This letter is about bison.
In the US, we use the names bison and buffalo for the same animal.
The name “buffalo” technically belongs to Asian animals such as the Water Buffalo.
Bison are wild animals but on farms like ours, they are also livestock.
Bison have not had the long history of domestication that other livestock have. Because of that, the care and handling of bison is significantly different from other livestock.
We keep a complete bison herd. That means a mature bull, a number of cows and their offspring. Our herd includes calves, yearlings and two year olds, both male and female
Depending on the time of year, the herd numbers between 20 and 30 animals.
The number is highest in summer after the calves are born. Lowest after the fall harvest.
Bison are herd animals. They have a high social need. Bison alone or in small numbers will do poorly.
Bison have a very strong herd sense and a strict hierarchy within that herd.
These two factors tend to hold the herd tightly together but with space between individuals depending on status.
It is extremely difficult to separate an animal from the herd. Bison becomes highly agitated if separated.
Bison can become so excited when handled or when penned that occasionally a healthy animal will simply drop dead.
This same factor causes buffalo stampedes.
Stampedes can start easily and instantly anytime a bison herd begins to move. I see it often when moving the animals to fresh pasture.
This is how a stampede occurs.
I open a gate and call the animals.
A few cows or the herd bull, (Bill) start moving toward the opening.
Bison like to move. Those closest to the open gate may break into a lope. Other bison see the movement and fear being left behind. Those animals run toward the departing animals. Then, all the remaining bison notice the movement. In an instant, every animal is running toward those bison that headed to the open gate.
The leading bison hear the herd approaching at a run. They increase their speed to a run, fearing they will be trampled from behind.
Now the entire herd is running madly. Each bison getting as close as possible to the animals ahead of it.
The bison in the middle and the rear of the herd are in full panic. They are running blindly with their heads down. They do not know where they are going. They just fear being left behind.
The bison in front are running as fast as they can. The front bison cannot see what is directly behind because the herd is in their blind spot. They correctly fear being trampled.
Those two fears, the fear of being left behind and the fear of being run down are the essential elements of a stampede.
Once begun, a stampede continues until the lead bison turn in an arc. From the arcing position they can see behind and manage their fear. As the arc continues the main body of animals tends to fan out. The group loosens and slows. They fan out because they cannot actually see the lead animals and tend to keep moving straight ahead. The herd continues to loosen and slow until each animal feels that it can safely stop running.
Of course, there is one other way to end a stampede. Native Americans used stampedes to kill bison by running them over a cliff.
Indians would start a stampede and then have hunters located along the route to prevent the herd from turning away from a cliff. An effective method but one that annihilated the entire herd.
Some years ago, I built our herd up to 70 bison.
That was too many.
A herd that big did not fit through my pasture gateways.
When they stampeded, they broke down the gate posts.
I got tired of rebuilding fences.
Bigger herds require bigger farms. Thirty bison at once is enough.
Bison have a unique shape.
Bison have a massive head covered with long, thick hair. They use their heads to plow snow from winter grasses. This unusual adaptation allows them to survive winters in far northern plains. The large head also defines their body shape. The “hump” on the bison shoulders is made of long extensions of spinal bones and enormous straps of cartilage. The hump is necessary to move and control the bison’s extra large head.
Adult bison bulls weigh over 2000 pounds. The very biggest reach 2500 pounds.
Cows however, are much smaller, averaging 1000 pounds.
This “dimorphism,” difference in size, is also unique to bison. Most other farm animals such as cattle, horses and pig, males and females are undistinguishable by size.
Bison live to over 30 years of age. That is roughly twice as long as cattle
Bison are serious about self defense.
Bison use their heads and horns as weapons. Bulls tend to use their enormous heads as battering rams. Cows on the other hand tend to use their horns with a hooking motion. Most of the cows in our herd sharpen their horns. They bring the tips of the horns to a knife’s edge by rubbing on trees and rocks. Bison with young calves are particularly aroused by canines, including dogs.
Bison are not afraid of horses. Some cows will aggressively defend against horses. We never put horses and bison in the same paddock. The risk of injury to the horse is too high.
Bison have a strict herd hierarchy.
They enforce their hierarchy instantly and violently.
A lower status animal must keep its distance from a higher status animal.
That distance is 5 to 20 feet depending on the situation.
The only exception is during a stampede where the animals bunch tightly together.
Cows in general have high status. Cows rank themselves from highest to lowest within their group.
Calves have the same status as their mother but only when they are together.
A cows’ yearling and two year old offspring are also protected but only when near their mother.
Young animals not born in the herd have no status. They must keep their distance from virtually every herd member. This “outsider’ status in combination with their strong social need puts them under intense stress.
A young bull can never gain status unless he defeats the herd bull in battle. That is not likely.
I harvest young bulls before they get large enough to challenge Bill.
Fighting bulls will destroy any fence in their path.
A young female can gradually build status by producing calves. Young cows rise in stature over years of production.
The next time you visit our bison herd observe this hierarchy in motion.
Each time a high status animal takes a few steps, there is a ripple effect through the herd as every other animal moves to reset the spacing.
In general, the herd will look calm as they shift positions but occasionally you will see a low status individual make a hasty move to escape the horns of a superior.
Bison are dead serious about enforcing their rules.
Some years ago at an auction, I purchased several cows from one farm and several large heifers from a different farm. The animals were about the same size.
The sale barn workers made the mistake of putting one of the heifers in with the cows.
The cows killed the heifer.
The poor creature was not able to get as far from the cows as bison rules required.
I seldom bring outside animals into our herd.
It is too hard on them.
Bison also have a fierce aversion to capture or enclosure.
There is no low stress way to capture or haul bison.
Most bison producers have corrals, sorting pens and squeeze chutes.
Bison frequently injure themselves in these facilities.
Nevertheless, such facilities are necessary to vaccinate, tag, weigh, sort and load bison.
Other than pasture fences, we have no facilities for bison.
It is good that others do or there would be no way to stock bison farms.
Nor would there be a way to get bison from farms to grocery shelves.
I pasture harvest our bison. That means I kill them in their pasture in a way that causes no stress.
I am not critical of other bison farming methods. In fact, I am taking advantage of their efforts and expenditures.
