Saturday, 26 June 2021

Some Plants My Animals Love -- and I do too!

Lucerne, King of the Forage Legumes


Lucerne is called alfalfa in the USA and Canada, and sometimes in the UK products made from it are marketed under this name or 'lucie', particularly when aimed at the horse and pony market. Lucerne has been used to feed livestock since ancient times and is one of the most productive and highest protein forages that can be grown. It has an advanced deep-delving root structure and of course, as do all legumes, it fixes nitrogen as well as carbon.

If lucerne is king, it's a bit of a tyrannous monarch. For a start, it's autotoxic. 'Toxic' is one of those abused words that has a specific scientific meaning that has been corrupted by entering the common vernacular, and all this really means is that mature lucerne plants leach hormones into the soil that impede the germination and establishment of more lucerne close to the parent plants, which means new lucerne plants can't seed and get going in established stands. This has no effect on anything other than lucerne, and probably evolved to reduce the impact of the very large root systems of the plants competing with each other for space. It does mean that if you have a pasture in which lucerne is a component and you need to destroy it and reseed it for whatever reason, lucerne won't re-establish in it unless you use it for something else for several years.

Secondly, lucerne has rather an antisocial reproductive habit. Its pollen is deficient in some amino acids important to the diet of pollinating insects. This generally isn't a problem unless you plant acres and acres of lucerne with no other flowering plants, since bees can always make up for it by foraging other flowers. However, the flowers have an odd mechanism that hits the bees on the head to deposit pollen on them when they access the flowers. Bees don't like being banged on the bonce, same as everything else, and learn to either avoid the lucerne or eat through the side of the flowers to bypass its bee-bashing machinery.

Lastly, lucerne as grazing can be hazardous to some ruminants, in particular cows, as it ferments aggressively in them and can cause a buildup of foam that can blow up the animal's digestive tract and potentially kill it. This is less of a problem when lucerne is included in a diverse sward rather than used as a pure stand, and seems to be less of a problem in sheep and even less so in alpacas.

Like any king, lucerne has a crown. In this case it's a sort of woody knobbly thing visible at the soil surface from which the plant sprouts following its winter dormancy and after it's been eaten. The crown is the only visible part of the plant's enormous root structure which in mature plants is apparently anywhere from 2 m to a massive 15 m deep.

Sainfoin... Queen of the Forage Legumes...?


The sainfoin plants around here are not very big as they were only planted this year. At maturity they are impressive plants with lupin-like pink flowers. There is one growing wild by a roundabout nearby, which I haven't taken a picture of because I'm always driving when I see it. More and more I am noticing that roadsides and waste ground is being maintained in the same way as meadows these days, which is great for biodiversity and for motorists to enjoy.

Back when countries were ruled by kings, the king was determined arbitrarily by birth order, which meant the populace were stuck with whatever king they got, which could put the country in a dire situation if the king had serious flaws. To compensate for this, the king could marry someone who made up for his deficiencies, and would often pick a queen who was diplomatic or had other characteristics that appealed to the masses. While sainfoin isn't as well-known as lucerne, they complement each other in this way, and sainfoin can ameliorate the bee-bashing, cow-inflating tyranny of lucerne.

Sainfoin is not as rich in protein nor as high-yielding as lucerne, but it has some superpowers. It contains condensed tannins which when ingested by livestock have several remarkable benefits. First of all, they work to break down the foam that can develop in ruminants as a result of rapid fermentation, preventing gas bloating. Secondly, they bind to proteins in the rumen so they pass into the intestines without being broken down and make the animal digest them more efficiently, and the third effect is that as a direct result of this more efficient digestion, the animals produce less methane. It is also an antihelminthic, which means it can actually help to reduce and prevent intestinal worms in animals grazing on it.

Of all the legumes, sainfoin produces the highest quantity and quality of nectar. It is rocket fuel for bees and other pollinators. Like lucerne, it is deep-rooting and drought resistant. Despite being grown since ancient times and despite all its qualities, sainfoin has fallen from favour since the World Wars. Considering all its qualities, it is perplexing why anyone with livestock would not want to grow it.

 

A video of a huge area of sainfoin, probably for making hay, by Patrick Funk

Burnet and Chicory

Burnet and chicory are two herbs that seem to do rather well for themselves even in quite aggressive grazing conditions. I deliberately let a paddock get hammered this spring because I wanted to overseed it to make it more diverse. The animals ate everything to almost ground level. When I inspected the field to see if seedlings were growing, there was a burnet plant and a few chicories doing very well that clearly were not seedlings and must have arrived earlier by being carried in by animals. They are both deep-rooting plants and chicory also has antihelminthic properties for animals grazing on it. I almost feel bad writing this as so much snake oil is peddled claiming to 'reduce worms naturally' but there is real research on this that shows it is effective. Chicory has attractive blue flowers on it in late summer, this one not quite yet.



Ribgrass is another deep-rooting plant purported to have anthelminthic properties. It thrives anywhere, including on building sites in solid clay.


The Wildflowers

I must admit I get as much enjoyment from my wildflower meadow as I do my actual garden, and the wildflower meadow involves much less work.

Pyramidal orchid

Musk mallow

Various wildflowers: campions, oxeye daisy, and bedstraw

Birdsfoot trefoil and red clover, both legumes

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Bath Asparagus

Hogweed. Alpacas like eating it. Also good on a pizza.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

Penny the Paca


 This is Penny. Poppy gave birth to Penny about a month ago, and they were both doing great. A couple of years ago, when Poppy had her last cria Trillian, she was remated and started rejecting Trillian after she ovulated, but then re-accepted Trillian and it turned out had not held her pregnancy. As it was late in the year and we weren't sure what was going on, we waited until the next spring before letting Poppy mate again, and the result a little under a year later was Penny.

