Last week I read Old Yeller to the kids. As our family is attuned to the agricultural details of books, it engendered some discussion of the livestock husbandry practices of the story’s Texas frontier settlers. I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of the account, but there was strong internal consistency and attention to detail, so I got the impression that the author, Fred Gipson, did thorough research. Another factor lending credence is the agreement between Old Yeller and what I learned from reading Virginia DeJong Anderson’s scholarly work Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America.
The book’s settlers raised pigs extensively; that is, they had minimal management over the pigs. Mature boars wandered solitary. Herds of pigs were constituted of maternal groups: typically several generations of sows with piglets, plus a few old castrated males (barrows) for protection from predators. The herds moved freely over many miles of open range. Only an average of two pigs per sow survived to weaning age in the larger herds, and the rate was lower in one smaller herd described in a later chapter. Catching the piglets for marking and castration was done at great risk to life and limb, since the animals were really not domesticated in any sense. Several chapters describe the challenges of catching piglets while the older pigs slashed away with tusks sharp enough to disembowel the eponymous dog.
Because the piglet survival rate was so low, the females were all needed for replacement sows, and many of the males needed to be retained for predator control. This would leave only one butchering hog, or at most two, per sow per year. Contrast that to our herd, where we can easily raise 20 butchering hogs per sow per year (8 pigs per farrowing, 2-1/2 litters per year). Since the pigs see us every day, they grow accustomed to our visits. Instead of attacking us, they flop down at our feet for belly rubs and ear scratches.
We often have a nostalgic sense of an idyllic agricultural past; that it was marred by recent industrialization; that we need to restore it to its roots. My observation is that an honest reading of American agricultural history from colonial times onward shows that it has never been as nicely sustainable as we’d like to imagine. And farm life was often a daily fight to the death against “livestock” that were practically indistinguishable from wild animals.
So I feel fortunate to not be living in the good old days. I think we live in a time of unbelievable opportunity for responsible agriculture. We don’t need to join the mad rush of industrial agriculture’s race to the bottom. But we can use new tools and technologies to raise healthier livestock, better manage our farmlands, and do it all at far less personal risk. Contemporary innovations (lightweight electric fencing, portable water lines, plastic greenhouses, and tractors with loader buckets, as for-instances) allow us to create what I view as a revolution in agriculture.