Monday, August 23, 2010

Another spasm of self-rightousness

More than 1,000 people have gotten sick over the last couple of months from eating eggs from two factory farm operations in Iowa. The foodies are falling all over themselves calling on Americans to abandon the factory-produced egg in favor of the local, free-range, pastued, organic (or whatever) egg. But let's be honest about this. We have no system to replace those 380 million eggs that have been recalled, and that represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of eggs needed in this country today.

In a utiopian world, we would all have access to good eggs. The chickens would be kept on clean pasture, scratching, making dustbaths and eating bugs, grass, and weeds and a diet of healthy whole grains. I have raised that kind of egg, and currently work on a farm that does it on a small commercial scale. I eat three such eggs every morning, and I love them.

But here are some questions that I'd like to pose to Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan. If we are going to do this egg thing right -- and I think we all pretty much agree on what right means -- where is the land and labor going to come from? The beauty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) is that they are extremely efficient in terms of their use of land and labor. We can all agree that they do so at a trendous cost, much of which is externalized, but even setting aside the price of the end product, let's simply look at the numbers.

At the farm where I work, we produce about 200 eggs per day. During the period of time covered by the recall -- about 60 days -- we would have produced 12,000 eggs, or about .000003 of the eggs produced by the two farms covered by the recall. To replace just those eggs, our operation would have to be replicated about 32,000 times.

Here's how we do it. The hens are housed in a portable coop known as an egg mobile. It's an old, old design, popularized by Salatin and a few others. We use portable electrified netting to control the hens' ranging, and to provide protection from land-based predators. Once or twice a week, the whole setup is moved to a fresh piece of ground. Eggs are collected from nesting boxes three or four times a day. Every time they are fed, they are given fresh water. Hens are fed a hand-mixed ration that is carried to them in buckets every day. It's a wonderful system that produces great eggs.

Over the course of New Hampshire's six month growing season, when the chickens are out in the eggmobile, it requires about 10 to 15 person-hours of labor per week, plus another hour or so a day of cleaning and packing eggs. For the sake of ease, let's call it 15 hours a week. It also requires about seven acres of land each growing season.

Scale those requirements up to replace the eggs that have been recalled, and you need a land base of 224,000 acres and 480,000 person-hours of labor every week -- 12,000 full-time workers. To replace a fraction of one percent of the eggs used in this nation every week.

If we assume that labor costs $12 per hour and land costs $10,000 an acre and is amortized over 15 years, just the land and labor overhead -- not the chicken feed, the cost of the fence, the eggmobiles, the tractors to pull them, the energizers to power the fence, the hens themselves, property taxes, health insurance for those 12,000 workers, or (heaven forbid) profit -- would cost $3.88 per dozen eggs. The figure Michael Pollan offered to pay in a recent interview with the New York Times -- $8 per dozen -- might actually be a little low. Probably more like $10.

I can hear Joel Salatin now, saying that I've overestimated labor and that eggmobiles don't require exclusive use of the land -- you can run them behind cattle, sheep, goats, on hay ground, etc. I'll concede his second point. However, I'd also point out that my estimate of labor is based on having observed the system first hand in two different settings -- one in which I was a manager and one in which I was an employee, and I think it is correct. And if anything, I have underestimated the number of workers who would be required, because each operation would not require a full-time person, and the hours are not amenible to a normal work schedule. In other words, it's likely that what would actually be needed is something like 36,000 people who are willing to work 12 to 15 hours per week, or who, like me, have other duties to fill in around the egg production operation.

It is possible that if some the operations were near one another, they could realize some economies of scale by setting up an assembly line to clean and pack eggs cooperatively. But any economy of scale in that portion of the supply chain would more than be swallowed up by additional costs of distribution: it costs a hell of a lot more to get small batches of eggs from a bunch of different sources to market than it does to get one large batch there.

The very nature of producing a good egg means not producing very many of them. An eggmobile can house only so many chickens. Nearly every organization that has looked the welfare needs of poultry agrees that behavioral changes make flocks of more than 500 birds inhumane de facto. I would argue that the threshold is a bit lower than that. Imagine being at the bottom of a pecking order of 300. I remember it pretty vividly from junior high. But the difference is that hens don't give atomic wedgies. They kill, slowly.