Unfortunately, after Poppy was mated again, she has done the exact same thing and rejected Penny, and this time seems to have held her pregnancy and now wants nothing to do with her own cria, so now Penny is having to have cow milk four times a day. The weather has been awful recently and we had to move the pacas off the good grazing because it was so wet, so I'm hoping it will get better soon so they can go back.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

The Ever-Present Risk of Bottleneck Events in Breeds

 A genetic bottleneck is a crisis in a species, subspecies, breed, or other population that permanently reduces the available gene pool of that population.

Pretty much all domestic breeds were affected by the two World Wars, when resources were taken over by the war effort and people were conscripted, and breeders were simply not there or could not afford to continue their bloodlines. The psychological scars of the wars also led to some breeds of Germanic origins being rebranded to obfuscate their associations, such as German Shepherd Dog to 'Alsatian', German Boarhound to 'Great Dane', and poodles to 'French poodles'.

Hitler was interested in German Shepherds not because Blondi (pictured) met her breed standard or by all accounts had a wonderful temperament, but because of an absurd Nazi philosophy that wild animals are 'pure' and that domestic animals who superficially resemble wild ones are 'purer' than ones who do not. Appallingly, Blondi was poisoned with cyanide and her perfectly healthy puppies shot shortly before Hitler committed suicide, adding crimes against the German Shepherd breed to the atrocities he had committed against humanity.

Bottlenecks due to wars and other outside influences are beyond the control of breeders, but some bottlenecks occur because of poor decisions by breeders themselves. The most obvious and notorious bottleneck event is the popular sire. This is a male who produces an inordinate number of offspring with a large proportion of the available females in the breed, to the point that it becomes difficult to find males who are not related to him a few generations later. Although popular sires and other bottleneck events are often not inbreeding events, they inevitably result in inbreeding and loss of overall heterosis downstream as it becomes extremely difficult to avoid having the popular sire on both sides of the pedigree, often multiple times. A poodle dog born in 1981 was successful at conformation shows, and as a result this dog produced in excess of 100 litters, and it is now impossible to find a black or brown poodle descended from British bloodlines that passed through that era that does not have this dog in the pedigree at least once. Fortunately people seem to have been more sensible since then, as no dog who has enjoyed success at conformation since then has been so overbred since. However, sires can sometimes be overused more insidiously, or for well-meaning reasons, such as many people using a dog because he has good health test results, or because an imported dog offers (or is thought to offer) the chance of an unrelated mate and low COI offspring, and ironically the problem is only realised two generations later.

Bottlenecks have always occurred in the wild as well as in domestic breeds, so they are to some extent unavoidable. What breeders need to strive to do is avoid what is avoidable, and mitigate the damage caused by what isn't avoidable.

Registration trends in Poodle (Standard)

Poodles as a breed and poodle breeders are living through what can probably be politely termed 'interesting times' in recent decades. Most recently, we have the pandemic, which has increased demand for puppies and it is thought may be attracting people into breeding dogs for the wrong reasons, while simultaneously perhaps putting a damper on more established breeders by making it difficult to travel to use a male, to go abroad, or to go to a vet for AI or accurate progesterone tests. Concern has also risen amongst careful breeders about the suitability of the sorts of people applying to buy a puppy. Similar concerns hit breeders in the early 2000s due to the emergence of the novelty mongrel fad which saw poodles attract puppy farmers and deadbeat breeders as components to produce mix-breed puppies to market as 'hypoallergenic'. Many older more established breeders decided at this point to cease breeding because of concerns about their puppies and bloodlines ending up in bad breeding establishments. Older breeders are always going to leave the breed at some point, but situations like this perhaps precipitate their departure and make it more likely they will not have a suitable protégé to leave their line with.

'Boom and bust' cycles of demand in any breed are harmful to the gene pool. At the start of the boom, the breed may experience an influx of 'bandwagon jumpers' with little serious interest in it, while at the same time suffering an exodus of jaded older breeders pushed into retirement after becoming frustrated with having to field enquiries from unsuitable buyers. When the cycle busts and the popularity of the breed declines, all the bandwagon jumpers jump off the bandwagon and the bloodlines they got hold of disappear, for better or worse. Bloodlines that have ended up in puppy farms tend to be viewed as contaminated despite how noble their origins might have been, and end up dying out. The dedicated breeders who stay with the breed are unlikely to have a proportional representation of all the bloodlines that were present before the boom started, so when the gene pool contracts, it does not do so evenly.

In addition to trends in popularity of whole breeds, breeds can sometimes experience internal trends, particularly if certain colours suddenly become either unpopular or popular. In poodles, there are two such trends that have occurred in recent years. Firstly, the colour red either didn't originally occur in standards as it did in the other sizes of poodle, or it was lost during one of the World Wars. Red was recovered or introduced to standards from the other varieties, in countries outside the UK because the KC considers the varieties of poodle to be separate breeds and won't register their offspring. Imported red poodles started to appear in the UK around the start of the 2010s and the colour wasn't available here prior to this. Since then, the number of puppies registered as red has quickly increased.

Graph showing the percentage of puppies registered as red and 'colour not recognised by KC' in the BRS, starting with the 4th quarter of 2014 (1) to the second quarter of 2020 (23)

Secondly, a similar trend has occurred with the registration of puppies recorded as 'colour not recognised by KC', with few, sporadic registrations occurring prior to the early 2010s and increasing numbers of litters that are largely or sometimes entirely registered with this description. These animals are most likely mainly S-locus and agouti mismarks (there is a contradiction in the breed standard in that it states all solid colours are acceptable, but doesn't allow silver beige and café au lait to be recorded when registering pups, but looking at the pedigrees I suspect they aren't SB or CAL). S-locus and agouti mismarks are produced by combinations of recessive genes that have always been present in the breed and have probably always occurred at a low level.

