March 31, 2015

Horses and Chickens and Cows, Oh My!

A long, long time ago...

Wild horses, chickens  and cows (who are all girls and moms, by the way),  had to be tamed before humans could use them as farm animals and for food.   The tame horses, cows and chickens also had to come to America with humans across the Atlantic ocean,  hundreds of years ago.  

Domesticated horses originally came from the grasslands of Russia; cows (or cattle) came from Europe and Asia, and chickens were originally jungle fowl from Southeast Asia. 

When these animals live on your farm, they are most happy and healthy when they eat the same foods they ate when  in their original homes in nature.   That's why horses and cows (or cattle, which is plural girl AND boy groups of this animal) are most healthy when they eat mostly grass their whole lives, and only small amounts of grain or alfalfa. Cows (cattle) have four stomachs so they can chew the cud and break down grasses completely. Horses don't need extra stomachs to break down their grass, they have large intestines that do that.  And if you look closely at their poops you will see that one of these animals (can you guess which?) will have chunks of hay it it, while the other will be more, well, sloppy.

You probably think of chickens as eating grains, like corn, or wheat. But in nature, they are not likely to find seed-bearing grasses like that. In the jungles, where wild chickens still live, they are more likely to eat bugs and grubs. In fact, most birds prefer to eat some kind of insects when they are laying eggs.

A farmer named Joel Salatin has found a wonderful way to grow cattle and chickens on his farm, and also make his soil and land healthy.  He has a hilly farm, whose soils were very torn apart (eroded) when his father bought the farm. Over many years, his family learned they could reduce erosion by growing grass. Grass needs grazers, or animals that like to eat grass, to stay healthy.  But it is important that the animals not eat the grass to the ground or that will kill the grass.  Grass eaten to a few inches high, will grow deep roots and build dark rich soil. To keep his soil healthy like this, Joel has a special way he "herds" his animals across his hilly farm.  He moves wire fences to create smaller squares of field for the animals to graze more closely together,  and invites the lead animal to lead the rest of the cattle into the grazing area he has made with his moveable fence. The cattle eat a few days, chewing from one corner the other, leaving their poops (or cow patties) behind. When the grass is the right length, Salatin shoos them into another square pasture that he creates with his moveable (moo-vable) fencing. And on they will go, moved on by the moveable fence, one cow leading the others… to new fresh pasture, each time the grass is clipped by their grazing, to just the right height. Each time they leave behind their many poops, scattered over the field, ready for insects to lay eggs in. 

A day or two after he moves the cattle to a new field,  Joel Salatin brings his chickens on the land the cattle has left behind. He has a special name for his moveable coops; he calls them "egg mobiles."  In the cow patties, guess what the chickens find?  Lots of hatching insects that are rich in fats that help the chickens lay wonderful eggs with orange-yellow yolks.  

The  land, just like the chickens, likes it when the healthy (oops) poops are left on the land to break down and fertilize the soil and grasses. 

Yes, and we humans thrive on these kind of eggs, produced by chickens are raised in the out of doors, where they can eat the food they do best on!

This is a bit off my usual topic of recovery, but I share here because my niece Emerson has asked me to help her understand how animals can help us humans and the environment.  Here's to  all of us being the change we need, for our planet and our creatures, great and small. 

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