It is a luxury for me that I can farm without the need to sort or load our bison.
I move the bison herd from pasture to pasture by leading them.
I use the same methods as for cattle with one exception.
I walk ahead of the cattle.
I cannot do that with the bison. Once they see the open gate, they would run over me.
Normally I lead the bison from a tractor seat.
Sometimes I can do it from behind a gate.
When harvesting cattle I walk among them, when harvesting bison I do so from a tractor.
The herd bull and a couple of the cows have rammed the tractor in the past.
The tractor weighs almost five tons and is made of hard stuff.
They learn to vent their anger in other ways.
I will explain the details of harvesting in a separate letter at the end of this sequence.
Bison eat the same diet as cattle.
Some textbooks teach that bison eat more browse (twigs, buds etc.) than cattle.
I do not believe that is true.
Animals eat what they have learned to eat. If a herd has a history of living in mixed terrain with many kinds of plants, they will over time learn the proper season and use for every plant. In a natural environment, a herd will develop the knowledge of when to eat every grass, forb, herb and brushy plant that is available. The herd will learn how to self medicate on the many herbs that grow in their range.
A group at the University of Utah has done some terrific work on this topic.
I never separate the members of our bison herd.
That means the bull, who we call Bill is always with them.
That further means that the time of calving is up to Bill and the cows.
Last year most of the cows calved in April.
Some years most calve in May; occasionally we will get a calf as late as October.
I see no point in interfering in the sex lives of buffalo.
The cows are protective of their calves, as you would expect.
In the case of calving problems, there is probably nothing that can be done.
I once tried to save a weak calf by taking it from its mother. My intention was to warm it, feed it and return it. The calf could not stand. I used a tractor to push the cow momentarily from the calf. I then jumped down and carried the calf onto the tractor.
The cow climbed onto the tractor seat with me.
I returned the doomed calf to its mother.
Good cattle fencing will hold well managed bison.
When bison are upset or crowded, they require extremely good fencing.
If well cared for and calm, their fencing requirements are not much different from cattle.
I know good bison farmers who have five strand barbwire fences and have never had their bison escape.
Bison have a healthy respect for electric fence and we use it for all our pastures.
Bison ranchers I learn from in Dakota use a single strand of electric fence to divide their bison pastures.
I generally use two wires minimum. In my smaller Minnesota pasture, a small animal will sneak under or a large animal will jump over a single wire.
Bison are great jumpers.
It is crucial that the bison are well fed, watered, trained to their fences, socially stable and calm.
The two wire fences I mentioned above are interior fences. Although our bison have never broken out, there is always more than one fence line between them and the road.
There are major differences between having a herd of cattle get out versus a herd of bison.
If your cattle get out the neighbors call and you just bring the cattle home.
If your bison get out you might appear on the evening news.
In this letter, I will write about Pigs.
We raise pastured pigs.
Hogs can only be pastured during the growing season.
We buy little pigs in the spring, raise them on pasture, and harvest them in late fall.
Pigs are not well suited to cold weather.
We keep no pigs in the winter.
The piglets come to our farm at the beginning of May. At that time, they are just a few weeks old.
They are females, (gilts) and castrated males (barrows).
Male pigs, (boars) develop a strong and displeasing taste.
When raised under the same conditions there is no significant difference in behavior, growth rate, weight or meat taste between gilts and barrows.
Normally the piglets are born in a confinement system. That means they have lived only in heated buildings.
When we bring them home, we carefully acclimate them to a more natural environment. They must adapt to fresh air, sunshine and cool spring temperatures. They must also adjust to our simpler basic feed. Most important, they must develop immune systems that function well without antibiotics or medication.
To do that we put them into a large shed with deep straw bedding. The shed is open on the sunny side. For the first two weeks, the pigs are together in one large group of 100 or more. Even though there are many piglets in the shed, they have much more space and more freedom than in the confinement barn. They can immediately start natural hog behaviors like rooting in the dirt. They are able to run and play.
If the May weather gets too cold we enclose the open sides of the shed with tarps. Normally the pigs toughen up within a few days.
I begin training the pigs for pasture life immediately
I walk in the pen several times each day to clean and fill their feed troughs. While in the pen, I check the piglets carefully to see that all are feeling well. Walking in the pen gets the pigs accustomed to having me among them.
I pick animals that are not doing well and place them in a nursery. The nursery is simply a corner of the shed that is fenced off. The nursery has heat lamps for extra warmth. The nursery usually contains five to eight little pigs. Tending to the distressed piglets in a less competitive area improves their well being drastically. Normally, within a few days the nursery pigs can go back in with the larger group. Each day I add a couple pigs to the nursery and return a couple pigs to the main pen.
During this time, I also train them to electric fencing.
Moveable, one strand electric fences are crucial for managing hogs on pasture.
To train them I string a small diameter wire across a corner of the pen. I place a section of white ribbon wire across a different corner. These electrified strands are not needed to hold the little pigs in this pen. The strands are for training purposes only. The piglets quickly learn to see and to avoid the electrified wires.
When I move the pigs to their summer pastures, I will use single strand wire along the permanent exterior fences. This wire keeps them from digging under perimeter fences.
I use the white ribbon wire for the moveable fences to manage grazing.
This white ribbon is the same ribbon that is commonly used for horse fencing.
I use the white tape for the moveable fence because the pigs can see it easily. Some hog farmers believe that pigs will not cross a line where there was an electric fence, even after the fence has been moved. That is not true. They will readily move past yesterday’s barrier if they are trained to regular fence movement.
I feed the pigs a special blend of grains that I grind weekly on the farm. Their diet is high in oats. Each week I adjust the ratio of the grains to supply the correct protein and nutrient level for their age, weight and pasture conditions.
I developed the high oat ration years ago so that the pigs would not grow too rapidly. Hog digestive systems are much like ours. I like oats in my diet. It is my belief that our pigs are healthier, play more and feel better on this diet.
In 2013, I developed a corn free ration. In this diet, the pig feed is a blend of oats and wheat. The hogs did perfectly well on this new diet.
By the way, I never feed the pigs meat. Some growers throw road kill or offal to their pigs. That is a cheap source of protein and the pigs love it.