What is potentially concerning is the rapid increase in these registrations. The data suggest the trend may have plateaued and possibly be starting to decline. The pie chart above shows the distribution of colour registrations of the CNR peak in the 2nd quarter 2018, when 'CNR' was the second most frequent registered 'colour' after black. The records suggest that CNR puppies are produced largely from imported stock that despite its country of import, traces back to the same names originating from USA dogs. Red puppies seem to be produced mainly from a handful of imported dogs in combination with apricot lines bred in the UK. This may be in part because the gene pool of apricots is not large and using red dogs is seen as a valid outcross, but this could become problematic further downstream if the same lines are being used, and could lead to the loss of the British apricot bloodlines as a distinct subgroup of the breed. What is most concerning is that the boom could be followed by a bust, possibly during the future recovery from the pandemic, and that the traditional colours will be in greater demand, causing the bottom to fall out of the market and hit the demand for the recently trending colours hardest.

Some recent phenomena of note:

An imported dog registered as being an unrecognised colour with a hip score almost three times higher than the median for the breed produced a number of litters, not an extremely high number of litters, but many of the dog's offspring seem to be subsequently being used for breeding. This is one of the more insidious ways a dog can end up being a popular sire, even if the owner of the dog is cautious not to let him be overused. Several offspring of this dog have been hip scored, and not one of them has a result better than the median for the breed. This isn't a criticism of the merits of the careful use of dogs with not quite perfect attributes or a discussion about hip scoring, but it demonstrates how popular sires can have an effect on the distribution of genetics in the breed, in particular genetics that might not be beneficial.

Of the dogs who have sired the most litters in standard poodles in the past decade, the three highest-siring dogs produce large numbers of puppies registered as either red or CNR, and have produced 24, 17, and 14 litters respectively. All three dogs are relatively young, having only produced litters in the past 2-4 years. There are a number of dogs producing traditional-coloured puppies who have sired 10-13 litters and most of these are much older and have produced a number of litters more commensurate with their age.

Bottleneck Events in Alpacas

Surprisingly, alpacas seem to have not experienced any significant bottleneck events since they started being bred in the UK. This is quite unusual for a breed, particularly one that wasn't native and was thus reliant entirely on imports to start the population here. Alpaca pedigrees at most trace back up to around 8 generations before reaching animals imported from Peru and Chile on which no pedigree data is available. It's possible that bottleneck events occurred prior to this, and alpacas have a woeful genetic history since their heyday during the Inca empire, but I think it's likely that breeding practices were chaotic and serious bottleneck events probably didn't occur.

There are alpaca pedigrees on this image (with COIs written under the names), but you might have to zoom in to see them.

There are a couple of recurring ancestors that seem to be present in quite a lot of pedigrees, but none of them are so prevalent that they're likely to become a popular sire issue in future. Interestingly my best alpaca is the most inbred, with a negligible COI of 3% (which most breeders of other domestic species would be thrilled to achieve).
This does not, however, rule out bottleneck events occurring in future if alpaca breeders are not vigilant to them.

How to Avoid Bottleneck Events

In this post I've only talked about two species/breeds I'm familiar with, and I can't speak for those I'm not. Some bottleneck events occur because of circumstances outside of anyone's control (such as pandemics and wars) but there are general rules that should be capable of being applied to a person working with any population that will help.

Firstly, try to avoid using males who have already sired a large number of offspring. This unfortunately doesn't help if you were the first person to use a male who was subsequently overbred, or if a male was used once to produce a litter and all the offspring in the litter produced large numbers of grandchildren, but it does go a long way to impeding the emergence of a popular sire. An underutilised brother of a popular sire isn't as good from a genetic standpoint as an unrelated, unused male, but is still the better choice if he's the only realistic alternative.

Do not get involved in a breed and do not choose a male to use for any reason to do with 'popular' colours or trends. To get involved with breeding anything for the purpose of an easy way to make money is a bad idea. When you take on a breed, you are becoming a custodian of that breed and you are responsible for the bloodline you create and preserving it, and eventually for passing it on to someone you trust. All breeds need new breeders, but they need to be in it for the right reasons. Don't do it if you're not prepared to stick at it and carry that responsibility.

If you are coming into a breed, try to find a bloodline that is not being widely bred. Some of this is difficult because there's only so much legwork you can do and a knowledge ceiling you're going to hit before you have to take the plunge and obtain something and actually, well, breed, and continue your learning and your development as a breeder. Most people make mistakes with their first acquisitions, but hopefully with enough research it's something you can still improve on later. Most of this is deep pedigree analysis. There are some DNA analyses around but the development of this sort of technology is still at a level where it needs to be seen as a complement to accurate pedigree research and not a replacement.

If reproductive technology is available for your animal, THEN USE IT. Frozen semen can be a lifeline for a breed if mistakes get made or uncontrollable disasters occur, and in theory it can last indefinitely, meaning semen you store might benefit your breed centuries after your death. Hopefully specialist vets should be more accessible soon, if they're not sick of deadbeats asking them to reproduce dogs that can't mate naturally and pandemic puppy farmers requesting they inseminate Chihuahua semen into Bullmastiffs for the next novelty mutt fad.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Diverse Swards (What Is Grass?)

Part 4 in a series of blog posts about grazing management. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

Cows and sheep eat grass. Even small children know this. But what actually is grass? Grasses are an evolutionary family called Poaceae which probably first evolved during the Cretaceous and contains around 10,000 species. That's twice the number of species of mammal that exist, so 'grass' could be almost anything. What's more is that what's in the pasture for animals to eat might contain species from many more different families of plants than just grasses, and that can be a really good thing not just for the grazing animals, but for the plants themselves and for wildlife and the environment.

PLANTS

Plants can be loosely divided in practical terms (rather than taxonomical ones) by their lifecycle. Annuals are plants that complete their entire lifecycle within one season and must reproduce in that timeframe in order to continue. Biennials last for two seasons, and perennials should last several years.

