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Animal Power

One ancient practice nearly wiped out in the United States by “progress” was the widespread use of animal power in many important endeavors, including farming, hauling, logging, herding and various types of transportation. In the late nineteenth century, for example, getting around in New York City meant employing at least one of the nearly 200,000 horses stabled in the city (whose manure production posed a serious and perennial public health hazard). Equally hard to imagine today is the knowledge that until the adoption of tractors in the1920s, nearly all American agriculture was powered by livestock!

As someone who came of age among the asphalt suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona during the 1970s—the nadir years for animal power in the U.S.—these historical facts were hard to comprehend when I first heard them. Although I had spent my youth around horses, they were strictly the recreational variety. I knew nothing about draft animals or horse farming, except that they had become an anachronism, replaced forever by petroleum, or so I assumed. Therefore, it came as a surprise in the 1990s to learn that animal power was making a comeback, draft horses in particular, propelled by rising concerns about carbon pollution and oil scarcity. Cool!

But what exactly was animal power?

I decided to find out. In early July a few years ago, I traveled to the heart of Amish country in central Ohio to attend an annual event called Horse Progress Days, which is partly a celebration of horse farming and partly a convention of farmers intending to witness the latest in animal-powered “technology”—a word that must be used judiciously, given the famous Amish disdain for gadgetry. The most educational part of my trip, however, happened on the evening of my arrival.

Standing at the second-story railing of my hotel, I watched an Amish family bale and load hay in an adjacent field. The hay had been cut a day or two earlier to dry and now needed to be “put up” before the leaden sky began to drizzle. There was a calm, methodical urgency to the family’s work. The apparent patriarch of the family, wearing the standard Amish uniform of straw hat, plain shirt, suspenders and black pants, stood in a hay baler that was so old it looked like it belonged in a history museum. It sounded old, too. Its single-stroke engine, whose job was to compress the loose hay into a square bale and bind it with string, sputtered and choked so noisily that I expected it to give up and die at any moment.

The baler kept going, however, pulled by a team of handsome black draft horses that I later learned were Percherons. Together they spiraled steadily toward the center of the field, the baler excreting—for that’s what it looked like—a tidy, green bale of hay every thirty seconds or so. Not far behind followed another team of horses, guided by a young Amish man, likely a son or son-in-law, who stood on a flatbed wagon. On the ground were three young women, in plain dresses and white bonnets, who loaded the wagon with the freshly minted bales. The work must have been pleasurable because I heard the sounds of laughter from where I stood. When they filled the wagon, the youngsters drove it to a farm across the busy road, returning a short while later to continue their rounds.

In less than an hour, their work was done. The field had been completely emptied of hay, looking like a shorn sheep, bewildered and turned back to pasture.

I was sort of bewildered too. That didn’t look so hard to do, I thought. My mood changed to astonishment a short time later, however, when I heard the sound of another engine fire up. This was not the sound of a coughing relic, however; it had the confident hum of serious machinery. Indeed, it belonged to a John Deere combine of some sort (I knew as much about farm machinery back then as I did about draft horses). Within a minute or two it began sweeping across a neighboring hay field of approximately the same size as the Amish field, chased almost comically by a tractor pulling a large bin on wheels. The combine sucked up the loose hay from the ground and then spit it—for that’s what it looked like—through a long pipe into the careening bin beside it. Idling nearby, with their lights on and engines running, were three more tractors with bins, waiting patiently for their turn.

In about half the time it took the Amish family to bale and load their hay, the combine had finished its work. All four bins had been filled and the tractors dutifully dispatched someplace over the horizon with their green cargo. The combine, too, took off down the road for parts unknown.

And suddenly all was quiet.

What had just happened? Two fields of similar size had just been cleared of hay—one principally by horses, the other by horsepower. I wondered: how many gallons of precious diesel had the ancient, coughing baler used in comparison to the purring combine and speedy tractors? The difference must have been huge. And where did all that industrially gathered hay go? How many miles down the road would it travel to its ultimate destination? I had no idea, but I knew exactly where the Amish hay went—across the road, to be used, I’m sure, to feed the farm’s dairy cows in the coming winter. The contrasting images bounced around in my mind as I soaked up the silence.

Years later, the contrast has only sharpened.

Animal power, of course, isn’t just for the Amish. It’s being implemented across the nation, especially among young people. Concerns about carbon pollution and our dependence on petroleum have only grown since 2008, making draft horses, oxen and other livestock increasingly attractive power sources. There are pros and cons to using animals in agriculture (especially for the major no-no of tilling), but I suspect the final decision may come down to whether you are an “animal person” at heart or not. I love horses, so the appeal for me is direct. But I also know from experience about the cost and labor involved in keeping animals, especially big ones.

Still, I’ll bet that draft animals will be part of any regenerative economic system we develop to meet the expanding challenges of the twenty-first century.

Here’s a photo I took from Horse Progress Days:

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The Low Stress Way

John Wayne must be rolling over in his grave.