So in our utopian egg production world, there would be a need for millions of small egg producers, all doing things right, and producing a very expenise source of protein. In the end, there is still a risk for salmonella contamination. We are all assuming that the risk is lower, but we don't really know that. I suspect that if this business model was brought to scale, we would start to see at least some of the same problems creep in. Even chickens out in the fresh air and sunshine can get salmonella. Sure, they're less likely to transmit it to their flockmates than hens caged cheek to jowl, but they do all roost together in the eggmobile at night, so there is a real transmission risk. One thing we know about salmonella -- it's very good at getting transmitted from bird to bird.

And I really have a problem with the elitism that's inherent in taking a stand that this is the only right way to produce food. What do you say to the family that simply can't afford $10 a dozen for eggs? Get better jobs? Sucks to be you? Pollan seems to think that everyone is spending $6 a cup on Starbucks and could simply redirect that money to better food, but I am here to tell you that is not the case. Sure, there are cases where folks make bad choices about how to spend their money. We've all seen the food stamp folks who buy Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa-bomb breakfast cereal rather than a bag or two of leafy greens. I would argue that if the only option they have is $10 per dozen eggs, they will buy more Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa bombs.

And, even if we could fix the problem of how expensive it is, we still have the problem of who's going to produce it and where.

There has to be a middle way. Denmark has zero salmonella in its egg supply. It has acheived this through government monitoring and depopulation of infected flocks. The program adds about one cent to the cost of a dozen eggs. I don't know, but I assume that like in most European nations, Denmark's food prices are much higher than ours to start with, but I seriously doubt that they are $10 per dozen eggs. What is different in Denmark (and most of Europe and the rest of the world, for that matter) is that farmers are used to government inpsection and intervention at the farm level. Our collegues overseas were not only astonished at the opposition to premise identification that arose here a few years ago -- they were astonished that no such system was in place.

While I agree that cheap food is killing us, I think that we also have to admit that expensive food is not the only answer. And we also have to admit that it isn't just cheap food that's killing us -- it is also our reluctance to allow officials onto farms to conduct the sort of independent oversight and farmer education that is needed to ensure good, safe food is leaving the farm gate.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Juggling as a metaphor for life?

This morning while I was waiting for the milking pipeline to sanitize, I picked up a dairy trade magazine to read while I sipped my tea. This one featured a report on a conference, where the keynote address was delivered by a motivational speaker cum juggler. The photo showed him riding a unicycle while juggling a cane knife, a double-bit axe and some other sharp thing that I couldn't identify.

It was actually a pretty apt metaphor for the commercial dairy business today. Today's dairy farmer has lots of ways to get in trouble. If, and only if, he does everything exactly right and at exactly the right time, he might just avoid catching the cane knife by the blade or having the double bit axe split his skull while he's falling off the unicycle.

But to take the metaphor one step further, even the expert can't stay on the unicycle forever. The very best he can hope for is to safely catch (or drop) the sharp things while dismounting. It says a great deal about the dairy industry that such a performance would be considered motivational.

Another part of this man's talk included this pearl of wisdom: "When the ball is in your hand, throw it." He meant that you have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, not dilly-dally and figure you'll get around to it. In that sense, he's got a good point. But when put in practice by a person unskilled in the art of juggling, it generally leads to a lot of balls flying in random directions, bouncing off the walls and ceiling, and falling on the thrower's head.

We see this all the time in business correspondence via e-mail. Send an e-mail that asks three questions. With a certain type of person, you'll get a reply very quickly but the reply won't answer any more than one question, and frequently not even that. But it is out of the recipient's in box, and therefore no longer a problem on her end. The ball has been caught and thrown. The only thing more frustrating is to wait for a day or two and get the same sort of response.

Juggling is a fact of life these days. We all do it, and we all know what it means to have too many balls in the air. Very few of us lead the sort of lives where we can start a project, work on it until it is finished, setting aside all distractions, and then move on to the next one. But we have to realize that juggling is at its core an unsustainable and temporary practice. The greatest jugglers on earth drop things from time to time, and they all have to stop to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, if nothing else.

Learning how to juggle better is definitely an important life skill, but I think we need to start thinking about learning how not to juggle. How to give our undivided attention to that which needs it. Hold onto the ball at least long enough to figure out where to throw it, and how hard.