GRASSES

Grass species all photosynthesise, which removes carbon from the atmosphere by converting it into more grass, and they all have roots which helps to stabilise the soil structure and provide habitats for fungi and soil-dwelling insects and microorganisms. Poaceae in most cases reproduce by wind-borne pollen. This is the reason arable grass crops such as wheat are often criticised for being barren deserts in terms of supporting pollinating insects. Grasses are adapted to regrow after their foliage has been eaten, originally by dinosaurs and in more modern times by grazing mammals.

Ryegrasses are a group of grass species that has been associated with farming as it has been practised since around the time of the Second World War. They became popular because they are easy to make silage from and they grow well if you throw petrochemical fertilisers on them. Recently many people have raised concerns that ryegrass because of its shallow roots and fertiliser dependence and high sugar and low mineral content. However, ryegrass in itself isn't necessarily bad, and these characteristics only become problems when ryegrass is grown as the only species. Some ryegrasses are annuals or biennials such as Italian ryegrass, and others are perennials.

Grasses other than ryegrasses include species that have various common names such as cocksfoot, timothy, and fescue. These grasses usually have deeper roots than ryegrass and are more tolerant of drought. Because they have longer roots, they mine minerals from deeper in the soil and make them available to other plants and to animals grazing them.

LEGUMES

Legumes fix nitrogen. What this means is that, as well as doing everything that grass does, legumes have commensal bacteria living inside nodules on their roots, just as we have commensal bacteria living inside us that help us to digest what we eat. Legumes take nitrogen gas from the air and convert it into soluble nitrogen such as ammonia, nitrites, and nitrates. These forms of nitrogen are biochemically the same as what is found in fertilisers. Legumes thus fertilise the soil over time and benefit other plants without having to throw petrochemical fertilisers on it. Legumes are also high in protein because of their nitrogen fixing, and nutritious to animals, and a massively important component to a diverse sward. Legumes that may be found in swards include clover, vetch, lucerne, and sainfoin. Legumes are flowering plants that benefit pollinating insects.


HERBS

Herbs are probably to most people something you put in your food to make it smell nice. 'Herbs' as the word is used for plants found in swards doesn't seem to have any clear taxonomic definition, but refers to plants other than grasses or legumes that are nutritious for animals to eat and might have additional beneficial effects such as reducing parasites. Herbs include things like chicory and cow parsley. They are usually flowering plants and also benefit insects.

WILDFLOWERS

Wildflowers are flowering plants that are not particularly nutritious for animals to eat, but that are neither harmful. They are usually valued in grazing because the plants themselves are rare and because they are part of the ecosystem of a particular area and provide food or habitats for wildlife.

WEEDS

Plants that are poisonous to livestock such as hemlock, ragwort, and buttercup are not welcome in the sward for obvious reasons. Plants that are invasive and can end up dominating the sward and outcompeting other species are detrimental to biodiversity. Harmless native plants such as docks and dandelions in a pasture are not really weeds, but can apparently be problematic when making hay and some farmers don't like them. Most weeds can be controlled or to some extent avoided by careful pasture management.

DIVERSE SWARDS

A diverse sward contains multiple species of plants. Diverse swards benefit livestock and the environment, but interestingly growing different species together produces more biomass than growing the species individually. Some of this can be explained by plants with smaller root systems fitting between ones with larger roots efficiently and legumes producing nitrogen that benefits grasses, but the effect is far larger than could be expected and scientific understanding at the moment hasn't been able to fully account for this. There is a wonderful online lecture that discusses this and lots more about diverse swards in the video below by Ian Wilkinson of Cotswold Seeds.

NEXT TIME

Most people get into keeping livestock because they love the animals. However, if you love animals who eat plants, you have to learn to love plants too! Next time, some plants I particularly love and I hope you will love too.

Friday, 26 February 2021

Farming Ethics

Part 3 in a series of blog posts about grazing management. Part 1 Part 2.

THE FORESTS OF ANTARCTICA

The poles were not always frozen year-round. Up until relatively recently (in the history of the planet, obviously not in human timescales) there were trees on Antarctica. Antarctica hasn't moved very much from where it is now (it was close to its current position at the time Pangaea still existed) so the trees and the ecosystem that came with them were able to survive despite the absence of sunlight for half the year. The trees all became extinct when the poles became permanently encased in ice.

A map of Antarctica as it was thought to look before the poles froze. It's difficult to predict exactly how the coastline would look if the poles melted again. The increase in sea levels would affect mainly the equatorial regions and have minimal effect on the poles, and the weight of the ice as it currently is actually effects a force on the continent and pushes it down into the crust of the Earth, so it would gradually rise and sea levels would fall over many millennia.

Some day, the poles will melt and life will be able to live on Antarctica again. That could happen at a time when the human species still exists, if we fail to limit anthropogenic climate change. Or it could happen despite anything we do, because of something out of our control, or if it turns out climate change is a chain reaction that has already gone too far and reached a critical mass from which nothing we can now do will reverse.

If Antarctica becomes capable of supporting complex life, what will grow and live there? We could of course just leave it alone and an ecosystem will eventually evolve to fill that niche, but that would take a long time and the obvious and ethical solution would be to use it to provide homes for people displaced by coastal flooding due to rising ocean levels from the polar ice melting. What will the people be able to eat when it is dark for half the year?

LATITUDE AND GROWING SEASONS

In regions with long dark winters such as Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, there is a reason why traditional meals are usually things like fish or haggis with root vegetables. It is not possible at these latitudes for people to get sufficient nutrition from the sorts of crops that can grow in the climate there. People have to farm hardy livestock as well as crops if they are to survive without relying on imports.

GREENHOUSE GASES i.e. METHANE

The most common objection to grazing animals from an environmental perspective is that the animals themselves produce greenhouse gases (most commonly, that ruminants produce methane).

However, this is a simplistic and incomplete part of a complicated and not completely understood system.

