Friday, January 25, 2008


I have here two articles from the Prairie Star, the local ag rag -- or at least it WAS local before it moved to Great Falls, thus removing my chief source of income. These two pieces are entitled “Genetic Selection for Docility Important in Loose Sow Housing” and “Lambs Learn to Eat Pasture Weeds by Watching Sheep, Goats.”

The first principle of domestic happiness discussed here in terms of swine is “good genes” and we know for sure now that genes are responsible for much of temperament as well as appearance. Being “high maintenance” or hot-tempered may be inherited and pig farmers are not so optimistic as high school girls about “changing” someone by loving them. Reforming someone is an admirable project and lots of fun, but in the end it just saves a lot of grief and energy to pick out someone already wired for family.

Specifics of that can be quite variable. Babcock Genetics of Rochester, Minnesota, has been culling their breeding sows for disposition for a long time. The ornery ones simply became bacon instead of mothers. Babcock kept their sows in two different ways: one was in the individual “stalls” or cribs that the PETA people hate so much. The others were groups of a dozen loose in a pen about 180 square feet with food and water dropping into pans automatically.

Now Babcock is experimenting with a very high-tech process that involves tagging each sow with a gizmo that lets her into a single feed pen and checks her for pregnancy. The food that drops into the pan is nutritionally tailored for her state of pregnancy. Only one pig at a time gets into the little feed booth (like a voting booth) but then they’re free to mix with the other pigs the rest of the time. This system is responding to the theory that the swine industry has been inadvertently breeding for aggressive mama pigs because they culled by low-weight rather than disposition, and the aggressive ones get all the food.

A problem had developed with the sows that had been kept in stalls and then were released into the loose pigs. They didn’t know how to act, got picked on, and sometimes didn’t even try to eat. (Doesn’t this remind you of a school cafeteria?) So now their gizmo records whether they figured out how to get into the feeding station at least once a day.

This is called the Osbourne System and also records whether a sow is in heat. A vasectomized but otherwise operational boar is kept in an adjoining pen. If the sow is in heat, she’ll go stick her head into his pen and look him over. The gizmo records how long she looks. (Ever sit in a high school classroom with a virile young athlete on detention and watch the door open and close while girls come to peek?)

The big advantage of this system is that the pigs don’t freak out when people come around. They neither charge the farmer to chew his leg off nor run squealing in search of a place to hide. Mellow pigs. And they sleep a lot more since they have space to sprawl and no other pig chews on them. It might be nice to have one of those gizmos so a person could tell whether their child was getting enough to eat or was in heat -- but the real point in regard to raising humans is to choose good genes for temperament before sticking one’s head into a possible pairing.

The other article, about lambs, is more about good modeling of behavior -- also eating. Domesticity is mostly about eating or being eaten, except when the animal is used for energy, milk or yarn. Here’s how Evelyn Boswell puts it: “The lamb fills her plate with familiar grasses and weeds, then notices her mom and aunts loading up on a tall plant that’s pretty enough to place in a vase. Emboldened by her elders, the lamb nibbles a yellow blossom and decides she likes it. She cleans her plate and returns again and again to the all-you-can-eat-buffet until it’s time to go home.” The tall plant is Dalmatian toadflax, a weed, and now the sheep is serving a useful purpose. A herd that eats toadflax can be rented out to farmers who want to get rid of the plant. Lambs won’t eat the stuff if they don’t have good role models.

So now let’s look at a third Prairie Star article, this one by Dr. Val Farmer, who concentrates on human behavior. It’s called “How Farm and Ranch Kids Learn Money Management.” The idea is to sit the kids down at the old dining table (after the dishes are cleared) and explain to them the process while mom and dad struggle with the record-keeping, debt management, savvy purchasing, cash flow, income taxes, property taxes, and so on. One of the skills, says Farmer, who is a realist, concerns risk-taking -- like a major equipment purchase or trying a new kind of crop. Teach them to be neither timid nor reckless.

Dr. Farmer has other advice: Don’t give kids too much -- a ranch or farm is not a cornucopia. A sense of being entitled to the best can turn out to be a betrayal. Let kids pay for their own mistakes: accidents, traffic tickets, tests flunked.

Do give them their own smaller projects for which they are totally responsible and do it young. Pay for extra work besides chores, let them raise their own side crops or animals. He says, rather remarkably, “Part of money management is learning to be generous, give gifts and use money to do good.”

Be a good role model. That’s the key to the whole shootin’ match. Let teens contribute their opinions. Let them work for other people who do things differently and won’t hesitate to give them honest feedback, not forgive them for being late or losing tools.

Of course, choose a good spouse. And if you yourself have a rotten temperament, a tendency to gamble or get into fights or sleep around, an inability to understand that others have feelings, an inability to keep a steady job, etc -- get a vasectomy/tubal ligation or maybe don’t get married. Stay “nice” so we don’t have to put you in one of those individual pens and feed you with tax money. The trouble is, most people who are literally careless by definition don’t CARE about their kids or even themselves. In the old days, parents felt they had the right to close those prospective partners out. They didn’t need a gizmo on their kid’s neck. But then, in those days the farmers knew their pigs as individuals, too.

1 comment:

Alice from Wintersong said...

Hi prariemary: I found your blog through the comment review on Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By. Just wanted to say "hi" and how much I enjoyed this post. I come from a farm childhood myself, but it was in the "olden days" when the farms were small, the animals had lots of room to roam, and I made many of the animals my pets, then felt tremendous grief if one of them turned up as pork roast on the Sunday dinner table, or fatback in my turnip greens or collards. I so agree with you that young girls and women looking to get married and have families really do need to look at family genes. Luckily the man I chose to marry made the most wonderful father--the kind I wish I'd had.