In my short career in livestock management (exactly two years on September 15), I am reminded almost daily of one favorite, enlightening quotation from an obscure Italian novel, The Leopard. The book was written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and published after his death, in 1958. Then in 1963 it was turned into a movie starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon. Set in 1860s Italy, the protagonists are attempting to keep their life and lands in Sicily intact during the Risorgimento which would eventually lead to a united Italy for the first time since Rome fell to the barbarians in 476 A.D.
The important quote (Alain Delon delivers it in the film) is well-known among a huge group of people across many lines of work, from military to commodity trading. But I see its wisdom in agriculture:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
It’s a quote you can chew on for a while. At first glance it makes little sense. To achieve stasis, things will have to change. Huh? Okay, sounds Zen. Twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus said, “The only constant is change.” But that’s a little different than setting out to keep things as they are by seeking out or embracing change in order to keep things “as they are.”
So what does this have to do with agriculture and livestock? Well, in my mind, we have goals or the things that we want to “stay as they are” but to get there we have to constantly evolve. For example:
I wanted to be able to move my sheep and cattle across the ranch. I thought we would need border collies, and so I bought two beauties, a brother and sister. That was a mistake since the two of them distracted each other from training. The sister went to a family in town. But change was not finished. When the brother got to be about a year old he began to harass the stock.
I realized that I had no trouble moving the sheep or the cattle with other techniques. A flake of alfalfa and a call of “Sheep!” brings the sheep anywhere I want. All carrot (alfalfa) and no stick (border collie nips). For the cattle I train them to come to the sound of a bell. The sound of my ATV and the bell always signals something good from the bi-ped (me) to the herd. They get new pastures, mushy pears or apples, and a short visit where the cattle get to express and satisfy their innate curiosity about me. So I gave the border collie to my logger and that was that.
I’ve had more difficulty maintaining order among my livestock guardian dogs. They have shown a propensity to go off task and under fences. So, if I want things to stay the same (sheep secure in their pastures), things will have to change. I’ve rewired miles of perimeter fence with field fence, installed gates, done perimeter audits of the fencing, buttressed it and robustified it where needed. Two other options exist: a llama or a donkey. The problem is both are mutually exclusive with dogs. Llamas and donkeys hate dogs, and harass them. So it’s probably clear that our dog equation will continue to evolve as long as the sheep are here. And they may not always be here. Every livestock group, and each individual within that group, is trying out for the team. Some will make it, some won’t.
Chickens, and by chickens I mean broilers, are another source of constant change. You might not think that you’d have a lot of change with a livestock program that involves bringing day-old chicks to the brooder, brooding them for 3 weeks and then tractoring them on pasture for another 4 weeks, but that program is constant change, a constant reworking of assets to rationalize the raising of 100 baby chicks every four weeks during a 5-month season. Year 1 we brooded chicks in three galvanized troughs with chicken wire laid on top. Not very elegant, kind of a chicken trailer park. Year 2 we are brooding in 4′ x 8′ x 2′ plywood brooders with a nice light setup and an additional chicken wire “yard” measuring 60 square feet accessible by a door. Fresh air and protection, we call it the “pavilion.” Year 3 we will have yet another (improved) iteration of the brooder setup, something larger with man-doors. Similarly the pasture tractors are changing.
Of course, all this constant change (change is the only constant) is a tad disconcerting. You no sooner solve some problem than you see the rather obvious defects in your solution. It can get to the point that you don’t want to solve a problem or enter into a new area. I have a saying I keep in mind whenever designing a solution (brooder, tractor, eggmobile, pasture layout): “your first is your worst.” This is comforting and lets me get started without worrying about creating something “great.” Okay, whatever it is I’m working on won’t be great, and probably will only be barely “good,” but as I go along, each iteration will be an improvement. Perfection is the enemy of the good, as the old saying goes.
Heraclitus, who tried to comfort us by saying “The only constant is change,” also wrote that you cannot step in the same river twice. The water (which constitutes the river, if you think about it) is in constant flow, and already gone by the time you settle your foot to the bottom for the first time. Similarly, as we develop our plans and our properties, we can never set foot in the same pasture year after year. At least not if we are doing it right.
The ranch you have today is not the ranch you will have in one year’s time. Your flocks and herds will suffer losses, but also gain births through calving and lambing and kidding (no kidding!). The idea you had about a certain shelter or pasture working out for a group of livestock may turn out to be a disaster. So, pasturing animals, and probably any form of agriculture at all, will force you to embrace change if you want to stay in a happy spot.
The good news is if you remember that the only way things can stay the same is through change, you can begin to look forward to it, or at least be somewhat comfortable with it.