Methane has a half-life in the atmosphere and will break down into carbon dioxide after about 8 years. As long as net emissions of methane remain roughly constant over time, and vegetation utilises the carbon dioxide, the environment can absorb them. Many natural and unnatural processes emit methane, some of them beneficial in other ways. Bogs and peatland are some of the few environments in existence today that can continue to capture carbon indefinitely due to the remains of plants and animals building up in conditions where decomposition can't properly occur -- rather like the vast swamp forests of the Carboniferous but on a smaller scale. The anaerobic processes that do affect this organic material emit methane, notoriously as the 'will-o'-the-wisp' swamp gas phenomenon. Methane produced from the decomposition of sewage and refuse, or indeed any non-fossil source of methane, if it could be collected, could be used as a renewable replacement for gas. There would be a small, but not insignificant, reduction in pollution from both agriculture and the funeral industry if we could stop incinerating dead people and animals and abattoir refuse, and biodegrade this material efficiently and hygienically into compost and captured methane.

Properly managed grazing land stores carbon and resists soil erosion. Using land for growing annual crops exacerbates soil erosion and emits carbon. It turns out to be rather difficult to measure and quantify the emission or storage of carbon in soils, however, and shockingly most of the calculations released to the public fail to take this into account. What stores the most carbon on land is situational as in some climates and soil types it's possible to create grassland where planting trees wouldn't work, and in some cases grasslands might actually be the best option for sequestering carbon. When it can be accounted for, grazing livestock is likely to look somewhat to a lot better compared to crops than how it is currently portrayed.

When it's considered that the carbon in grazing systems as well as in typical crops that people can eat isn't as simple as it might be presented, that grazing can be used to restore land depleted by crops, and that growing crops becomes more difficult if not ultimately unviable without livestock farming, and that a lot of land in the UK and other countries of similar latitude used for livestock grazing cannot grow crops suitable for people in any shape or form, it should be apparent that it is all part of a system and that no one part of it can be considered apart from the rest of it.


A conserved prairie in Texas. Prairies are natural grasslands found in the USA. They were originally grazed by large ruminants such as bison and were biodiverse habitats. As prairies are rich fertile soils, farmers ploughed them up to grow crops and unfortunately over many years soil erosion and carbon loss has meant the soils have become infertile. Restoring prairie to its natural state and properly managing it with grazing livestock instead of using it all for crops will store carbon.
image credit: Katy Prairie Conservacy

The carbon in the grazing 'cycle' (the animals and plants and the manure and carbon dioxide and methane and other pollutants they generate) is within the Earth's accessible resources, and does not add additional carbon to the system. On the other hand, pollution from industries heavily dependant on fossil fuels is exogenous and not part of the existing carbon cycle. That carbon has been locked out of the system for millions of years since it was fossilised and buried during the Carboniferous. If no additional carbon is being added to the ecosystem, even if there is a lot of pollution and poor and inefficient management in industries that emit carbon, it should in theory be possible to return the system to a similar point to how it was before the pollution started by being more efficient and restoring more carbon sinks. However, when significant amounts of fossil fuel continue to be used, this becomes less and less feasible as the amount of carbon in the system increases, and for better or worse any equilibrium that can be reached is not going to be the climate we were familiar with before the industrial revolution. It makes no sense to attack livestock farming before heavy fossil fuel industries such as transport.

BIODIVERSITY AND BALANCE

It can seem we are sometimes encouraged to think of things in terms of 'min/max'. For example, growing a particular crop might mean feeding the largest number of people on the smallest area of land, or using the same land to grow a particular species of tree would store the most carbon, or creating a tidal marsh on it would mean the most biodiversity. The reality is we need to use land in varying ways to achieve a compromise between feeding people and reducing emissions and sequestering carbon and promoting biodiversity.

A perennial crop such as an orchard is probably the best way to farm and store carbon, but orchards often are also planted with grass. The grass can include wildflowers to benefit nature and livestock can also graze it. The grazing of livestock means less energy needs to be used to cut the grass and prune the trees and keep in check plants that can become a nuisance like ivy and 'old man's beard'. Animals benefit trees by trampling undergrowth and breaking up debris and fallen branches, allowing light in and air to circulate. Hedges and copses for livestock to shelter provide habitats, and traditional hay meadows and leys can be havens of insect biodiversity. Ground damaged by crop-growing can be turned over to grazing and rejuvenated so in future it can grow crops for people to eat once more.

There are some people who think we should turn over as much land as possible to wildlife and reintroduce x and y large mammalian species because they once existed here and have been extinct for centuries. This exotic image of a 'perfect wilderness' is simply a romanticised snapshot of one particular point in time that is by no objective calculation better than any other point in time, and ignores the necessity of providing food for people. If species have become locally extinct, it means the native subpopulations or subspecies native to that locality are lost for good. Importing animals from other populations will not restore its unique genetics. Species should not be reintroduced unless their absence causes a problem with the ecosystem that can't be fulfilled by something else. Domestic goat and sheep breeds serve the same purpose on moors and mountains as their primitive wild ancestors, and there is no need to reintroduce wild boar in woodlands when domestic pig breeds can be used for the same ends. However, creating habitats to encourage pine martens to re-establish in England and Wales will benefit the ecosystem as they control the non-native grey squirrel population and the damage it does to trees, and nobody seems particularly interested in eating the squirrels and we don't have another predator that can fill that niche.