I think it is a bad practice, however. Road kill carcasses may carry trichinosis. Trichinosis is the worm disease that grandmother worried about.
Worse yet, pigs quickly become ravenous about meat. It just seems like a bad idea to me.
I start moving groups of around 30 to their separate pastures within two weeks after arrival. By then they have adapted to our simpler feeds, strengthened their immune systems and toughened up for the outside world.
Each pasture has shade trees and an open sided shed that faces south. Each pasture also has its own water supply, grain feeder and electric fence charger.
I have found that hogs are most relaxed in groups of ten to thirty. More than forty and the animals do not socialize as well. In large groups smaller pigs may be picked on or fall behind.
In the wild, two to four sows form a group called a sounder. Including little pigs, those groups normally number between 15 and 25.
That group size may define both their minimum need and their maximum capability for a stable social order.
Pigs of the same age with adequate water, food and space do not form a strict hierarchy.
Each pasture is completely separate from other pig pastures. That is an important factor in disease prevention. A low stress life and a robust immune system provide good defense from illness.
I move interior fences so the animals have green plants to eat every day. The pigs will graze off the green material within a few hours. Then they pull up the roots and eat those. Last, they turn the soil repeatedly to find all manner of tasty morsels.
Digging in the soil is natural behavior for hogs. It provides good exercise and it helps them build strong, lean muscle.
The pigs revel in it.
Some growers try to prevent their hogs from rooting, because rooting and eating the roots kills plants. Instead of trying to change pig behavior, I fence off and replant the pastures up to three times each year.
I use a separate fence charger for each pasture. Pigs occasionally short an electric fencer by rolling a big lump of dirt or a tree limb onto it. When that happens, I do not want a short in one pen to affect the fence in another.
Pigs respect electric fence but they are not particularly afraid of it. Some individuals will test it frequently to make certain it is working. Occasionally, I will have a pig that is so tempted by something on the other side that it will scoot past the wire, knowing it may get a shock. When that happens, I leave the pig out. By late afternoon it will be standing, facing the fence wishing it could get back to its home and its companions. Eventually the pig will gather the courage to run the wire again to get home. It is not likely to repeat that traumatic act on the following day.
There is always a woven wire fence beyond the electric fence so that if pigs do get past the electric wire they are not really “out” just into tomorrow’s breakfast.
Pigs cannot sweat.
On days over 80 degrees each pen has a water sprinkler to keep the pigs cool.
The pigs grow through the summer and by fall, they weigh hundreds of pounds. By harvest time, they will average over 400 pounds with some weighing more than 500 pounds.
I continue to walk in their pens each day but I carry a little stick. I use the stick to tap them in the snout if they nibble at my pants. Walking through a pen of curious little piglets is one thing. Walking through a pasture of 400 pound animals is something different.
My goal is to walk through the pasture, checking pigs, fixing fences or performing other tasks without being eaten. The pigs are gentle and good natured, but they are still pigs.
Harvest starts in October and all the pigs are gone before the end of December.
I transport the hogs in the stock trailer to Quality Meats, ten or twelve animals at a time.
The afternoon before loading, I back the trailer to the shed where the pigs sleep. By this time in the fall, the pigs are all sleeping in a hog pile within their shed.
I put a small light and some nice straw in the trailer. The trailer is often filled with volunteers when I come out before daylight. If not, I close the animals in their shed and crowd them as needed with moveable gates.
The pigs know me. The animals are always calmest if I work alone. That is true for cattle and bison also. I pasture harvest those beef and bison. Hogs cannot be calmly pasture harvested. At least not after the first one.
I loaded 100 pigs for harvest in 2013. I did not need to shout, shock or hit a pig even once to get them loaded.
I take the loaded trailer to Foley where Josh and I unload the pigs into the waiting area at the butcher shop. I can give more details on the actual harvest if you wish.
Last fall Gail and granddaughter Ella (six) came along to Foley on one trip. They watched Josh handle and kill a pig. They were satisfied that it was done well.
This is a good system
This is a good arrangement overall for the pigs.
The pigs live to enjoy the Minnesota growing season from end to end.
As with all our animals, we work hard to give them a good life and a stress free death.
Please ask if you have questions.
In this letter, I will write about animal senses and animal memory.
Animal senses are roughly like our senses but with many significant differences.
The same is true of animal intelligence.
This article is about those aspects of animal senses and intelligence that are relevant on this farm.
It is limited to the six livestock species of bison, cattle, horses, hogs, sheep and goats.
All of the above are prey animals. Hogs are prey but they are predators in some situations.
We cannot communicate directly with animals. That limits our ability to know precisely how animals experience the world. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about animals by observation and testing.
Unfortunately, the only way we comprehend senses and intellect is by comparison to our own.
That certainly has limitations and it can be misleading.
Some of the best practical insight we have into animal minds comes from Temple Grandin. Grandin is a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She is autistic. Her verbal skills developed late in childhood. Her mind works mainly in pictures. Her memories are like videos. She claims that animals, lacking vocabularies think in basically the same way as she. There is strong evidence that she is correct.
Doctor Grandin, who is now in her late sixties, has brought about terrific and widespread changes in the field of animal welfare. She has focused her efforts on animal handling in slaughter facilities. Virtually all modern slaughter facilities incorporate her designs. Those designs greatly reduce animal stress.
You can learn all you wish about Grandin and her insights by simple Googling her name.
Gail says I should mention a 2010 biographical movie about Temple Grandin. It is quite good. Consider renting it from your local library. It is educational for both adults and children.
The eyes of prey animals are on the sides of their heads. That gives them the ability to see a predator approaching from almost any direction. Predators, like humans, have eyes placed on the front of their heads. Frontal eye placement is necessary for binocular vision and for precise depth perception.
Prey animals give up depth perception for the ability to detect predators quickly.
In general, animals do not detect as many colors as humans. Their vision is optimized to detect motion. Motion is best detected in black and white.
That does not mean animals have poorer vision than we do. Vision in prey animals is optimized to fit their needs.
Prey animals do have some capability for binocular vision. It is narrow however, and they can focus only directly in front.
These animals, most notably horses, must lift their heads high to focus on something distant.
They drop their heads low to focus close.
