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On Ethical Animal Husbandry

Husbandry

My wife, Loryn, is a writer, so I often get her to read things I’ve written before I post them. On the ‘about’ page, one of our values reads “Ethical animal management and welfare”. It was going to read “ethical animal husbandry and welfare” but Loryn wasn’t crazy about the word “husbandry” and so, in an incredible act of husbandry, I changed it.

Except that’s not true, and definitely not complimentary to Loryn. I mean, I did change it, but it can’t be described as an act of husbandry. The dictionary defines husbandry as: “the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals”. “Husband” actually used to be a synonym for farmer!

I think there’s something poetic about that (notwithstanding the implicit sexism!), and something sad about it all. It feels more than just coincidental that referring to a farmer as a husband has become redundant, and that farming as though you are married to the land, and caring for your livestock is no longer the convention.

Convention

Let’s chat a little about what the convention is, and specifically about sheep farming in the Karoo. The convention is to divide your farm into fixed camps (say 5), and let the sheep loose in some of them (say 3), while resting the remaining camps (I’ll let you do the maths). The farmer needs to ensure adequate water is available in the camps being grazed, and also needs to move the sheep from camp to camp every few months to give each of the camps a rest. This sounds quite sensible, right? The issue is that there are so many unintended consequences, most of which are negative. Here are some of them:

  • It’s really bad for the soil, the veld and the environment. You can read more detail about why it is so bad in Brad’s post here, but in short, for the purposes of this discussion, it leads to a lower quality of veld for the sheep to eat.
  • It’s not very friendly to the sheep. That sounds strange, because it sounds really ‘free-range’ and desirable. There are a few of things to consider here:
    • Firstly, with lower quality veld, the sheep don’t get the same level and balance of nutrition that they’d get off healthy veld, and without that nutrition, the sheep aren’t as healthy as they should be.
    • Secondly, they tend to congregate around the water points, and in so doing, heavily degrade those areas. If they hang around the same area day after day, pathogens find it easier to breed, as they can find hosts/carriers with ease.
    • Thirdly, when it’s time for the sheep to move to a new camp, they haven’t seen a human in days, weeks or even months. They are rounded up by people, dogs and bakkies, with a whole lot of yelling and intimidation. Basically, they move because they are scared out of their minds.
    • Fourthly, the sheep are left to fend for themselves against predators, and because they’ve been bred as domesticated animals for thousands of years, they don’t have much with which to fend. Also, given the first two points above, they are even easier prey (the predators always target the weak and the sick). Under the convention, many sheep are lost to predators, and while this is all very ‘natural’ it’s a really torturous way to go. It’s also not very profitable for the farmer, and so…
  • It’s really bad for the predators. The farmer blames the consequences of his poor management on the predators, and so the farmer indiscriminately hunts, traps and poisons the predators. While a sheep being eaten by a predator is torturous for the sheep, it pales in comparison to the ‘conventional’ manner in which the predators are killed. I haven’t posted any pics or videos of this here, but if you need any convincing, see some of the posts Bool has posted on our Facebook page.

A typical Karoo farm on the left hand side of the fence, the N1 on the right. Drought and poor management have obliterated the veld.

  • It’s really bad for the person who eats the meat from those sheep. Follow me on this one.
    • We already know that the veld is being degraded, especially in the context of the current drought in the Karoo.
    • With degraded veld, the lambs don’t reach the desired slaughter weight fast enough to satisfy commercial farmers (it’s often a cashflow issue, so the sooner a lamb can be sent to slaughter, the “better”).
    • This means that, despite being marketed as free-range and grass-fed, they often spend the last 6 weeks of their life in feedlots, where they are fattened up for slaughter. Often, the fattening process includes growth hormones, and almost always includes grains in their diet.
    • If your aim was to design a facility in which the ideal conditions exist for pathogens to breed, after some tweaking and finetuning, you’d ultimately end up with a feedlot. To deal with the pathogens, the sheep are doped up with routine antibiotics.
    • The negative impact of grain-based diets, growth hormones and antibiotics in meat on human health are well documented.
  • Also, it’s really bad for the sheep. I know I’ve already said that, but each time the sheep are moved – from camp to camp, farm to feedlot, feedlot to abattoir – they are terrified.

There isn’t very much about any of this that can be described as ethical.

Ethical Animal Husbandry

So, what is it that Fair Game farmers are doing that allows us to have “ethical animal husbandry and welfare” as one of our core values? I’m glad you asked.