The Nazis did an experiment to try to recreate the extinct ancestor of modern cattle, the aurochs. They took over large swathes of forest in the countries the Nazis had invaded (presumably murdering or displacing the local farmers and the breeds of livestock unique to the areas) and filled them with cattle of various breeds which they believed had characteristics that would recombine to create the traits of the extinct species from which they evolved -- an enormous, aggressive wild animal. This was because of a quasireligious pseudoscience and absence of knowledge of genetics at the time, which caused the Nazis to believe enormousness and aggression to be more spiritually valuable than the useful traits instilled into livestock by generations of careful selective breeding such as docility, hardiness, production, and ease of management. The results of this experiment, although they were large and aggressive, failed to match the size and phenotype of the original aurochs, and of course failed to recreate the gene pool of the breed that the Nazis didn't have the science to understand. This is because the genetics of a species or breed cannot simply be reassembled once it is lost even if fragments of it survive in extant animals. The genome is so large and chromosomes recombine so randomly that it cannot be done. As for the cattle themselves, when the Nazis were defeated, the local people hunted and ate most of them. Ironically, although they weren't aurochs, they shared the same fate. A small number of them survive as a breed now called Heck cattle, which have little use compared to other cattle breeds because of their aggression.

Creating artificial nature is a vanity of the wealthy and powerful imposed upon the poor and the powerless.

WELFARE

No discussion of ethics would be complete without an assessment of the welfare of the animals being farmed.

To do that, we have to compare domestic animals to nature. That's not because of any misconception that nature is somehow perfect, because nothing is perfect and perfection and worlds in which nothing ever dies are a man-made fantasy, and it is impractical and unreasonable to compare anything in real life to this standard. Nature is what exists that we can't control, and has always existed and will continue to exist even if we no longer do, so in order for something to be ethically justifiable, it has to be at least as good as nature and preferably better. For this argument I'm considering animals used for grazing (typically ruminants) as they are kept in the UK, i.e. in pastures, because they can be used for conservation grazing and that's what this series of blog articles is about, and not animals that are factory farmed indoors such as pigs and poultry. Pigs and poultry can however be farmed in ways that are beneficial and higher welfare, but that is something to discuss in another post.

Link: The Five Freedoms

Mammals embody a specific evolutionary strategy. One sex competes amongst itself for a limited right to reproduce. The other faces no barrier to reproduction, but invests all of its resources into having and raising young. Both sexes of mammal risk starvation, predation, exposure, disease, and injury in the wild. Male mammals typically compete by fighting and can be harmed or killed in the process. Even the successful males tend to have limited tenure; a few breeding seasons at most in his prime before exhaustion and advancing age ensure his defeat and obsolescence. Wild female mammals typically face pregnancies too young, too old, or too frequent to permit full recovery. They face birth in dangerous situations with no medical recourse if something goes wrong. They experience the deaths of many of their young. Prey animals are typically chased, terrified, and subjected to violent and drawn-out deaths by predators, or swallowed and digested alive in the case of many insects and small fish. Predators frequently starve to death due to injury or simply not being competitive enough at hunting.

Conversely, if we consider domestic mammals such as sheep, it should be obvious they do not face these difficulties to anywhere near the same extent. Even the most money-motivated sheep farmer will ensure the sheep are properly fed and and treated if they get diseases, as malnourished and sickly animals are unsaleable and won't produce healthy offspring, and deadstock costs money to dispose of. Unwell animals are treated with veterinary medicine, or euthanised if this is impossible. Male animals are selected for breeding and those who are not selected are either castrated and kept as pets or taken to an abattoir and stunned before being slaughtered. The tups who are kept for breeding will be moved in with the ewes at the mating season and moved out afterwards and kept elsewhere. The tups will never have to fight for access to ewes. Any ewes who are not in suitable condition to be mated will be kept out of the breeding group for that year. When the ewes are due to lamb, most farmers will bring them into a shed and observe them carefully, summoning a vet if needed, and will ensure the lambs get the best possible chance of survival.

Therefore, even when taking into account that accidents sometimes happen and animals can't be supervised around the clock, and problematic exemptions such as religious slaughter without stunning, grazing livestock irrefutably has better welfare than wildlife, and farming grazing mammals such as sheep is ethically defensible.

DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

One issue with promoting how we farm in developed countries is that people in developing countries often seek to emulate it, even when it's not suitable for the environment they live in, and might do things such as tear up rainforests so they can create swards of plants unsuited to their climate so they can graze Western breeds of sheep. Unfortunately, traditions which often developed over many centuries for good reasons are wrongly seen as irrelevant, unfashionable, or even (foolishly) politicised and derided as xenophobic. It's vital when discussing conservation that we stress the reasoning behind it, which is that sustainable farming is a system tailored to its environment and specific to that environment. In every part of the world, when seeking to farm sustainably, people must look at the breeds and crops that are traditional to the heritage in that particular place and the methods traditionally used there.

Because food has unfortunately become so politicised, I have spent the first three blog posts in this series doing groundwork that I hope will help readers to understand the complex science and reasons behind traditional mixed farming that are too often presented as facile, politicised arguments. In the next post in this series, I hope to finally get into the exciting matter of what grazing or 'grass' actually is in terms of plant species and biodiversity!

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Research on Dog Harnesses

For some time, one of the most popular pieces of misinformation doing the rounds on social media is a campaign about dog harnesses. Specifically, that some types of harness are 'restrictive' or 'harmful' and other types are beneficial. Such claims are usually accompanied by either a link to a textbook about dog anatomy, whose author so far as I can tell has never had any involvement with designing or researching dog harnesses, or a drawing on what looks like a child's exercise book with German writing on it that doesn't translate into any information to explain what it is supposed to show. When these posts are challenged, they often deteriorate into vehement passions with people claiming that science supports a particular viewpoint, when the facts of the matter are that very little scientific research has been undertaken on this subject.

A paper was published a few years ago that studied the movement of dogs wearing various harnesses, and found that all harnesses restricted measured movement in the dog compared to not wearing a harness, and that harnesses marketed as 'non restrictive' actually restrict movement the most. More recently, and perhaps in response to concerns over the misinformation campaign, a scientific review was published that discussed this paper amongst the few other papers in existence on this sort of thing. This research would seem not only to disprove, but to completely contradict the claims made by the armchair experts.