The next important life skill would be learning how not to need to juggle. Perhaps that is something akin to what the Buddhists would call enlightenment.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guard dogs under threat

Sensing mounting pressure to restrict or eliminate the use of livestock guardian dogs on federal grazing allotments, the American Sheep Industry has proposed a set of guidelines and best management practices for their use.

Perhaps the most high-profile case was that of a mountain biker in Colorado who was taking part in a race that went through a grazing area where sheep were protected by dogs. She had mechanical problems, was delayed, and ended up coming upon the flock of grazing sheep at dusk. She rode through the flock screaming, and was mauled by a guard dog. She and her husband attempted to sue the owner in civil court, but discovered that there was a law specifically protecting livestock guard dog owners against such suits.

However, they were able to pressure the local prosecutor into pursuing a criminal complaint against the sheep producer for owning vicious dogs. He lost and was convicted.

While I can understand and appreciate that the ASI is trying to take a pro-active stand, I believe that its proposal will do more harm than good. You can read it for yourself here. ASI is seeking input, and I believe that every sheep producer who uses livestock guardian dogs should read the document carefully and comment extensively.

Here is my commentary on the draft.

Hello Ms. Jensen,

Thank you for taking the time to read and review comments on this topic. I am a sheep producer in New England in an area where the primary threats to my sheep are Eastern coyotes (which are much more like red wolves than Western coyotes, and indeed may be hybrids) and stray domestic dogs. We also have some smaller amounts of depredation by eagles and owls.

I've raised my own sheep for 20 years, and have also worked as a hired shepherd on vegetation management projects. I've worked with livestock guardian dogs for 10 of those years, and my experience encompasses about 30 individual dogs between the dogs that I have owned personally and the dogs that I have used and cared for as part of my employment. I currently own three guard dogs.

The first question posed on the website is whether I agree that these guidelines are needed. I would answer that they are not needed, and in fact could do more harm than good. Plaintiffs attorneys will seize on them and will probably nearly always be able to find one or more areas where they could argue that a producer is not in compliance. For instance, is a dog that runs along a fence barking behaving aggressively? Some would say it is, even though there is no danger to those on the other side of the fence. Moreover, if these guidelines are adopted by the industry, all producers will be expected to adhere to them, whether they make sense on a particular operation or not.

All that said, I am not familiar with the challenges being faced by western producers on grazing allotments. If they believe these guidelines will help them, then perhaps they could be crafted and presented as best management practices for livestock guard dogs used on federal grazing allotments, and have a preamble that specifically states that these guidelines do not apply to all situations, that many sheep operations will deviate from them, and that any deviation does not necessarily constitute negligence.

Here are some other global concerns about the document:

You'll notice that I have rejected the term Livestock Protection Dog that the ASI has started to use for these animals. I gather that there is some pejorative connotation associated with the term "guard dog," but that is what I have called them for the last 10 years, and it is what every producer I know of who uses them calls them. Trying to change that smacks of phoney PR and will be seen as such as we all stumble over our tongues trying to appease some suburban sensibility.

I am also concerned that the document refers to "herding dogs" but makes no mention of the distinctive concerns and requirements of that very different type of sheepdog. By including herding dogs in the title of the document, it would appear that ASI is suggesting that a Border collie and a Maremma should be managed according to the same standards and practices. This is certainly not the case. The term "herding dogs" should be removed from the document wherever it is used.

In general, I believe that these guidelines place too many obligations on the sheep producer, and not enough on the others who seek to share federal lands. Event organizers should be required to notify producers if there is going to be a large contingent of mountain bikers, ATV riders, hikers, etc., moving through an allotment, and a system should be created to let the producer know when all is clear.

And here is a listing of point-by point comments:

Guideline: Food and water available at all times
Comment: This can be construed to mean that if a guard dog does not have 24/7 access to food, the owner is negligent, even if the dog is fed daily and is in good body condition. Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Police (who are deputized as State Police Troopers, carry sidearms, and have arrest powers) have claimed that a similar rule meant that Border collies awaiting trial runs had to have a bowl of food in their crates at all times. This is not healthy, good practice, or even sensible. If nutrition is a concern, then the standard should be body condition scoring by a qualified veterinarian.

Guideline: Sexually intact males will not be used on federal land.
Comment: This is a bad guideline for at several reasons. First is effectiveness. Canid predators are much more respectful of the territories of mated pairs than they are of unmated groups or single canines. There are going to be situations where an entire dog is needed to ensure safety of sheep against wolves in particular.

