken for cleaning and disinfecting the farmstead.
A homestead with a handful of chickens on patrol has far fewer flies than one without. To a chicken, a maggot is better than ice cream. You can throw out the stinkiest, nastiest kitchen scraps and she’ll attack them as fervently as children going for mac ‘n’ cheese. I can’t imagine a functional farm without a flock of chickens. If we tried to pay someone to do what these ladies do, we’d go bankrupt in a month. They work all day, never complain, and go to bed when the sun goes down — what’s not to love?
Of course, other birds are adept helpers as well. Guinea fowl not only eat insects; they also announce intruders with their distinctive and raucous chortling. Many people believe them to be superior to dogs as security for a homestead. Not to be ignored, ducks provide wonderful bug control in the garden. Unlike chickens, ducks tend to leave vegetables alone. And an additional plus: They don’t scratch up mulch. They’re content to just roam around, waddling from area to area in a tight flock, looking for squash beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and other pests.
On to the pig. Two pigs can eat as much as a few dozen chickens. If you have a lot of garden scraps, dairy waste, or orchard rubbish, a couple of pigs can keep things tidy while growing bacon and lard. Need I say more?
In the days before modern mechanization and cheap fuel led to cheap feed, an efficient way to raise pork was with skim milk. Before Americans became fixated on debilitating no-fat diets, cream was foundational to nutritious foods. The dairy cow could turn cellulose into milk, which separated into cream and skim milk. Back then, skim milk wasn’t considered nutritious enough for humans to eat. Feeding it to pigs, though, yielded bacon, ham, sausage, and lard. Talk about alchemy.
Of course, in addition to eating almost anything, each pig has a plow on the end of its nose. Two pigs in a portable pen (we call ours the “Tenderloin Taxi”) can turn grass into garden spots. In the past, we’ve run a 6-by-8-foot hinged pigpen containing two pigs down through the winter chicken quarters. With all four corners hinged, the pen can be moved by one person walking it like a parallelogram: first one side, then the other, then back to the first side. In about three goes, it’s completely moved. The pigs dig deeper than the chickens and keep the bedding uncapped and fresh. Sometimes, they even bring up a few earthworms for chicken treats.
We use pigs to aerate our bedding under the cattle, too. We call them “pigaerators.” The sheer petroleum, machinery, and driving time we’d need to do this without pigs is enormous. Pigs do it for fun; we don’t have to drive them, start them, fix them, or drain their oil. They gain value while doing all this work, unlike machinery, which depreciates. If you throw up an electric fence around a bramble patch and feed pigs on the thorns, they’ll root out the nasty briars and turn the patch into nice pasture. To do that with human labor and machinery seems barbaric and wasteful. Technology has nothing on a pig.
How about sheep and goats? We use them like biological weed eaters around the farmstead and in the outer fields. With electric netting, we can create any configuration imaginable and move these critters from spot to spot. They eat everything they can reach, leaving behind marvelously nutritious droppings, which are delectable for earthworms. Goats strip off every thorn on thistles. They wade happily into multiflora roses and completely defoliate them.
In fire-prone areas, some landowners now pay for sheep and goats to control biomass instead of bringing in a fire-risky engine and whirling blade that could hit a rock and cause a spark. Fire control with sheep and goats is gaining popularity in arid urban areas, providing a whole new entrepreneurial opportunity for modern farmers.
The way these small animals relish weeds, seeds, and brush is miraculous to see. Their frenetic little lips wrap around the tiniest morsels, and with dainty but voracious action, they reduce tangled vegetation to open spaces. I find this work mesmerizing to watch. And if I don’t have time to watch it, I know it’s ongoing while I write this article or read a good magazine, such as Mother Earth News.
Finally, we come to the queen: the cow. I’ve left her for last because she’s the most finicky. She doesn’t scratch like a chicken or dig like a pig, but she can turn mountains of biomass into luscious nutrition: meat and milk. That a cow excretes 80 percent of what she ingests is the secret to her benefits. No animal puts back more than she does if she’s managed according to instinctive migratory and predatory choreography. Here at Polyface, we call our high-tech adaptation of this ancient movement mob stocking herbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization. While that may bring on some smiles, it’s actually a profound ecological template, one that has stood the test of time. It’s the horse that won history’s ecological race.
Oh, speaking of horses: I don’t have one, but certainly the work horse, whether for cowboy work or draft work, is one of the most valuable animals on a farm, at least historically.
I could mention others — bison, alpacas, llamas, dogs, cats, rabbits, ostrich, emu, alligators — but I’ll run out of space and time. The point I want to make is that the ecological benefits provided by domestic livestock mimic those provided by wild animals. In addition, livestock productivity can be carefully managed for the benefit of the human environment. No animal-free ecology exists on the planet. That in itself should help us realize that they must be fairly important.
The tragedy of our day is that we have divorced these animals and their symbiotic attributes from functional contribution. We’ve isolated, segregated, confined, and disrespected them in habitat, diet, and function. Doing so inverts their contribution from positive to negative, feeding an unnatural narrative to the mainstream perception of livestock. That’s a shame.
A functional food and farming system is most efficient when it incorporates both plants and animals in balance, like nature. That we have such wonderful partners to work with us in production, to give us fertilizer, to provide enjoyment and function, is downright remarkable. So here’s to our barnyard crew, an assortment of tails, legs, heads, feathers, and hides that we can love and steward while they in turn take care of us. I call that a win-win.