Here's a diagram of the front assembly in a poodle. A correct front assembly is hard to breed, and a dog with a good one is an asset to a breeding programme. The front assembly is actually not connected skeletally and is held in place entirely by muscle, as anyone who's ever butchered a deer or something similar will have noticed. Because of this there are concerns in working animals about injuries to the shoulders and how to avoid them.

In the review of the papers, the 'non restrictive' harnesses studied and found to be more restrictive than other harnesses were identified as having a 'y shaped' front. If you look at the drawing of the dog, the foremost point of the dog's body should be the prosternum, which should be slightly in front of the point of the shoulder. The dog's chest should have a rounded feel to it, with the areas between the bones filled in with muscle. Poodles with lousy fronts often have the point of shoulder in front of the prosternum and you can feel hollows either side of it. If you consider how a harness with a 'y shaped' front will fit on the dog, then as well as restricting the dog's movement as the study found, there is also some concern about what this is going to do to the dog if it pulls in it, as all the force from the pull is going to end up on the prosternum and neck and the soft tissue surrounding it. One of the other studies in the review found that in all types of harness, the highest force exerted on the dog was on the sternum area. Other places where harnesses tend to be a problem and interfere with the natural shape of the poodle are at the withers (things that come too far forward interfere with the dog's ability to hold up its head) and in the elbows (if the body strap is too far forward, it's likely to press into the armpit and interfere with the return of upper arm).

Harnesses are beneficial to dogs as safety seatbelts in cars and some sports or work require them. However, in light of the research that found harnesses restrict normal movement, the current promotion of harnesses as 'better' than a collar to attach a lead to is unfounded.

A good seatbelt harness looks something like a straightjacket! The ribs of the animal are the most resilient part of the body. The dog should only wear this harness in the car as it will restrict movement. A seatbelt will reduce the risk of injury from being thrown forward in an impact (to both the driver and the dog) and prevents the dog from running into the road if the boot door flies open or a window breaks in a low-speed collision.

If you have to attach a lead to your dog's harness because the dog has a medical condition, or you do a sport that requires one, do not use the same harness as your dog uses for a seatbelt. Choose a harness that seems to fit the dog well, is not too bulky, and that the dog looks comfortable in, and ideally try on a few harnesses to compare them. If you work for the police/the army or have a dog to assist you with a disability, use the harness your trainer recommends and ask them if there seems to be a problem with it or the dog doesn't like it. If your dog is doing a sport that requires it to pull, it might be best in light of the evidence to choose a harness that has a wide, padded strap to distribute the force of pulling over the whole chest. If your dog does not have to pull as part of its sport/work, you should do your best to teach it not to pull, whatever equipment you use. If you have to use a harness to attach a lead to, take off the entire harness when the dog is allowed off-lead activity.

I'm going to include a link to Julius K9 here, because I feel they've been unfairly maligned by this misinformation campaign, as propaganda frequently singles out their products as being harmful to dogs when there is absolutely no evidence to support this. I don't currently own any of their products, but from what I can see, they are well made and the company puts effort into research and testing them and deserves respect for that. JK9's statement 1, statement 2 in its own defence. It is unethical for armchair experts to spread false information to promote products from no-name businesses over businesses that invest this amount of effort into their products.

We do seem to have a problem with people's attitudes that began with probably justified objections to things like electric shock collars, but has progressed to a sanctimonious intolerance directed at all manner of training equipment and practices.

The way some people talk, you would think the worst thing that can ever happen to an animal or a person is to experience something uncomfortable, or even to be told 'no'. However, research by psychologists largely seems to suggest that it's not that, and the worst thing is probably something called learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a psychological state that a person or animal comes to because bad things keep happening and there is nothing that individual can do to stop them. Animals in studies who have reached this state of mind do not try to escape the bad things even when they are given opportunities, and it's no doubt the cause of the frustration experienced by people who genuinely want to help other people who have been abused or have addictions when the person seems to self-sabotage every attempt. There is no evidence to suggest that a person or animal who experiences unpleasant things in life, but has autonomy and is able to make choices to avoid them, suffers any serious psychological damage, and a lot of psychologists would probably argue that never allowing a child to make a mistake or experience failure is psychologically unhealthy. What applies to a child may also be of relevance to a dog.

What research into learned helplessness suggests is that experiences that involve choices are more psychologically beneficial than those that don't. Dogs who are 'learned helpless' in experiments do not respond to either punishments or rewards to try to teach them to avoid unpleasant experiences! When we are training animals, we might do better to think more about how we can give animals choices and make things fun for them, rather than fretting that something might be 'negative'.

For this reason, it makes even less sense that the people who seem to be most in favour of harnesses, which research suggests are restrictive and possibly uncomfortable whether the dog is pulling in them or not, also seem to complain the most about collars, and in particular 'squeeze collars' such as martingales and choke chains. There's no reason to think that collars restrict dogs' movement or are uncomfortable when the dog is not pulling in them. When a dog does pull against a fixed collar, the shape of the collar changes and the force typically loads on the soft tissues at the front of the throat. A squeeze collar such as a martingale with a closed diameter smaller than its wearer's neck converts the pull into a squeeze and redistributes it around the neck. You can feel for yourself how this works by putting the collars on your arm and pulling them. I don't know of any research on this, but anecdotally people tend to feel that dogs don't pull as hard in squeeze collars, which would suggest they find them more uncomfortable to pull in. But there's no reason to think that this means they do more damage when dogs pull in them, and the physics of how they work would suggest they are less likely to damage the dog's throat. Although obviously the best solution would be to train the dog not to pull on whatever it is wearing, if a dog is pulling in a collar and is uncomfortable, the dog always has the choice not to pull and not be uncomfortable. The dog has autonomy in the situation. It is not that the act of pulling is unpleasant, but the opportunity to choose that matters most.

