So you’re wondering: what the heck is animal husbandry? Fair enough.
The global population has shifted from agricultural communities to industrialized cityscapes. Urban centers like New York, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires continue to grow. Most of us find ourselves removed from the forest and the farm.
But there is a growing awareness and desperation to find solutions and proactive choices regarding climate change. Many people are looking at farming techniques, technologies, and possibilities in order to reimagine our societies. How we consume – eat, drink, play, move – is a critical point of public health. It is an aspect of global change with which we can all engage.
Animal husbandry is part of that – good, bad, and complicated – so let’s dig into it.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, animal husbandry is “a branch of agriculture concerned with the production and care of domestic animals”.
Animal species have various histories in tandem with human evolution and development. The word domestic is a key component here. When our species lived as hunter-gatherers, we viewed animals as prey, but also as predators. When domestication began, our human-animal relationships developed into a symbiotic exchange. Humans provided food and protection for animals in exchange for animal products.
People domesticated animals for a variety of reasons. These reasons include companion animals, food animals, and working animals. Domestic animals (such as dogs, cats, and cows) have changed over generations to live alongside humans.
Domestication can be explained as an evolutionary process of adaption. In this process, a population of captive, wild animals shifts to the needs of humans and the environment humans provide. These shifts, or adaptions, occur over many generations due to genetic, genomic changes and reoccurring environmental experiences.
So, for example, you might find a baby squirrel and nurse it back to health. And then, to your neighbors’ delight or disgust, you might live some years with a squirrel as a pet, exchanging food and protection for the quirky companionship of this bushy-tailed rodent.
You have not impacted a population of squirrels in this exchange. You have not changed the genetic make-up of squirrels through generations. Squirrels are still not domesticated. Also of note – it is technically illegal to have a squirrel as a pet.
In contrast to squirrels: golden retrievers, siamese cats, and Angus beef cows are domesticated animals. Humans have carefully bred these species over a span of time for specific purposes.
Today, many people are separated from the land. As a result, these concepts can feel abstract. Let’s focus in on some examples of farm animals to see where animal husbandry takes place:
Humans have altered the genotypes of cattle to fit our desires. More than any other animal in fact.
Archeologists have found fossilized cattle remains in India dating back 2 million years – longer than our species of Homo sapiens has been around. Cattle are in cave paintings around the world. Some rock art of France dates back 15,000 years and still fascinates the masses, even in the age of glowing screens and endless scrolls.
Scientists hypothesize that cattle were first domesticated in Turkey, some 8,000 years ago and shortly after in Iran. Ancient humans used cattle for milk, meat, leather, fertilizer, and as draught animals. Cattle also came to have massive cultural and spiritual status around the globe. For example, in the Norse creation myth, the cow Autthumbla is credited with sustaining life when it first emerged from a cosmic block of ice.
From the mythical to the minutia of DNA, the details of animal husbandry will look different depending on what animal you are talking about. Selective breeding techniques that began in the barnyard are now often conducted in labs today. The Angus beef bruiser is quite different than its ancient Indian ancestor.
Other important aspects of cattle animal husbandry include dehorning and castration. This allows the “stock” to be safely transferred to the “market”. You may notice that this language is still used on Wall Street bettors today.
According to a 2009 study in North America, the average weight of a cow carcass has increased by about 100 pounds in the last 20 years, due to combined factors such as genetics and feed additives. This is absolutely part of cattle husbandry – often with some very concerning consequences, which we will touch on later.
“Cattle” is a plural term that can generally reference any of the bovine species. A dairy cow is a single bovine female that produces milk.
Different than the beef cattle industry, but still bovine in nature, dairy farming is another industry of massive proportions. According to the USDA, in January 2020, milk production climbed up 1.2% to a whopping total of 17.9 billion pounds. This is not per year. This is per month. There are over 8 million head of dairy cows being milked in 24 U.S. states with major production operations according to this same report.
As the U.S. has become increasingly industrialized and corporatized, the pastoral image of the family dairy cow has in truth become a story of factory production. What we consider farm animals are now “food animals” – often bred, born, milked, and slaughtered in industrial operations.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are major animal welfare concerns within these operations – which should only really come as a surprise if you were born yesterday.
The international Dairy Association identifies four stages of domestication, and within those classifications stresses that at the fourth and final stage, where the drive for production exceeds the biological limits of dairy cows there are devastating consequences in the welfare of these cows – and also our planet.
It is what has, sadly, become a case of animal husbandry gone awry: we have bred dairy cows for millennia for desirable traits, and the nutritional value of dairy has allowed humanity to migrate and progress in truly amazing ways. But in our emphasis on economic growth and insatiable appetite for more, we have hugely deemphasized the wellbeing of these animals and the necessary balance and diversity of ecosystems. The “care” part of the animal husbandry definition has fallen to the wayside.