Most authors claim that bovines and horses have better night vision than we do. I am not convinced that is true. My human ability to navigate through wooded or uneven terrain seems superior to the animals that I am moving.
Animal hearing is generally superior to ours. Most species can hear a broader range of sound than humans can. In addition, these animals all have large exterior ears. Most of them can direct their exterior ears independently. That gives them enhanced ability to locate the origin of a sound. Prey animals can listen to two separate sounds at once. Horses frequently point one ear forward and one ear backward.
Animal olfactory sense.
The ability of animals to detect scents is vastly better than ours. Our sense of smell is very weak. So weak that it is hard to imagine what a strong olfactory sense can do.
For example, the olfactory sense of a pig must be incredibly useful as it digs through the soil. Much more useful than the close-in binocular vision which the pig lacks.
Animals have a chemical sensing organ that is unique to ungulates and a few other creatures. Ungulates walk on their toes (hooves).
That chemical sensing organ is the vomernasal organ. It is located inside the mouth of the animal near the roof of the palate. Google the word to see images and learn more. This sense detects pheromones and hormones and is used to communicate between herd members.
I see it daily in our herds. It is most notable in horses, bovines and cats. If you have a cat, you are probably familiar with it. Most often, a male uses this organ by sniffing the urine or feces of a female. Females use it, but less frequently.
Originally, researchers fixated on the ability to detect pheromones and identified this sense as mostly sexual. i.e. A bull could tell when a cow was pregnant or approaching estrus. Researchers just seem to think that way.
There is evidence that the organ has much broader applications for general health and nutrition.
In a wild and free state herd leaders could use that knowledge to move the herd as needed to maintain herd health. A herd would naturally know where to locate minerals, herbs and nutrients within its range.
Animals can detect the byproducts of fear from other animals. For example if an animal is mishandled and terrified in a handling facility, the area must be cleansed before other animals are brought through. Otherwise, they will react fearfully in the same setting even though the mishandled animal is gone. This effect endures for days.
Animal sense of taste is superior to ours. In general, these species have several times as many taste buds as humans. Taste buds respond directly to the brain to encourage grazing animals to ingest more or less of a plant while they are eating it. That is useful to balance nutrients and to avoid toxins.
Animals have a good sense of touch. I doubt that it compares to the sensitivity that humans have in fingers and hands. I have seen little research on the topic.
Animals have excellent memory. Animal memory is probably as clear, accurate and long lasting as our own. It is crucial for animals to know every detail of their home territory. For roaming herds like bison or horses, that territory can be enormous.
They have both individual and “herd” memories. By working together, a herd can piece together information distributed in parts among many individuals.
Prey animals have sharp pictorial memories. An animal will notice one small thing out of place in a pasture or alley. The animal may then refuse to move forward until that item is investigated and cleared as a threat.
One new feature can cause a horse to shy on a path that it has traveled safely many times before.
Animals never forget an emotional experience. If a horse is frightened and reacts in fear it will never forget the cause of that fright. Working the animal past similar situations in the future will be difficult. The animal may shy violently no matter how many times that action is calmly repeated.
There is strong evidence that animals recall scents with great precision. The memory includes the exact setting of the first time they detected that scent.
Animals sense body language and emotions in others. That includes members of their herd and humans.
Prey animals have greater sensitivity to body language than we have. They will often take a position that to us appears non attentive, such as grazing, while they carefully observe.
Animals that are newly introduced to a herd will often graze at a distance from the herd. They appear nonchalant but in fact are intently watching.
I am afraid I could expand on this topic indefinitely.
I would especially like to write on the instantaneous way that prey animals can respond to sensory input.
Tell me know if you are interested in more about animal intellect and communications.
I will try to write the next segment within a week.
Your feedback is welcome and helpful.
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In this letter, I will write about calming and moving animals.
By “moving” animals, I mean moving herds from pasture to pasture or into trailers for transport.
Some years ago, I attended a three day course in South Dakota on this subject. The teachers were the daughter and son-in-law of Bud Williams. Bud, now diseased, was a leading expert on moving animals using low stress methods. Bud moved animals primarily by driving herds while on foot. You can learn more about his methods, books and teachings by simply doing an internet search of his name.
I enjoyed the workshop. I learned some things. I gained some useful insight. Nevertheless, the course was only marginally useful to me for two reasons.
First, I found that I already knew the methods Bud was teaching.
Every farm boy who brings the cows home for milking or brings the heifers home from the neighbor’s cornfield learns the basics of these techniques naturally.
All the animals I am focusing on with these letters, bison, horses, cattle, hogs, sheep and goats, are prey animals. Prey animals have what is called a flight zone. The flight zone defines how close a predator can get to the animals or the herd before they move away. To untrained animals, we are predators.
The flight zone varies with different species and with different individuals. It is also highly variable in different situations and at different times.
In the simplest sense, understanding the anxiety that we cause in animals by our role as predators is the key to driving animals. Anxiety comes before fear. A skilled animal handler uses natural anxiety to move animals while keeping them relatively calm. Calm in this situation usually means movement at a walking pace. If the handler causes too much anxiety, the animals become fearful. Short term anxiety is relatively low stress and does no harm to the animals. Fear causes animals to panic. Fear and panic lead to violent efforts at escape. That can result in injuries and future handling difficulties.
If the herd is repeatedly moved in a calm way, driving becomes a learned response and anxiety is eliminated.
The second reason the course was not particularly useful to me is that I very seldom drive animals.
It is my belief that farmers are obligated to give animals as good a life as we reasonably can.
That means, among other things, that I should minimize stress in their lives.
Whenever possible, I lead animals or I set things up so they can move themselves.
The first requirement is to reduce the animal’s natural fear of me as a predator. The technique for doing so is not novel or special.
I visit the animals in their pastures or pens daily. Checking the animals to see that their needs are met and that they are healthy is just good farming. It is animal husbandry.
By the way, I like the ancient word “husbandry.” It ranks right in there with land “stewardship”. Husbandry and stewardship as the two prime obligations of farmers. Land stewardship is in revival in recent years. Unfortunately, animal husbandry as a phrase and as a practice has fallen into disuse.
Animal husbandry does not exist in a CAFO.
Key precepts for low stress animal handling.