Distribution of the force of pulling in a 'squeeze collar' (martingale) compared to a fixed collar.
Martingales and choke chains are often chosen by handlers because they are easy to take on and off, but some people choose them as a training aid for dogs in the habit of pulling because they feel the dog doesn't pull as hard and to help teach it not to pull.

Many people today seem to think that tolerance is posting a platitude on Twitface that you support LGBTQ people, while at the same time posting discriminatory or hateful things about people who might have voted for a political party you don't approve of. It isn't. Tolerance is about respecting the choices of others even if you don't agree with them, and hopefully trying to understand the other people's reasons. Everyone has things they find deeply offensive, for example, I am offended by religious and animal rights fundamentalism because they do not make objective sense and seek to curtail individual liberty, and also by puppy farming and 'mutt propaganda' because I see it as harmful to conservation and welfare and based on distorted science and logical fallacy. I think we can all agree that someone who is offended by people because of a characteristic they can't help such as skin colour has an unacceptable prejudice and needs therapy or something to address this. However, being offended by somebody else's training tools is in the same sort of order as being offended by how someone else holds their knife and fork. Unless someone is doing something illegal, we should all mind our own business.

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Grazing Management: farming terminology

Part 2 in a series of articles about grazing management. Part 1

 Organic and Inorganic can mean different things. Organic is often used as a marketing term on food and it means the food has been produced according to certain rules. However, it has a scientific meaning which is what it will mean when I use it in these blog articles to talk about soil. Inorganic material is that which is derived from inert geology from the environment, e.g. clay, which is made of silicates or rocks containing oxides of iron, magnesium, calcium etc. In soil this is sometimes called the substrate. Organic material is that which is derived from living things, and it contains mainly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. Living things such as animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria are organic and carbon-based, that is, they are a store of carbon. Dead things, poo, and fleeces that have been shorn and items made thereof are also organic and are made of carbon. Living things convert carbon into carbon dioxide through their metabolic processes, but plants recycle carbon dioxide back into a molecular form for use by themselves and their predators.

Food crops or Arable are crops grown on land, for people to eat. These tend to be annual plants that grow in the warmer months of the year and die in the winter after the edible parts have been harvested. Land used in this way is susceptible to soil erosion (the depletion of organic material from the soil) by wind and flooding, particularly over large uninterrupted areas of arable land, as the roots of the plants are often not extensive and do not hold the soil together after the plants are dead, and the land has to be cultivated annually to plant more crops and this damages networks of fungi and other biodiversity in the soil. Arable crops are harvested by machinery that is easiest to use on large areas, and insect parasites and weeds (plant species other than the crop being grown) affect the ability to get a good yield. Because of this, arable farming often requires petrochemical fertilisers and herbicides and insecticides, and can be harmful to biodiversity.

Livestock are domestic animal species developed for food production (meat or other products such as milk).

Game are wild (undomesticated) animal species that are hunted and eaten by people, or sometimes can be farmed.

Manure is poo and wee (urine and faeces). Poo contains many organic and inorganic substances and and wee contains urea, which is nutritious to plants. Manure is usually absorbed by plants and benefits invertebrates, fungi, and microorganisms in the soil, but when it is concentrated such as in sewer plants or in mass-production farming systems, it decomposes in an uncontrolled way and can be a source of pollution. If manure is thrown on ground that doesn't have plants able to absorb it, it may run into rivers and cause pollution.

Grazing means herbivores and omnivores eating plants in situ from where they grow.

Forage is a crop grown to feed to animals which is removed from the place it is grown and normally prepared and stored in some way, such as hay, silage, or haylage. Forage might be made from perennials as in the case of hay, or it can also be made from the inedible parts of a food crop to eat.

A Ley or a Pasture is a field for animals to graze in. There is some overlap in that leys can also be used to produce forages, although not all forages come from leys.

The Sward is the collective name for the plants that grow together in a pasture. It's what a layman might call 'the grass'. However, there are countless species of grass and a sward can contain many more exciting things than just grass, as will be talked about in later posts. Grasses and other plants used for grazing are usually perennials rather than annuals and have extensive root systems and below-ground ecology that benefits biodiversity, stores carbon, and resists or reverses soil erosion.

A wood, forest, spinney, or copse is an area of land where native trees and shrubs grow. These plants are large perennials that store carbon and benefit the soil with extensive below-ground ecologies. A hedge is an artificial planting of native trees and shrubs in an organised line, which can help to prevent soil erosion on adjacent crops by breaking wind (!) and absorbing water to reduce it running off the edge of the field. Native trees do not produce much that people can eat directly but they benefit biodiversity, store carbon, and provide shelter to and are to some extent eaten by livestock.

Undersowing is when you plant two crops for different purposes on the same land. One of these might be a crop to be harvested and for people to eat, and the other might be a sward. This is usually done for various reasons, such as being more efficient, preventing soil erosion and reducing weeds, and because the animals fertilise the ground by depositing manure on it as they graze.

Oversowing (somewhat confusingly) is when you plant seeds in addition to something that is already growing there to complement its purpose. Usually this involves leys, and you might oversow something like wildflower seeds into a sward to make it more biodiverse.

Rotation has two main meanings in agriculture. When grazing, it can mean having several pastures and moving animals between them in an orderly fashion so that the sward can grow and does not get overgrazed or undergrazed. It can also mean a crop rotation, whereby a piece of land might be used for something different each year (growing food for people, growing a forage crop, or as pasture) to maintain and improve the soil quality and to prevent depletion of or restore depleted organic matter.

Mixed farming is using land to produce both arable and livestock. This usually involves crop rotation of individual areas and undersowing as well as interspersing pastures with crop fields and trees and hedges. This is usually efficient, as detritus from food crops can often be used to make forage for animals, and the animals' manure and grazing helps protect and restore organic matter in the soil.

The carbon cycle