However, there are plenty of dairy farmers who have resisted this industrialized conglomeration as best they can – and with the growing green wave of sustainable agriculture, lots of farmers from younger generations are prioritizing their dairy farm with a different criterium in mind. Even if you live far away from the rolling green hills of California or Wisconsin, you can support these families and farmers by using your purchasing power when it comes to consuming dairy products.
Farming has always been hard work, and today especially within the context of an extremely politicized moment in history. All the while, farmers are counting pennies and crunching numbers as they try to stay afloat in an uncertain market – animal feed being the highest variable cost of a dairy cow.
We will keep coming back to how important it is to support those farmers in your area who truly practice the full spectrum of animal husbandry: production and care.
Both beef cattle and dairy cows are within the category of ruminants – which is a group of mammals with even toes that chew regurgitated cud. By looking at other animals in this category, we see avenues for diversified and sustainable meat production outside of the current factory models. These other options include yaks, sheep, and deer as well as other relatives.
Poultry farming is a subcategory of animal husbandry. But don’t let the name mislead you – there’s nothing “sub” or small about this industry.
For example, Americans consume on average 81 pounds of chicken per person per year. And the demand for bird meat is only growing. Chicken is produced at the fastest rate and with the highest feed efficiency when compared to any other meat. While this may seem like a victory on the surface of a purely monetary perspective, again, when it comes to animal production, breeding, and selling – faster and bigger is not always better.
The conversation regarding industrial poultry operations is similar to that of dairy cows and cattle.
But there is a growing passion for “home” poultry farming even in urban areas – backyard chickens!
Going hand-in-hand with the farm-to-table movement and the emphasis on eating local, more and more city dwellers are incorporating chickens and ducks into their domestic space, and it’s an exciting way to eat healthier and understand our connections to landscape and other species.
There are a lot of varieties of poultry to choose from if this is something you choose to embark upon – and the best option will depend on your circumstances and preferences. Due to the efforts of ancient farmers and modern scientists alike, there are different kinds of chickens with various colors, growth rates, production amounts, and cultural histories.
It is also important to investigate any city ordinances, homeowner agreements, and associations, or state regulations regarding chickens and other poultry in populated areas. Knowing what your community has determined to be socially acceptable can be an empowering way of informing yourself – and changing things if necessary.
In this research process, you will also inevitably learn more about keeping chickens from other urban farmers, neighbors, or activists – which will contribute to your understanding of how to take good care of these animals.
There is a plethora of DIY youtube videos, books, and online articles to answer any detailed questions you might have as you consider if this choice is right for you and your family. And in this instance, the library is your friend! Perhaps it’s time to renew that library card and dive into the extensive literature about how to incorporate the husbandry of chickens into your own life.
Many people think animal husbandry is exclusive to large, herding animals. But the animal kingdom is an endlessly interlocking web of creatures. So is animal husbandry. As our understanding of these relationships deepens, so too can our understanding of animal husbandry and the possibilities within that work.
Even tiny insects such as bees have played a major role in our agricultural societies – and their fate mirrors our own in many regards. The more you learn about bees, the more these tiny insects will blow your mind.
There are over 20,000 various species within the family Apoidae, and multiple are kept by humans across the globe. In particular, Apis mellifera, a honey bee, is the most commonly kept bee around the world. And indeed, for all the wildflowers these pollinators visit, bees have been genetically altered by human breeding preference for thousands of years. They contribute immensely to our domesticated practices. And this collaboration dates back to ancient Egypt, if not even earlier.
The nutritional benefits of honey are worth slurping on as well: it naturally contains enzymes and vitamins. It also contains pollen and can be an effective homeopathic medicine for seasonal and region-specific allergies.
Is it any wonder that humans have dedicated so much time to the husbandry and breeding of bees? The sunshine taste of honey and the contributions of these workers in the garden are nothing to sneeze at. More than 80% of agricultural crops in the world are pollinated by honey bees.
It’s this sort of jaw-dropping statistic that makes the crisis identified as “honey bee colony collapse disorder” all the more distressing. Sometimes identified as CCD syndrome, bees are disappearing en masse. While the cause of this ongoing event is “unknown”, scientists have some pretty good guesses. Many of these scholars point to a “synergy” of factors. These factors include varroa mites and other parasites, excessive pesticide use, genetic modifications, electromagnetic radiation, monoculture crop systems, and loss of biodiversity. In short, bees are dying because of human impact. The narratively is heartbreaking familiar in the age of the Anthropocene.
A number of researchers argue that bees are a bio-indicator species. This means that this small insect is reflecting the crisis of our ecosystems – like a canary in a coal mine. And the message is truly dire.
Again, animal husbandry is about breeding animals and also taking care of them. Beekeepers have been sounding the alarm for decades, while popular culture and dialogue are finally catching up. Bees are dependent on biodiversity and ecological health. So are we.