My goal is to reach the point where I can walk through the animal herd and have them essentially ignore me.
That requires two things. One that they lose their fear of me and two that they expect nothing from me unless I call them.
The second point is important. If you provide food or something positive every time you visit the animals, they will crowd around you. Horses will get pushy, cattle will get bossy, bison will get dangerously close and hogs will eat your pants off.
I train animals to come, but only when I call. I train them to ignore me if I do not call. If I am close, I call in a quiet voice. If I am far across the pasture, I call in a load voice. Calling does not qualify as yelling. Calling is a vocalization known to them in a positive way.
By the way, because bison are wild, I get close to them but either keep a fence between us or ride among them on a tractor. Otherwise, calming is similar. I get them used to having me hang around with them but not on foot. It would not be a fair fight if one of them decided to test where I fit in the herd hierarchy.
Domestication and taming do not change animal nature. This statement is true for all species that I am familiar with including dogs. The sweetest, friendliest, tiniest dog has both the desire and the knowhow to grab a chicken by the neck and kill it instantly. I have seen it many times.
Humans select animals for specific traits such as size or docility, but their underlying nature appears unchanged.
Here is one example of a docile Jersey steer behaving as a prey animal.
Some years ago, two of my brothers were with me to butcher a Jersey steer. Jerseys are known for docile behavior. The fact that this was a steer made the animal even calmer.
In preparation, I had closed three steers in a small corral that was a part of their pasture. The animals had lived in the same pasture since they were calves. None of them had ever challenged a fence or broken out of their pasture. I fed them occasionally in this corral. They had not been handled otherwise.
My brothers and I were casually talking as we approached. One of us was carrying a gun. I do not believe these animals had ever seen a gun before, so that fact is probably of no relevance.
As we walked toward the corral, we were discussing which animal to kill. In hindsight, that was perfectly typical predator behavior.
The animal that we decided on went from calm, to alert to frenzied in seconds.
Before the gun was pointed or any overt action was taken, that steer broke through the corral fence. It ran across the lawn dragging part of the corral and broke through another fence back into its pasture.
The whole event took a few seconds.
I am now more attentive to the nature of my animals.
I will give more details on moving the different species of animals in alter letters. Each species is unique.
For example, moving bison is different from moving horses.
Although the general concepts and taming methods apply to pigs as well as the other species, pigs are difficult to herd. In most situations, I set things up so pigs can move themselves. More in a later letter.
I will try to write the next segment within a week.
Your feedback is welcome and helpful.
This letter follows one which I emailed on February 22, 2014, under the same title, “PART 1”
If you did not see that letter, you can find it easily on Sarah’s blog.
In the first letter, I wrote briefly about the herd structures formed by the animals we raise. That includes bison, cattle, horses, hogs and sheep.
I have changed my writing plan in response to questions and comments from you.
Some of you requested more information about livestock.
Michelle requested that I include goats. I have raised goats a number of times but I cannot claim to know goats well. Nevertheless, I will include information about goats whenever possible.
In this letter, I will write about animal care in winter.
Winter feed and keeping warm.
Four of the livestock species I am writing about, bison, cattle, sheep and goats are ruminants. Ruminants have complex stomachs that allow them to prosper on roughage. That means grass or grass hay primarily.
The digestive process of rumination produces heat as a by-product. Bacteria in the animal’s stomach generate that heat. The bacteria are there to aid indigestion. The bacteria break down complex fiber. The generation of excess heat is terrifically important to ruminants in winter.
Technically horses are not in the ruminant family, but horses also have a complex digestive system that produces heat.
The ability to produce heat during digestion, coupled with a winter coat of hair allows these animals to be comfortable in the coldest weather. They are not just getting through the winter. In fact, these animals are most comfortable at temperatures much colder than the temperatures at which humans are comfortable.
This is in fact one of those areas where treating animals as we would like to be treated is a mistake.
Since, this extra heat is a byproduct of ongoing digestion it is important that the animals have palatable hay and freedom of movement available at all times.
That is particularly important for horses. Horse stomachs are very small compared to their overall size. Most of horse digestion and especially the portion involving heat generation occurs in their intestines.
During extreme cold, horses need to eat frequently, day and night.
Cattle and bison have large stomachs. They do not need to eat as often as horses. Nevertheless, in very cold weather our cattle are at the hay bales much of the day. They go back to the bales several times during the night.
All of these animals grow excellent winter coats, if properly acclimated. That means they should be outside as the fall turns to winter. If so, their bodies respond naturally to the seasons.
Bison grow an especially wonderful winter covering. Their hair count per square inch of hide is significantly higher than other animals.
Occasionally, I see horse blankets on horses in cold weather. In general, that is a bad practice. A blanket will prevent the horse from acclimating to the weather. Its body will not know whether to grow winter hair or which parts of its body to cover. On nicer days, the coat may actually cause overheating. Horses grow a coat to keep warm. They sweat to cool off. They roll in the dirt or snow and shake their skin to arrange the space between their hairs for comfort. Interfering with natural functions is seldom helpful to them.
I recently read an article that made the claim that bison coats work so well that fallen snow does not melt off. Actually, that is true for properly acclimated horses and cattle too.
I will post a couple photos of animals in winter on our facebook page.
Link to our Facebook page.
Snake River Farm Minnesota on Facebook
With good hay and water continuously available, and with a natural coat, bison, horses and cattle are healthiest and most comfortable outside.
It is good to have a wind break for horses and cattle during blizzard-like weather. A shed closed on two or more sides is nice. A thicket of trees and brush may work as well.
Bison have no need for a shelter and they will not use it if provided.
Sheep and especially goats need better protection. An open shed or well ventilated barn is best.
A shed (roof) for cattle or horses is needed only during wet cold weather. Those days generally occur in the fall and spring during the change of the seasons.
In fact, the coldest conditions for acclimated animals occurs when it is in the low 30s with rain or wet snow. Then water eventually soaks into their hair and cancels the insulating effect of their coats.
Contrary to what you may think, nice warm barns are generally unhealthy places for animals.
Closed barns exist primarily for the comfort of the farmer.
Pigs cannot acclimate to winter in Minnesota. The simplest proof of that is the fact that feral hogs are a wildlife problem in 40 states but not here.
