Notes from Windward: #64

The Animal Husbandry Department

      Today's world is made possible by the almost universal use of fossil fuels to power our homes and businesses, but it wasn't always that way. Before coal fired our industries, and oil powered our cars, society relied on animals to make life livable.

      It was a time when horse power referred to an actual horse, when folks dressed in clothes spun from homegrown wool instead of artificial fibers made from oil, when no one questioned the purity of the morning's milking, or the eggs gathered from the coop behind the barn.

      Many people think that those days are gone forever. Well, not if we can help it. In order to re-create that more authentic, more organic, way of living, we must embrace the art and craft that made it possible - sustainable animal husbandry.

      On the practical level, our animals provide us with milk and eggs, meat and leather, manure and wool, all of which play key roles in living sustainably in this type of ecosystem. But our commitment to sharing our lives with these remarkable creatures goes far beyond the practical benefits, or even the emotional pleasures they provide us with on a daily basis as we watch the interact socially or raise their young or settle their disagreements.

      Goats, sheep and ducks are herd creatures. By allowing them to be themselves, we gain a valuable opportunity to learn about the dynamics of living together as a group.

      We live in a time when the nuclear family is held up as the ideal state, a view which totally forgets the vital importance of having an extended family and strong community ties. Today, when few people come from large families, and what relatives they have are scattered far and wide, and social and religious ties have all but faded away for most people, there's so much that these animals have to teach us about our true selves.

      There's a line in an Eagles' song that asks, "Someone show me how to tell, the dancer from the dance." Our goats, our sheep and our ducks all do the dance differently, but if you watch closely and pay attention, it's the same dance that humans call community. Their social dance and our social dance are variations on the same theme.

       Because the Department of Animal Husbandry deals with living creatures, it is necessarily more complex than other departments such as gardening and woodworking. Gardening is a seasonal craft that makes for busy summers, just as woodworking is a wonderful way to while away the winter months. But, with the animals, each season brings its own challenges and joys, and the animals need and expect to be tended to every day. We've tried to explain the concept of "taking the weekend off" to them, but they just shake their heads and make rude comments about that being some sort of two-legger problem.

      Animal husbandry is a very rewarding path, but it's also a demanding one. Consequently, it's a Department which needs more than one person to function; indeed, most of the folks here are involved in at least one animal-based sustainability system, and there's a real sense that we and the animals all live here together.

      Currently our goat program is "on hold" as we focus our energy and funds on a "Great Leap Forward" in building construction and fencing. We raised and milked goats for more than a decade, and look forward to doing so again just as soon as we get a proper milking barn/milk processing building constructed. In the meantime, we're keeping our eye out for the right "goat person" since the rate at which any project goes forward depends a lot on finding someone who'll champion that aspect of Windward.

      Another sustainability program awaiting the right person involves rabbits. For the most part, sustainable systems are not focused on growing meat for the table; rather, meat is a by-product of the production of milk, wool and eggs. Rabbits constitute the primary exception to that rule.

      Animal based systems which focus on meat production generally involve the feeding of human-edible foodstuffs, a practice which generally involves the inefficient use of non-renewable energy inputs. For example, it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce the diesel and fertilizer needed to grow and transport the grain fed to steers being fattened up in feedlot operations, and we're just not interested in going there for a number of reasons.

      Given their reproduction rates, three commercial grade rabbit does can put more meat on the table in a given year than can a Black Angus cow, and handling a stud rabbit is way easier than trying to convince a bull to stay where you want him to the 364 days in a year when you don't need him to do the bull thing.

      Hay is the dried stems and leaves of various plants, one of which is typically alfalfa. Our sheep and goats get carried away at meal time, and rip into flakes of hay with a gusto that causes a considerable amount of leaves to fall on the ground and get trampled underfoot. By using specially designed feeders, we can collect these "fines," mix them with some molasses and extrude them out a meat grinder as pellets to feed the rabbits. That way we can grow high quality meat for the table using a nutritional resource which would otherwise go to waste.

      While raising rabbits doesn't involve a lot of work once the hutches are properly set up, there still needs to be someone who pays attention to looking after their welfare, keeping track of kindling dates and generally insuring that they get to do what rabbits naturally like to do.

      Another reason why Animal Husbandry is a Department is that it's difficult for one person to reconcile the need to emotionally engage with the animals in order to be able to effectively look out for their interests, and to then emotionally disengage to the degree needed to be able to handle the transition from bunnies in the cage to fryers in the pan. By working together as a team, we are able to insure that what needs doing gets done without an undue level of emotional distress.

      Because of the way that our work with animals is throughly intertwined with almost everything we do here, it's fair to say that this Department lies at the heart of Windward, and that there'll always be a place there for anyone who's a serious "animal person."  

For a discussion of Windward's Woodworking Department, Click Here

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 64