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Book Review: Tales from the Industrial Pork Complex

Pig Tales Book Review

Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook

Book Review:  Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for
Sustainable Meat

by Barry Estabrook, review by Chris Walters

“One Iowa pig accosted her owner in a pasture, and through grunts and nudges, led him to a barn where she had just given birth. The farmer assumed she was showing off her brood, but when he turned to leave after congratulating her on her nice piglets, she blocked his way, then walked over to her automatic watering spigot. She activated it, but no water came out. Even though he had never touched the spigot in her presence, the sow knew he would be able to fix it.”

Barry Estabrook’s previous book told the story of tomatoes, a source of nutrition with no observable capacity for learning. Despite the horrors of the labor abuses documented in that work (Tomatoland), and despite the arguably more egregious labor abuses documented here in the chapters on slaughterhouse workers, it is the pigs themselves that raise the stakes in Pig Tales. Described by a researcher as roughly equivalent to a bright three-year-old toddler, pigs generate anecdotes like the one above all the time. Their high level of sentience, illustrated by their feats of memory and intuition, throw into bold relief the ill treatment they’ve received at the hands of people. Putting to one side the matter of killing and eating them, for centuries we heaped opprobrium on pigs merely because they like to roll in dirt, a habit that makes sense, it’s more or less in their natural context. Nevertheless understandable that we made their name synonymous with slothful, disgusting behavior. When we really added gross injury to insult was the last few years, when we devised novel and innovative ways of torturing them. Continue Reading →

Ordering Chicks: Tips for Adding the Right Birds to Your Flock

Chicks

The normal, as-hatched ratio is six cockerel chicks for every four pullet chicks hatched. Photo by Scott David Gordon

Ordering chicks, for most of us, means that spring comes early in the poultry world. Here in Missouri we start planning out the mating groups in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The hatchery catalogs start arriving a week or so after Christmas. It was once tradition to start the pullet chicks in February to have them sorted and laying for the fall and winter months when eggs would normally post seasonal highs.

That box or two of chicks that arrives during the traditional hatching season, mid-February through early June, are so much more than the little bits of fluff they first appear to be. I sometimes wonder if everyone fully understands what awaits beneath the lids of such boxes.

Too many folks flip through a catalog or stand before the little pens at a farm supply store and buy some of those because they’re cute, some of the “funny” colored ones, and others because they recognize the breed name or because their grandparents had some of them. Bits and pieces are alright when piecing together a quilt, but a poultry flock, to be successful, must be built with a plan and a uniformity of vision. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Helping Everything from Soil Fertility to Odor Reduction

Biochar is a valuable soil amendment. It has gained much attention in recent years for its ability to boost soil fertility and microbiology, upgrade soil structure, and accelerate plant growth. Amid a rising tide of research and trials, what was once mostly fuel or water filtration media has suddenly sprouted dozens of innovative applications and benefits.

Biochar in Poultry Farming

Farmer Josh Frye with his gasifier.

Researchers and farmers are have discovered many new uses for biochar, including:
• Stormwater management and treatment
• Phosphorus traps to reduce water pollution
• Nitrogen traps to reduce ammonia and nitrate pollution
• Reclamation of mine tailings
• Building material blended with cement, mortar, plaster, etc.
• Electronic microwave shielding
• Electron storage and release as a “super-capacitor”

• Carbon fiber textiles for odor-absorbent clothing
• Carbon nanofibers to replace plastic and metal

Livestock farming is offering a new and growing area of unexpected uses for biochar. Animals from earthworms to chickens, cattle, and even monkeys show shrewd interest in biochar when it is added to their food. Farmers and scientists around the globe are investigating the use of biochar in livestock production. In the European Union, biochar is carefully defined and approved for use in agriculture, with most fed to livestock or spread on farmland with manure.

This article mainly addresses poultry production, but similar issues and opportunities face other livestock producers. Research from several countries shows that adding one to three percent biochar to cattle feed improves feed efficiency by 28 percent, reduces methane by 25 percent, and increases rate of weight gain by 20 percent.

Continue Reading →

Interview: Forging a Better Path — Texas Farmer Jonathan Cobb Embraces Shift from Conventional to Biological-Based Practices

Jonathan Cobb Interview

Jonathan Cobb

Jonathan Cobb interviewed by: Chris Walters


This month’s interview swings our focus away from storied veterans to a newcomer, a young farmer trying to forge his way in the middle of Texas. Like a lot of others who dedicate themselves to rational agriculture based in soil science, Jonathan Cobb left his family’s land for a while, getting an education outside the ag school monolith, getting married and trying out urban life before coming full circle back to the land in 2007. He encountered an event in recent Texas history that felt apocalyptic at the time and still strains belief — the summer of 2011. As the worst Texas drought in about a century kicked in with a vengeance, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for nearly three months, the land turned into brick and reservoirs dropped like a second-term president’s approval rating. As he relates, it forced a fresh look at all sorts of things. Along the way, a business Cobb ran with his wife, Jennifer Brasher, had to be folded, and he began a momentous transition away from row crops and into livestock. It also bears remembering that despite the influence wielded by the liberal enclave of Austin a mere hour away, rural Texas is not known for its open embrace of progressive ideas. For Jonathan’s refreshingly candid account of how he meets his challenges, read on.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell us about your neck of the woods near Rogers, Texas.

JONATHAN COBB. It’s Blackland prairie; really good, really rich, deep soils with a long history of farming there. My great-grandfather was a sharecropper since around 1900. My grandfather farmed it and then my Dad stayed. He was the youngest, and he stayed on the family farm. We were all gone when I decided to come back about eight years ago. I had been in Fort Worth doing landscape design and then came back and started farming. Continue Reading →

Corn Silage Starch Fill

silage.tifA recent field study of fresh chop corn silage shows that waiting for that last 3 to 5 percent of starch fill may not be worth it — especially if you intend to feed that silage to lactating dairy cows. As the plant matures and kernel starch fill continues, the rumen digestibility of the starch decreases, explains Dr. David Weakley, director of forage research for Calibrate Technologies. In dairy cows, when the amount of rumen degradable starch is less than expected, milk production can suffer. In addition to lower rumen digestibility, more mature starch also means that kernel processing may not be as effective. That, in turn, could further decrease the amount of starch that is available to the cow.

This report appears in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Diverse Plant Communities Resist Invasive Species

diverse-oak resist invasive.tifHerbivores consume more nonnative oak leaf material in areas with diverse native plant communities than in less diverse communities. Why diverse plant communities tend to resist invasion by non-native or invasive species remains uncertain. Researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Morton Arboretum have been examining the potential role of herbivores on the invasion of nonnative plant species in diverse plant communities. The researchers examined herbivore damage on leaves of non-native oak trees in arboreta across the United States. They found that non-native oaks in regions with high oak species diversity showed more leaf damage than those in regions with low diversity.

This article appears in the December 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.