Hogs do not have the heat producing advantage of ruminants. Their digestive systems are much like our own. In addition, hogs have a wiry hair coat that is not adequate for cold weather.
There are many pigs in Minnesota during winter but they are in enclosed barns.
We do not keep pigs in winter. It is just simpler that way.
Water for our herds in winter.
Winter pastures have access to the Snake River at all times. The river is spring fed and the water is 43 degrees winter and summer. I take care that winter access does not damage the stream banks. Stream banks are protected by frozen ground.
Lori asked about animals eating snow. It is natural for animals to eat snow, particularly horses and bison. Every day the horses casually eat snow while standing only a few feet from running water. They especially enjoy fresh or falling snow. Both bison and horses and to a lesser extent cattle can do well for months or even an entire winter without access to open water. They must be acclimated, they must have unlimited forage and they should be in a low stress situation that is well known to them.
I do not recommend it, however.
Bison, horses and cattle will graze in winter if possible.
Animals prefer to eat the grass that remains in their pastures if they can get to it. Bison and horses are well equipped to dig to grass in winter.
Horses use their solid hooves, front feet mainly, to clear snow. In the wild, in conditions of deep snow, horses may actually wear their hooves bloody by winters’ end.
American Indians, who did not store winter hay, cut poplar trees so their horses could eat the palatable bark and buds. Not great feed, but no doubt it helped the horses survive.
In large part, bison look the way they do because of their strategy for survival on the northern plains.
Bison skulls are relatively large for their overall size. To dig for grass under snow, bison drag their heads from side to side. The distinctive bison hump is an anatomical structure required to hold the large skull.
Cattle too, are eager to eat grass in winter. Unfortunately, they are not as well equipped as bison or horses for digging through snow.
Cattle have cloven hooves. A split hoof is not suited to digging. Snow and ice quickly pack into the delicate space between their toes. Cattle do well if forage is easily reachable.
In summary, open water and hay is available to the bison, cattle and horses at all times in winter.
Horses and cattle have open sheds available.
We keep no hogs through the winter.
We keep a flock of poultry, mostly laying hens and a few rabbits through the winter. They are in a closed and heated coop, with heated water and an outside run. The outside run is enclosed for their protection. Predators of all types are desperately hungry in the season.
I will try to write the next segment within a week.
Your feedback is welcome and helpful.
My purpose is to write about the handling of animals. That includes bison, cattle horses, hogs and sheep.
In order to explain animal handling here, I believe I need to put animal welfare into context. Context means a shared understanding of animal nature.
To make this manageable for me and hopefully palatable for you, I will divide this topic into segments of around 1000 words.
Actual research or scholarly teaching on the topics of animal behavior, animal social relationships or animal welfare is scarce. Especially sparse relating to farm livestock. The information that exists is mostly about efforts to limit cruel behavior. That information focuses on humane slaughter.
Most of the written information is about horses. Probably because horses fill a dual role. In the US, they are both livestock and pets.
Good farmers and animal handlers have for thousands of years acquired and used the knowledge necessary for the welfare of their animals. Today, automation and the economies of scale are separating farmers from animals.When that happens, the animals fall to the level of biological units on an asset list. In that situation, only the short term physical needs of the animals are considered.
Livestock are different from pets.
The definitions of those words, “livestock” and “pets” are somewhat vague and ambiguous.
Livestock are farm animals, raised and kept for food or work needs.
Pets are animals that provide companionship to humans.
In general, livestock satisfy physical needs of humans; pets satisfy psychological needs of humans.
Both livestock and pets are “domesticated.”
In this article, bison, even though not domesticated are considered livestock.
The exceptions to the definitions I have given above are numerous.
In the first draft of this section, I wrote, “in the context of this farm all five are livestock.” Gail pointed out that is not correct.
I like to think I treat all of our livestock with equal respect.
That is not true.
Animals die unexpectedly on every farm. When a cow, hog or chicken dies on this farm, I compost the carcass or recycle it to the wildlife.
If a horse dies, I dig a deep hole in the savanna. I bury it as I have buried all our dead horses for 40 years.
Our horses are treated as livestock when living but pets when they die.
We all care about animal welfare.
On the list of goals for our farm, animal welfare is the top value.
There are different viewpoints on how to achieve high animal welfare.
I believe people think about the nature of animals incorrectly.
We tend to think that animals perceive the world as we experience it, just less so.
That is incorrect. Animal senses, animal brains are much different from ours.
We think that animal social needs are similar to ours. There are similarities but the differences are vast.
We tend to think of “human nature” and “animal nature” as if all animals can be lumped.
They cannot. The social structure of pigs is as different from that of horses, as horses are different from us.
Each species must be understood and managed according to its nature.
Overview of Animal Group Structure.
All animals have a social life. Understanding their social needs is crucial to providing a low stress (high welfare) environment for them.
There is little research or study into the social needs of farm animals.
The five species I will write about, bison, horse, cattle, hogs and sheep are all considered herd animals. The definition for herd is very broad. It is so broad that I think it makes better sense to describe these as “social” animals.
Bison form primary groups of 15 to 20. These groups are led by one or several mature cows. The primary group typically consists of cows, calves, yearlings and adolescent females. Males over two years old are driven away. There is a mature bull involved but his involvement with the herd is seasonal.
Bison have an extremely strict hierarchy or pecking order. That order requires space between animals. Outside juveniles cannot blend into an existing herd. Unrelated, producing females (cows with calves) may blend in over time. Bison enforce their hierarchy violently and instantly.
The enormous bison herds of history were actually collections of family groups. There was little scientific study of bison before their near annihilation. Not much reliable information exists. The better observers reported that the large herds of thousands consisted of many family groups of 20 or so.
Cattle form social groups similar to bison.
Domestic cattle establish a pecking order. Like bison, senior cows are dominant. Those cows are quite “bossy” in behavior. The pecking rank between lesser members is not sharply defined. Physical space between individuals is not as important to cattle as it is to bison. Rank is expressed primarily regarding access to feed or water. The boss cows and their nursing calves take first access.
Texas Longhorns are our best example of feral cattle. Longhorns descended from loose Spanish cattle. They prospered for over 400 years without human involvement. At their peak, in the mid 1800s, they numbered in the millions.
