I split this into two entries. I hope that it won’t discourage people from reading the other one 🙂
In Chapter Eleven, Pollan discusses the way that the animals work together at Polyface farm. He starts by talking about the chickens, who are moved in a way that is similar to the cows. There is portable fencing that is used to move them so that they evenly fertilize and clean the land.
Left to their own devices, a confined flock of chickens will eventually destroy any patch of land, by pecking the grass down to its roots and poisoning the soil with their extremely “hot,” or nitrogenous, manure. This why the typical free-range chicken yard quickly winds up bereft of plant life and hard as a brick. Moving the birds daily keeps both the land and the birds healthy; the broilers escape their pathogens and the varied diet of greens supplies most of their vitamins and minerals… Meanwhile, their manure fertilizes the grass, supplying all the nitrogen it needs. The chief reason Polyface Farm is completely self-sufficient in nitrogen is that a chicken, defecating copiously, pays a visit to virtually every square foot of it at several points during the season.
Doesn’t that make so much more sense? Just compare that to the “free-range” organic house that was discussed a few chapters ago. Which chicken do you think has a better life?
“In nature you’ll always find birds following herbivores,” Joel explained… “The egret perched on the rhino’s nose, the pheasants and turkeys trailing after the bison–that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.” In each case the birds dine on the insects that would otherwise bother the herbivore; they also pick insect larvae and parasites out of the animal’s droppings, breaking the cycle of infestation and disease. “To mimic this symbiosis on a domestic scale, we follow the cattle in their rotation… I call these gals our sanitation crew.”
Just like the life cycle for grass that I just spoke about in my last entry, there is something similar for the chickens.
It seems that chicken eschew fresh manure, so he waits three or four days before bringing them in–but not a day longer. That’s because the fly larvae in the manure are on a four-day cycle, he explained. “Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies.” The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insect supplying as much as a third of their total diet–and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty. By means of this simple little management trick, Joel is able to use his cattle’s waste to “grow” large quantities of high-protein chicken feed for free; he says this trims his cost of producing eggs by twenty-five cents a dozen… The cows further oblige the chickens by shearing the grass; chickens can’t navigate in grass more than about six inches tall.
I love this. This is the kind of farm I tell myself I am supporting when I buy organic. The truth is, as I said before, that it is not necessarily what is meant by “organic”. Sure, some organic farms are like this, but the biggest producer of organic eggs is owned by the same company that made “Rosie” the chicken in my entry yesterday.
Joel also uses ingenious ways to make fertilizer and other inputs for the farm, rather than buying them or using fossil fuels. Pollan goes on to discuss how Joel adds layers of woodchips and corn to the manure that the cows are on in their barn. This slowly rises up and then keeps them warm as it decomposes during the winter. When the cows head out to pasture in the spring, Joel brings in the pigs who use their amazing sense of smell to get the fermented corn out. This is a delicious treat to them, and as they dig through for the corn, they mix it up and make an amazing fertilizer.
“This is the sort of farm machinery I like: never needs its oil changed, appreciates over time, and when you’re done with it you eat it.”
You can’t argue with that (assuming you aren’t Jewish or vegetarian… or both, in my case, lol).
I couldn’t look at their spiraled tails, which cruised about the earthy mass like conning towers on submarines, without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production. Farmers “dock,” or snip off, the tails at birth, a practice that makes a certain twisted sense if you follow the logic of industrial efficiency on a hog farm. Piglets in these CAFOs are weaned from their mothers ten days after birth (compared with thirteen weeks in nature) because they gain weight faster on their drug-fortified feed than on sow’s milk. But this premature weaning leaves the pigs with a lifelong craving to suck and chew, a need they gratify in confinement by biting the tail of the animal in front of them. A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. “Learned helplessness” is the psychological term and it’s not uncommon in CAFOs, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of earth or straw or sunshine, crowded together beneath a metal roof standing on metal slats suspended over a septic tank. It’s not surprising that an animal as intelligent as a pig would get depressed under these circumstances, and a depressed pig will allow his tail to be chewed on to the point of infection. Since treating sick pigs is not economically efficient, these underperforming production units are typically clubbed to death on the spot.
Tail docking is the USDA’s recommended solution to the porcine “vice” of tail chewing. Using a pair of pliers and no anesthetic, most–but not quite all–of the tail is snipped off. Why leave the little stump? Because the whole point of the exercise is not to remove the object of tail biting so much as to render it even more sensitive. Now a bite to the tail is so painful that even the most demoralized pig will struggle to resist it. Horrible as it is to contemplate, it’s not hard to see how the road to such a hog hell is smoothly paved with the logic of industrial efficiency.
Doesn’t that make you sick? Even if you eat pork (which I really don’t think is a good idea), that should make you think twice about random bacon or pork chops. That is just sick.
To close up the chapter:
At Polyface no one ever told me not to touch the animals, or asked me to put on a biohazard suit before going into the brooder house. The reason I had to wear one at Petaluma Poultry is because that system–a monoculture of chickens raised in close confinement–is inherently precarious, and the organic rules’ prohibition on antibiotics puts it at a serious disadvantage. Maintaining a single-species animal farm on an industrial scale isn’t easy without pharmaceuticals and pesticides. Indeed, that’s why the chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing. Sometimes the large-scale organic farmer looks like someone trying to practice industrial agriculture with one hand tied behind his back.
By the same token, a reliance on agrochemicals destroys the information feedback loop on which an attentive farmer depends to improve his farming. “Meds just mask genetic weaknesses,” Joel explained one afternoon when we were moving the cattle. “My goal is always to improve the herd, adapt it to the local conditions by careful culling. To do this I need to know: Who has a propensity for pinkeye? For worms? You simply have no clue if you’re giving meds all the time.”
On that note, I’ll say goodbye until my next entry 🙂 Thanks to everyone who has been reading and commenting! Its been great to hear from some new voices!