Let’s start by describing what we do. We have cows and sheep in one big herd (about 2000 sheep and about 300 cattle). The herd has shepherds with it 24/7. There is a group of shepherds who work through a rotation of shifts and days off. One of the shifts includes sleeping in a caravan next to the kraals that house the animals at night.

 

The kraals – one for the sheep and one for the cattle – are portable, and are moved every 7 days. They are placed on degraded land, that will most benefit from the dung, urine and hoof impact of the animals. It is amazing to watch the mixed herd of cattle and sheep approach the kraals and, through a series of whistles and hand claps from the shepherds, happily separate into two herds, in preparation for their daily entry into the kraals. As they enter the kraals in the evening, and again when the exit them in the morning, each animal is individually handled and inspected for any signs of injury or sickness. This allows for early detection and treatment, ensuring each animal is strong and healthy.

When they leave the kraals in the mornings, they are then guided to graze an area specifically identified by the shepherds for that day. This is typically a loop which includes a watering site that the herd reaches at midday. The exact loop is determined by the shepherds with an estimate of the available forage in mind. At a high level, the grazing plan is developed to ensure that any given area of veld is only grazed by the herd once a year. A more detailed plan is determined every 2 months, including the kraal sites and watering sites. And each day the shepherds determine whether to move through an area faster than planned, or spend more time in an area, depending on the available forage and the vitality of the veld.

The consequences of ethical animal husbandry

This way of managing livestock has many positive consequences. Here are some of them:

  • It’s really good for the soil, the veld and the environment. Again, read Brad’s post, but for this discussion, the veld is managed to be improving in growth and biodiversity, and therefore provides a healthier diet for the livestock.
  • It is so, so good for the sheep and cattle:
    • They are characterised by robust health, due to the health of the veld on which they graze.
    • They move through a new grazing area daily, and the kraals are moved every 7 days, so the pathogens don’t get a chance to breed, as they can’t find hosts at crucial points in their breeding cycles.
    • The animals are individually handled twice a day, through a familiar routine, and as such are so comfortable around people that describing them as tame is not an exaggeration. [When I first visited the farm, a group of us were standing on the opposite side of the kraal to where the sheep were entering. Bool’s dogs were scampering around our feet, and the sheep were so curious about them that they approached a group of humans and dogs, without any hesitation, to get a closer look. No fear.]
    • They are not killed by predators! My initial assumption on hearing about predator-friendly farming practices was that there was a built-in stock loss to allow for the predators to eat a few head of livestock every now and then. This is not the case. In the years that this project has been running, there has only been one animal lost to a predator, and that through human error. Due to the shepherds being with the herd 24/7, there is a huge disincentive for the predators to target the herd. This has taken the weaning rate on the farm from 70% to 100%, and so it makes a lot of financial sense too.

 

  • It’s really good for the predators. When that one animal was killed by a predator, it was acknowledged to be a management error, not a problem with the predator in and of itself, so there was no persecution of the predator. The farm does have large numbers of wildlife, so the predators are able to hunt naturally and sustain themselves. An estimation of buck and antelope on the farm has been made, and these numbers are taken into account when determining the stocking rate of the livestock.
  • It’s really good for the people who eat the meat from the sheep. The sheep reach slaughter weight in the veld, so there are no growth hormones, no routine antibiotics and there is no supplemental feed. The health benefits of grass-fed meat are also well documented.
  • It’s much kinder to the sheep. I’ve received a few queries about how the sheep are slaughtered, how far the abattoir is from the farm and so on (about 30 km, by the way). One thing to point out, that makes a world of difference, is that because the sheep are so used to humans, they aren’t stressed when loaded into a vehicle, and in fact will lie down to chew the cud. Due to how tame they are, they are easier to handle for the staff at the abattoir, and the animals themselves don’t view humans as a source of danger. I don’t want to pretend that going to the abattoir is like summer holiday for them, but the contrast between how these sheep experience the abattoir to that of the sheep farmed under the convention is vast.

A return to husbandry

One thing we know for sure about conventional modern farming is that it is not sustainable, and that it comes at a cost that, as much as possible, is hidden from the end consumer. Loryn suggested that I change “Husbandry” to “Management” because the word husbandry is little used, antiquated and redundant. But imagine the Karoo was farmed ethically. Imagine the veld was being restored. Imagine wildlife, including predators, could thrive in their natural environment. The Shepherding Back Biodiversity project is proving that this is possible. Fair Game is committed to ethical animal husbandry, and aims to have these practices replicated over and over again.

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