Mustang horses, like longhorn cattle, originally descended from Spanish animals. Mustangs form bands of 5 to 15. All domestic horses with enough space to do so form similar bands. The band is assembled and held together by the herding actions of a stallion. The stallion collects breeding age mares and holds the group together by what we would recognize as herding.
Horses cannot be gelded, (castrated) until they are over one year old. Because of that, gelded horses retain significant male characteristics. Geldings will frequently express stallion-like behavior. i.e. Dominant geldings form herds.
Pigs form family groups that fall short of what most of us think of as a herd.
Wild pigs and feral domestic pigs behave similarly. Several reproducing females form a group called a “sounder”. Sounders consist of 20 to 50 animals including piglets. Adult males, boars, perform no social function other than breeding. They join the groups only temporarily and only for that purpose.
Sheep form flocks of any size. Sheep may be the most domesticated of livestock. It is difficult imagining domestic sheep surviving in a feral environment.
Sheep are basically defenseless prey. A ewe will aggressively defend her lamb but they are not particularly effective in dealing with common predators. Coyotes and dogs can kill many lambs in a short time.
Sheep under stress form very tight groups. Each animal pushes into the flock trying to avoid being on the outside. They do so to avoid being the animal most accessible to a predator. That may be their only effective defense. This tight flocking behavior eliminates almost all sense of pecking order or rank.
As a corollary to that tight flocking behavior, sheep have a strong inclination to follow each other.
Next sections will each concentrate on a single species.
In those sections, I will focus on animal handling here at the Snake River Farm.
Defrosting Frozen Meats
There are three safe ways to defrost meat: in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not recommend defrosting meat on the counter or in other locations.
• Refrigerator—It is best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small packages (1 lb.) of ground beef or pork, stew meat, and steaks/chops may defrost within a day. Bone-in cuts and whole roasts may take two days or longer. Once the meat defrosts, it will be safe in the refrigerator for three to five days before cooking; one to two days for ground meat.
• Cold Water—To defrost meat in cold water, do not remove packaging. Be sure the package is waterproof or put it into a leak-proof bag. Submerge meat in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so that it continues to thaw. Small packages may defrost in an hour or less; a three- to four-pound roast may take two to three hours.
• Microwave—When using a microwave to defrost meat, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving.
Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing because they may have been held at temperatures above 40°F.
It is safe to cook frozen meat in the oven or on the stove or grill without defrosting it first; the cooking time may be about 50 percent longer. It is not recommended to cook frozen meat in a slow cooker because the center may not fully cook.
Raw Meat Handling
The cutting boards, plates, knives, and other utensils used to prepare raw meat should be washed with soap and hot water, both before and immediately after using them. Be sure to wash your own hands before and after handling raw meat as well. Raw meat may contain harmful microorganisms.
Liquid in Package
The red liquid in packaged meat is not blood (that is removed from the meat during slaughter and only a small amount remains in the muscle tissue). The meat’s natural moisture, combined with muscle pigment, is the source of the liquid.
Freezer burn appears as grayish-brown leathery spots on meat and is caused by air reaching the surface. Freezer burn does not make food unsafe, merely dry in spots. Cut away freezer-burned portions before cooking the food.
Marinate meat in the refrigerator up to 24 hours. Boil used marinade before brushing on cooked meats. Discard any uncooked leftover marinade.
Safe Cooking of Beef
For safety, the USDA recommends cooking hamburgers and ground beef mixtures such as meat loaf to an internal temperature of 160°F. Use a meat thermometer to confirm the internal temperature. Whole muscle meats such as steaks and roasts may be cooked to 145°F (medium rare), 160°F (medium), or 170°F (well done). It is recommended that whole muscle cuts that have been injected (moisture-
enhanced) or mechanically tenderized be cooked to medium or well done.
Customers never want all parts of the animal.
The stuff you do not want is left in the custody of Quality Meats.
Most of those leftovers are picked up as “Offal” by a company that QM hires to disposes of such things.
You need to ask ahead for these leftovers. QM does not generally hold them in their freezers.
HEARTS and TONGUES
These are muscles actually. Some folks ask to have heart and tongue packaged separately.
If not packaged separately, these organs are normally added to the “trim” and made into ground meat.
If you order ¼ of beef, you get ¼ of the tongue and heart.
There are no leftover hearts or tongues, but you may be able to get more heart or tongue by swapping some of your ground meat to another customer who does not want any heart or tongue. Ask QM.
Some customers take their livers, many do not.
Liver cannot normally be added to the trim. It can add undesired liver taste and dark color to hamburger.
Liver is considered as a tasty and nutritious food by many. Try the links below.
Absolute Best Liver and Onions Recipe | Allrecipes
32 easy and tasty pork liver recipes by home cooks - Cookpad
10 Best Lamb Liver Recipes | Yummly
If you ask QM, you can often get as much liver as you wish.
Your only cost is processing by QM. They will slice, wrap and freeze liver for you.
Few Americans eat kidneys. But the rest of the world considers kidneys as a nutritious food.
Especially lamb kidneys. We harvested 25 lambs this year. I doubt that any of those kidneys were eaten.
Beef Kidney: Nutrition, Benefits, and Recipe - Dr. Robert Kiltz
Pork Kidney Stir-Fry with Tomatoes and Bell Pepper ...
How to cook Lamb Kidneys - Farmison
You can have a lot of kidneys if you wish.
Your only cost is processing by QM. They can slice, wrap and freeze kidneys.
SOUP BONE, BROTH BONES, MARROW BONES.
Soup bones are bones with some meat left on them. You can ask QM to process some of YOUR carcass into Soup Bones, but there are no extra soup bones.
Broth Bones or Marrow Bones, (same thing) are unclaimed bones from which all the meat has been removed. Normally, these bones come from animals that were converted entirely into ground. They could be beef or bison.
The age of animals that we convert into whole-animal-ground varies. Only the younger animals yield bones that are suitable for broth or marrow. Over the course of a year, the supply normally exceeds demand.
How to Make Gut Healing Bone Broth with Organic Beef ...
DIY Collagen Rich Grass-fed Beef Bone Broth - Pasture ...