It is easier to be discouraged and do nothing than it is to have hope and make substantive change in your life and in your community. With the bees go so many beautiful flowers and foods, not to mention a billion-dollar workforce of tiny insects that are critical to our food systems and therefore societies. Within these facts is a very clear call to action: don’t leave the “husbandry” to beekeepers and scientists alone – the efforts to caretake and protect our pollinators fall on all of our shoulders.
Actions you can take include transforming empty city lots and Kentucky-grass yards into native perennial plants. This will conserve water and support pollinators such as bees, butterflies, endemic birds, dragonflies, bats and so many more essential members of a given biome.
Husbandry practices go offshore as well. Livestock production is a practice that expands to fish farms and aquaponic systems as well. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, aquaculture is “the rearing of aquatic animals or the cultivation of aquatic plants for food” – and is therefore closely related to animal husbandry.
Aquaponics is an especially exciting field of study and practice because they provide alternative methods for breeding and consuming fish. We know that the trolling techniques and other unsustainable practices at large within the fishing industry continue due to the high demand for this food – so we have to be creative about shifting the industry and incentivizing other options.
One example of fresh ideas with aquaponics is a beloved Indian restaurant in South Minneapolis, “Gandhi Mahal”. While customers wine and dine upstairs, the restaurant staff uses the basement as an aquaponic system. Chefs then use the fish from this “farm” within the land-locked city when cooking specialty dishes. During the day, students and other individuals interested in aquaponics can come and learn about how it all works, spreading knowledge within the community about why these alternative practices of animal husbandry, or aquaculture in this example, are so important.
As we see in the above examples, animal husbandry is an ancient practice that remains a part of our lives today. Animal breeders, ranches, and subsistence farmers share some practices in common with our ancestors, while other aspects of this work have grown – often to unsustainable sizes with catastrophic effects.
Animal breeding is the backbone of how our societies have developed over time. This work has constructed the world we live in today and it will continue to be an important element in how we move into the future.
As we touched on above, the focus on economics and animal production comes at the cost of animal welfare, animal nutrition, and overall animal health.
In many cases, we have bred and treated animals in such a manner that the only means of reproduction at this point is artificial insemination. Often, we are feeding animal species corn byproduct that is far from the sustenance these species evolved to eat. Our relationship with domesticated animals has moved from one of symbiosis to one of extraction and exploitation. Often, we treat the human beings who work with these animals and in these factories with the same approach.
Often, we do not link animal rights and civil rights, in spite of how close these issues are. We commonly say “You are what you eat”. Modern animal science and veterinary medicine meet the pressure of a planet that desperately needs us to alter our methods of production and consumption. We are indivisibly linked to the animals we eat. The well-being of the macrocosmic planet reflects in the small examples and exchanges between individuals.
Like the example of the bees, we see our own crisis reflected in the lives of animal species and it is important that we pay attention and make changes with ecosystem health in mind.
Farming practices – especially as they relate to cattle – are a hot topic right now. There are strong reasons why this branch of agriculture is under fire from seemingly every direction. Many advocates for sustainability emphasize that giving up beef might be the best way to have a personal impact on our planet’s health. However, the industry at large is a complicated mosaic of factors. Ranching and herding is a generational lifestyle. There are ways to reform ranching practices to be more in line with the ecosystems where they occur.
To some people, animal rights and animal husbandry might seem like opposite ends of a spectrum. But it is important to resist the hyper-politicization of topics regarding farming, sustainable agriculture, and a compassionate ethic towards animals. If you talk to people who work with animals and practice animal husbandry, you might be surprised. Most often, these people are incredibly close to the land. They care deeply about their animals. They find themselves in an impossible position. These ranchers, farmers, and herders are attempting to maneuver within a society that grinds good intentions to dust. Major economic systems today rob the soil, and the future, of necessary nutrients to grow.
It is easy to blame individuals on the ground for these crises. Instead, we might look towards the complicated systems of extraction and exploitation that characterize our systems of capital.
Luckily for us, there are vocal indigenous leaders and groups that continue to protect 90% of the world’s biodiversity, even in the face of genocide and ongoing violence to their communities.
Indigenous communities in North America show us sustainable grazing practices. One historical example is the now-extinct herds of Buffalo of the great plains. We can look to nomadic groups in diverse corners of the globe. Examples include the Maasai in East Africa and the Saami in Northern Europe. These communities and tribal groups have maintained sustainable herding practices of ruminant species such as cattle and reindeer for generations.
These farmers, organizations, and visionaries provide insight for the future. They connect us to ancient practices of animal husbandry and perspectives of integrated relationships within specific ecosystems.
Through indigenous leadership and restoring land rights to a landscape’s indigenous stewards, we could redefine the next 100 years. It could be a chapter of our history that combats the climate crisis and defends the future of our planet. The stakes really are that high. With a respectful land ethic, we can take care of the animals we breed. We can steward the ecosystems we depend on.
The solutions to humanity’s greatest challenge yet will be diverse. As diverse as the animal species, ecosystems, and people that call this planet home.