Second, it flows from the assumption that entire dogs are more aggressive than neutered dogs or bitches. While this may be generally true, it does not warrant a blanket exclusion of entire males from the range.

Third, working dogs are proven in the field. If only cut dogs are allowed to prove themselves, the future generations of guard dogs will be denied the genetic material we want and need.

Fouth, research is showing that the early spaying and neutering of dogs -- especially large breed dogs -- can be a contributing factor in the development of musculo-skeletal disorders such as hip dysplasia. Many veterinarians are now recommending that sexual altering of dogs be delayed until they are fully grown, which in the case of most guard dog breeds would mean nearly three years of age. Given that most guard dogs have a useful life of less than 10 years, this guideline would prohibit dogs from working on federal land for about a third of their lives.

Guideline: Owners should spay females unless they are used for breeding purposes.
Comment: The same objections as above. I realize that the word "should" is used, but as soon as you say something "should" be done, the assumption is that failure to do so is negligent.

Guideline: Shearing/clipping should be done to prevent matted coats and to prevent overheating in the summer.
Comment: a healthy coat will actually prevent overheating by keeping the sun off the dog's skin.

Guideline: Sheep producers should not breed guard dogs ...
Comment: Who should then? People who trot them around breed rings? There is no substitute for breeding working dogs from working stock, and if we want sheep dogs to work for sheep producers, then sheep producers must breed them.

Guideline: Dogs that show aggression towards people or other restrained (leashed) dogs will not be allowed to work ...
Comment: This is one that plaintiff's attorneys will have a field day with. "Aggressive behavior" can mean as little as barking or charging with the hackles up, even where no harm is done. All that would be needed is for one incident to be documented and the owner would be considered negligent.

Guideline: Dogs that cannot be controlled by voice commands will not be allowed to work on federal land.
Comment: Again, what constitutes control, and how much control do we really want on these dogs? They are independent thinkers who have been bred for centuries to read, react to, and mitigate threats to grazing livestock. Do we suddenly want to start breeding them away from that and towards obedience to human command? I think not. And make no mistake, we will not breed dogs that obey without losing some or all of the independence that makes them effective.

Guideline: Dogs tied up when herder is not present
Comment: I have grazed federal land for vegetation management. I used guard dogs and portable electrified netting. There were no herders present, nor could the wages of one be justified. The potential always exists for conflict between the public and guard dogs. People cross fences, fences fail, guard dogs scare a pet dog. If I had been required to tie up my guard dogs in these circumstances, I might as well not have had them on the projects.

Guideline: discussion of breed traits
Comment: I have worked with five different breeds and crosses of them. I have seen more variability among individuals than among breeds. There is no need to get into the myths and generalities of the working styles of various breeds, particularly if the breed traits are going to be used as a weapon against particular breeds and crosses. We live in a world where dogs can be put to death for no reason other than that someone thinks they look like a pit bull.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.


Bill Fosher
Edgefield Farm
Westmoreland, NH

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Saving hypothermic lambs

By Bill Fosher
Copyright 2010

In winter lambing flocks, hypothermia and starvation of newborn lambs can account for nearly all of the pre-weaning death loss of lambs. It’s a serious problem that can often be avoided, if not eliminated entirely via management of the ewe flock and its environment.

However, even under the best management in the best environment, there will still be some cases of hypothermia and starvation in most winter lambing flocks. It’s important for shepherds to know how to recognize, treat, and, most importantly, learn from each case.

In most cases, the problems that lead to hypothermia are difficult to fix during lambing. They go back months to the level of nutrition in early gestation, or to barn design, or the availability of bedding. That’s why it’s important to keep records about the causes of any hypothermia cases – once lambing is over, it’s easy to put those problems out of your mind and forget to fix them for next time. Make a habit of reviewing your lambing records well before the next breeding season so that you have time to make any changes or cull any ewes to reduce problems in the next lambing.

In the meantime, you need to try to save as many cold lambs as possible. Here’s a step-by step guide to the process. The goal of this guide is to help you make sound decisions about how to treat a lamb when you’re tired, busy, and probably a little upset. All the steps are aimed at getting the lamb back with its mother as soon as possible, and are based on the assumption that the mother has adequate milk to sustain the lamb. If that is not the case, the lamb will need to be raised as an orphan.