Roasted Marrow Bones Recipe | Food Network Kitchen
How to Prepare and Serve Bone Marrow - Honest Cooking
You can probably get all the Broth Bones you want.
Your only cost is processing by QM. They will slice, wrap and freeze bones for you.
Lard is pig fat.
Customers who buy ½ hog from us also get a fair amount of pig fat.
I feed our pastured hogs a relatively high percentage of oats. I do that for several reasons but one good effect is that the lard from oat fed hogs is higher quality.
It renders easily. It melts at a lower temperature.
That fat can be easily rendered into the most superb cooking lard.
How To Render Lard In A Crock Pot - Mommypotamus
What is Lard? Benefits, Uses, Substitutes, & More
There is NO unclaimed pig fat. Our customers use it all.
You will need to buy ½ hog to get it.
Tallow is beef fat.
Most grass-fed animals do not have much fat beyond what properly goes with the cuts of meat or into the ground. QM targets 90% lean/10% fat in ground beef. That does not leave much extra fat.
Grass-fed bison never have extra fat.
Nevertheless, sometimes I bring in a grass-fat beef cow that does have extra tallow.
You can use beef tallow a number of ways but the most common use is super-biocompatible soap.
You can easily do it in your kitchen.
A Basic Tallow Soap Recipe - Countryside
Your only cost is processing by QM. They will wrap and freeze tallow for you. They can grind it if you wish for easier rendering.
How to Render Tallow: Easy Crockpot Method - Bumblebee ...
Some of you ask about these and other leftovers to feed their pets.
I understand that. At our house Gail trims meat and gives the scraps to her cat. Sometimes I notice that the “scraps” look as good as the parts I am getting for dinner.
Quality Meats is a licensed pet food processor.
As a farmer, I grow food for people. But, if some unused parts of the animals we raise can be used to feed your pets, I guess that would be a good thing.
Ask QM about processing food for your pets.
Ask Quality Meats about these extras.
p.s. Email if you have questions.
Quality Meats, email@example.com
Quality Meats, phone # 320 968 7218
Snake River Farm Website www.thesnakeriverfarm.com
Snake River Farm Facebook page here.
LAMB Processing Choices:
Lamb Chops: What thickness do you want?
(Most customers prefer 1 inch, some prefer thinner ¾ inch.)
How many chops per package?
Lamb chops average from 1 ounce to 3 ounce.
(Most customers request 4 to 8 chops per package.)
Shoulder Roasts: Standard size is 3 lb.
If roast is not wanted, you may have it cut to all steaks or trim out.
Shoulder Steaks: What thickness do you want?
(¾ inch is normal.)
How many per package?
Most will do 1 less steak than chops.
Back Hams: Can be left whole or cut in ½. (There is one ham per ½ lamb)
The leg of lambs can be smoked for an additional $0.75/lb.
Spare ribs: Can be packaged as ribs or trimmed out.
Hocks: Can keep or have trimmed out.
Heart, Tongue and Liver: Can be packaged. Heart and tongue can be added to Trim.
Trim: Can package as stew meat or lamb burger. (Lamb makes delicious burger.)
Sausage, such as seasoned links can be made for an additional cost.
Links are $1.85/lb
Recommendations & Notes.
This guide provides information about the different cuts of lamb available. It also helps with cooking methods for each cut.
Keep in mind that a lamb carcass is much smaller than a beef or hog carcass. The individual cuts are relatively small. The total amount of meat from a ½ lamb is not great. Consider it as the delicacy it is.
Lamb is a great source of protein, vitamins and minerals.
Choose leaner cuts on most occasions, reserving the fattier pieces for weekend treats.
This part of the animal works hard, so the meat from a lamb’s shoulder is full of flavor. It takes a while to become tender, but this means it’s a great choice for stewing and slow-roasting. To maximize the flavor, cook lamb shoulder on the bone so the meat simply falls apart when pulled with a fork. Recipes using lamb shoulder are fail-safe crowd pleasers. Do a slow cooked shoulder for a perfect Sunday. To keep things super simple, make an herb rub with some mint or rosemary, garlic, sea salt, black pepper and olive oil, slash the skin of the meat and massage the rub into all its nooks and crannies. Sit it on top of wedges of onion, add some liquid, cook on a high temperature to get the skin lovely and golden, then cover and turn down to low (around 160ºC) for 4 to 5 hours (depending on the weight of the shoulder)
Lamb chops or cutlets are the most expensive cuts of lamb, but are incredibly delicious and tender. They are taken from the ribs of the lamb and cooked individually, normally over a grill or a barbecue. When several are left together and cooked as a whole, they are called a rack of lamb. Best served pink, they are amazing.
These are mini T-bone steaks cut from the waist of the lamb. On one side of the chop is the lamb loin and on the other side is the fillet. Just like chops, they’re great for grilling or barbecuing – serve with a Middle Eastern vibe or marinate. Serve with harissa-spiked humous to embrace delicious Moroccan flavors.
The rump comes from the back of the lamb. This cut is lean, tender and full of flavor. Be careful not to overcook as it will become tough if left to dry out. It is delicious pan-fried whole, finished in the oven for a few minutes, then sliced to reveal its blushing pink center. Or, it can be cut into chops on the bone then grilled or pan-fried.
Like the shoulders, the legs of a lamb work hard, which means that this cut has a good, strong flavor. Leg of lamb is great roasted whole on the bone, or boned and barbecued. It’s a fairly lean muscle, so take care not to overcook it, or else it could end up quite dry. Rub it all over with an herb oil, some garlic and even a little mustard, if you like, roast in the oven, then finish off on the barbecue to get a great gnarly smoked flavor.
Lamb shank is a super-simple, cheaper cut that goes a long way. Taken from the lower part of the back legs, there is a lot of collagen in the shank, which, when cooked slowly, gives the meat a lovely soft, melting texture, making this another cut that’s perfect for stews and slow-cooking.
Lamb neck can be cooked slowly on a low heat, yet unlike the shoulder, it can also be treated like a steak and cooked quickly over a high heat until pink. It goes well with a whole load of flavors and is delicious served when cooked low and slow. It works well as a stew or curry and is a great cut of meat to make kebobs with, too.
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