This thought crossed my mind as I sat in the back row of a herding clinic taught by Guy Glosson, Tim McGaffic and Steve Allen, ranchers and trainers who practice a type of low-stress livestock handling that emphasizes patience and kindness toward animals. Stop the whooping and hollering when moving cattle, they said. No more electric prods, sticks or aggressive attitudes either. Throw away your conventional ideas of controlling animals by use of fear, pain or other forms of stress-inducing pressure.

“Consider not wearing sunglasses when approaching cattle,” said Glosson. “You’re the predator and they’re the prey, or at least that’s the way they look at it. If they can’t see your eyes, it may make them more nervous, as they may not be able to judge your intentions.”

I smiled to myself, imaging what the Duke would say to this. “Hell, you’re supposed to make them nervous,” the actor might exclaim. “What is this, some sort of New Age ranching?”

“If cattle get worried,” continued Glosson, “you’ve taken the first step toward losing control of the herd. Animals want to feel secure. But they won’t feel secure if you’re yelling at them all the time. Your job is to treat them with respect.”

I could hear the Duke groan. Yelling at cattle and prodding them into action was as old as, well, the movies. Older, actually—Tim opened the class with a history lesson about how livestock have been manhandled in the West since the Civil War. Stressing out cattle was part of ranching culture and is still standard practice on many ranches today. Perhaps that explains why Baxter Black, a famous cowboy poet and former large-animal veterinarian once challenged Glosson over the idea of low-stress handling with a simple, steely: “Why?”

“I told him that it’s all about the health of the animal,” Glosson said. “Consistently handling animals without scaring them allows trust to be formed. This trust helps animals remain calm and that equates into a healthier immune system and better response to vaccines and other medications they may need.”

“I also told him that it was less stress on the handler too, which made us healthier,” said Glosson, with his easy laugh. “But I don’t think I convinced him.”

Another reason to adopt the low-stress way is economics. The margin of profit on livestock for ranchers is literally counted in pennies per pound. The stress put on cattle as they move from the ranch to the feedlot or the slaughtering facility can “shrink” an animal’s weight as much as 15 percent. Stress can make an animal more susceptible to disease, often requiring additional medicines and additional costs. It can also affect pregnancy rates in cattle, the bread-and-butter of a rancher’s bottom line. It all adds up quickly in dollars and cents.

Another reason is a philosophical one: how we treat animals speaks volumes about who we are as human beings.

“For grazing animals like cattle, the most dangerous predator on earth is a young human male,” Glosson said. “Until trust is established, animals will always perceive humans as a threat. And we don’t want that. These animals are now domesticated and for the most part they depend on people for their every need. If we want them to perform at their best, they must not be afraid of the person caring for them.”

The low stress way starts with recognizing the predator-prey relationship and the effects of such things as noise, size, distance and motion on cattle, which, like many animals, have well-defined zones in which particular actions trigger particular responses. For example, the recognition zone is where the animal takes notice of you and tries to determine your intent. The flight zone, when crossed, will cause the animal to move away from your approach. Suddenly violating this zone means that you are likely to encounter an angry or panicked animal who has perceived you to be a threat.

According to Glosson, the key to successful low-stress handling is something called “pressure and release.” Your presence (as predator) creates pressure that an animal (as prey) wants to relieve. The critical moment occurs when you reduce the pressure instead of allowing the animal to do it for you by fleeing. You accomplish this by stepping into the animal’s flight zone in such a way as to pressure it in a direction or manner that you intend for it to move, and then backing off when the pressure is no longer needed—before the animal runs away from you. Worked with this way, animals learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself, and a mutual understanding is established.

The whole idea is to use a “law of nature” to positive effect. For example, Glosson teaches his students to approach animals on foot in a nonthreatening manner, often zig-zagging as they get closer. When an animal sends a signal, such as raising its head or widening its eyes, the student stops, or backs up. If the animal moves off, then the student is too close or has done something threatening. Glosson tells them to start over.

“You’re trying to start a conversation with the animal,” said Glosson. “You’re not trying to tell him you’re a nice guy or anything, because you’re not. You’re still the predator. Instead, you’re trying to communicate mutual respect. And you want to keep the conversation going as long as necessary to get the job done. And you need to let the animals know when the conversation is over.”

The modern concept of low-stress livestock management was developed by Bud Williams, a Canadian rancher who spent his entire life studying how to handle animals respectfully, swiftly and easily, including reindeer, elk, sheep and wild cattle. The key, he learned, was to pay attention to the instincts of the animal.

“We need people that are more sensitive to what the animal is asking us to do,” Williams told an interviewer. “If we would be more sensitive to that, then these jobs that we work on would be so much easier to do.”

It’s all about communication—and not just between man and animal, but between people, too. If you can’t communicate your ideas of what you’re doing, you probably also can’t get it accomplished.

“We always work at a level where we barely get it done,” Williams continued. “We get as good as we need to get. We’ve reached a point now where we need to get better.”

Here’s a photo of Steve Allen leading a low-stress clinic:

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