Ideally, if a lamb needs to be removed from its mother, the dam should be left penned by herself where she cannot try to claim other lambs. If a ewe has more than one lamb, consider removing not just the chilled lamb, but all of them. The process of warming a lamb can take several hours, and during that time, a ewe may forget about one of her lambs. She will not forget about all of them. However, you must return the non-chilled lamb or lambs to the dam to suckle regularly – probably every 20 minutes to half hour.

The warming box that I refer to here is a contraption that can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be as long as it provides a constant, gentle heat to the lamb. I have rigged up hair dryers blowing into dog crates, and one pasture lambing operation that I have heard of uses insulated coolers with hot water bottles. The main thing is that you don’t want to heat the lamb directly; just keep it in a very warm environment. Heating a lamb too fast is just as lethal as leaving it cold.

Step 1. Evaluate
Determine lamb’s age: is it more or less than five hours old?
Determine lamb’s body temperature
Determine lamb’s general condition: able to stand, suck and swallow? Unable to swallow? Unable to stand?

Step 2. Act

If the lamb’s temperature is over 99 degrees F., regardless of age
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
feed by stomach tube
return to mother.

For lambs with temperatures lower than 99 degrees F.

More than five hours old, unable to hold up head or swallow
Give IP injection of glucose
Move to warming box
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

More than five hours old, able to hold head up and swallow
Move to warming box
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

Less than five hours old, able to hold up head and swallow
Move to warming box
Collect colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

Step 3. Follow up
If any lamb remains weak, it may need to be kept in draft-free, gently heated environment and fed by stomach tube regularly until it is strong enough to return to its mother. If at all possible, use milk or colostrum from the lamb’s own mother for all feedings, as this will increase the likelihood that the lamb will be accepted when returned to her.

Submerge the lamb in warm water.
Warm a lamb with low blood sugar.
Overheat a lamb

Step 4. Find the cause
Hypothermia and starvation cause a great deal of death loss and their treatment greatly increases labor requirements at lambing time. Shepherds should set a goal both for economic and animal welfare reasons to reduce hypothermia and starvation as much as possible. Each case should be noted in the lambing records of the dam, and the shepherd should attempt to pin down the cause of each case. After the crush of lambing is over, these records can be reviewed to look for patterns that might suggest management changes or culling of individual ewes.

Well-fed and -conditioned ewes can deliver and keep lambs fed and warm under fairly extreme temperatures, provided that they sheltered from wind, drafts, and moisture. Temperature alone should not a cause of lamb hypothermia-starvation in shed lambed ewes unless the air temperature is below 0 degrees F.

Some management-related causes of hypothermia-starvation in shed-lambed ewes would include:
-- poor maternal nutrition in early gestation when placental development takes place, leading to low birth weights and low milk production.
-- poor maternal nutrition in late gestation, reducing fetal development and resulting in low birth weight and weakness in newborn lambs
-- inadequate bedding; ewes lambing on wet or frozen pen floors
-- drafts at floor level
-- overcrowding of ewes leading to mismothering, grannying, or lost and wandering lambs.
-- inadequate pen construction allowing lambs to wander away from their mothers.

Some disease-related causes of hypothermia-starvation would include:
-- Ovine progressive pneumonia, which can cause reduced (or absent) colostrum.
-- Any of the several abortion diseases, leading to weak newborn lambs.
-- Mastitis, causing the ewe to refuse to allow the lambs to suckle, or past mastitis causing one or both sides of the bag to fail completely or partially.

If causes related to management and disease are ruled out, the most common cause of hypothermia and starvation in lambs is maternal inattention. Good mothering ability includes the skill of keeping track of your lambs and not allowing them to starve. In some rare cases, teat size and placement on the ewe can also be a factor. Be particularly attentive for ewes with excessively large or low teats. Sometimes there can be plenty of milk that the lambs simply can’t get to.

With attention to detail, hypothermia and starvation can be reduced to very low rates even in flocks that lamb in the dead of winter in very cold climates. In most sheep production systems, the majority of the cost of producing a finished market lamb is already spent when the lamb is born (in the form of feed and keep for the breeding flock), so saving chilled lambs is an important way to protect your investment. Preventing it from happening in the first place is even more important.