It would be impossible to write an article about raising animals for food without offending or upsetting some folk. I am writing this however, with respect and without gory details as I would really like those who have chosen not to eat meat to feel comfortable reading it.
Permaculture farmers and growers use the ethics and principles of permaculture to guide the choices around how we produce food. How can we produce food that is best for the planet and the people whilst also regenerating Earth’s resources for future generations?
I am a permaculture farmer and home is a 9.3 hectare (23 acre) permaculture demonstration farm in Lincolnshire, England called The Inkpot. We run courses and hold events but my main day-to-day focus is producing healthy, sustainable food which just happens to taste great and keeps winning awards. It seems growing food to permaculture ethics and principles doesn’t just work to help restore the planet’s ecological processes, it also tastes really good. Anyone who has grown their own will know the taste explosion as you bite into that freshly picked tomato, or the eye-watering freshness of your own onions.
We have just heard that we have won a much coveted 2 star National Great Taste Award for our Hogget (1+ year old lamb). Our turkeys have also won a great taste award and our veg and cider have won classes at the mighty Heckington Show for the last eight years.
At The Inkpot we raise animals for meat. However, I have been a vegetarian in the past and I wrote an MSc thesis on animal welfare. It seems the two can go together: someone who cares deeply about the welfare of their animals and someone who chooses to produce meat. In fact, most of the animal or livestock farmers I know care deeply about the welfare of their animals.
Here at The Inkpot the welfare of the animals comes first (often above that of our own, while we trudge out in icy winds, or this year under the relentless baking hot sun, to check on animals, refill water buckets and generally hang out with the ‘four leggeds’ or feathered ones). One of our greatest compliments is that people who would otherwise be fully vegan eat our eggs as they know our chickens have a happy life. We also have vegetarians who buy our meat for their friends and family, saying that if they are going to eat meat, then they’d better source it from high welfare, healthy animals.
The Permaculture Way
So how do we raise animals the permaculture way? First things first, all permaculture starts with observation. We get to know our animals, we hang out with them and we watch them. But we also observe each animal species before we consider it coming to live at The Inkpot. A useful permaculture tool is input-output analysis. It is used to explore what is needed to ‘go in’ to any particular element in a permaculture system and also to analyse everything that could be considered an output. This can be used when considering whether to have a new type of animal on the farm. It can also analyse whether an existing animal is getting as many of its needs met from within that system, and whether all its potential outcomes are being utilised.
I have carried out an input-output analysis for each of the animals we have at The Inkpot – cows, sheep, chickens, turkeys and goats. I have also done it for ones we may like to have in the future such as pigs. This helps me to assess the time scales of when we’ll be able to meet their needs. For example, pigs love to rootle between trees, the trees need to be of a certain size to withstand this rootling, so we know that The Inkpot pigs will probably need to wait another five years or so while our little trees grow.
Planning around Lifecycles
Once we have chosen to live with a certain type of animal, the next decision is which breed to go for. In Britain, we are very lucky that thanks to the work of generations of farmers and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, we still have a wide range of traditional, native, hardy breeds. Here at The Inkpot we have the local Lincolnshire Red Cattle and have been mixing various native breeds of sheep for good wool, health, flavour and mothering abilities – we have mixed Lincoln Longwool, Norfolk Horn, Shetland with a bit of Jacob and Icelandic for additional hardiness. The turkeys are also a mixture of traditional breeds.
We also look at the full lifecycle of the animals and plan for each stage from conception to birth, youth to maturity, and death whether planned or unexpected. As an organic farm we need to have an animal welfare and health plan, which can read a little like a risk assessment in health terms for each animal: What might go wrong? How can we prevent it? What can we do (for the best for the animal and the planet) when something does go wrong?
Our first port of call for medication is always with herbs grown on site. Garlic can normally prevent the need for antibiotics and yarrow, fennel, nettle, willow and raspberry are also useful. There are many useful herbs growing right under our noses.
The main consideration when preparing for animals is having an awareness of how they would live in their natural state. Although many animals have been ‘domesticated’ and have evolved a lot from their wild ancestors, when their diets, group sizes, habitats and behaviours are most similar to how their wild ancestors would be, the animals exhibit the highest levels of welfare as we can perceive them to be (it would be so nice to just be able to ask them!). It is not rocket science, it’s similar to us... Lots of research now tells us that humans who spend a lot of time outside with Nature, getting their hands in the soil and eating a diverse range of seasonal food, grown locally, are generally healthier and happier.
Holistic Planned Grazing
One model that we use at The Inkpot is the Alan Savory Holistically Managed, Time Controlled, Planned Grazing (what a mouthful!). It basically means we graze the sheep and cows together, move them on each day to fresh pasture and don’t let them return to the same pasture for three months, allowing the grasses to fully regrow and their roots to also delve deep into the ground. The grazers eat only pasture, no concentrates, the water they drink is rainwater stored in ponds we’ve dug, and they live outside all year round.
Another major benefit of this system is there is no need to worm the animals; always moving on to fresh pasture, also known as ‘clean’ grazing, breaks the parasite cycle. Whilst there is much talk of antibiotic resistance, less research is being carried out on the equally increasing levels of resistance to anthelmintics (wormers). If animals and humans cannot rely on chemicals to control internal parasite populations, we all need to get better at controlling them with natural methods. With the right grazing system, there is no need to routinely ‘worm’ grazing animals, hence avoiding the use of anthelmintics. The poultry follow the grazers a few days behind which also help to ‘clean’ the pasture and gives them fresh free ranging areas. We manage these movements with mobile electric fencing which is replicable to systems both much larger and smaller than here.
Caring for the Young
Another major impact on the welfare and health of the animals is around reproduction. The lambs and calves are mainly born in May. Many people associate lambs with Easter or earlier, however this cycle is often dependent on the ewes being fed supplementary foods on top of any grass that has started to grow or is dependent on lambing indoors, requiring straw for bedding and hay or additional fodder bought in. Such systems can quickly turn into very high input systems – additional processing, tractor use, a need for barns etc. Our ewes and cows can enjoy the lush May growth of grass to help them in the last few weeks of pregnancy and then lactation. The lambs and calves are born when the temperatures are warm enough to be outside, and the days are longer for those early morning and late night birthing checks without the need for torches.
I always strive to leave the mums and babies together for as long as possible. There is normally no need to wean the young, even from the goats who we milk. As with humans, if left to it, either the mum or youngster will decide when they have had enough of feeding and will wean themselves. If, like this year, we had a ewe (Professor McGonagall) without enough milk for her lamb (Dean), then the pair are kept together in an ‘intensive’ care area. The lamb can be easily caught to feed freshly milked goats milk (much better than formula), but can still stay with mum for that bond and protection. Once the lamb gets the hang of the bottle (it doesn’t take long) and will come when called, then the little family can return into the main flock where they both will feel happier with the company of their peers.
Reducing Animal Stress
As we are building up our numbers in the ‘flerd’ (a flock of sheep and a herd of cows) we keep most of the girls; however the boys go to the butchers. Now this is the hardest bit for many people to comprehend, but the animals who are destined for the freezer are as cared for as those who will stay here to have babies.
Throughout the animals lives they are handled with minimal tension. Visitors are asked to stay calm and quiet around the animals, the animals learn that humans are servants who indicate new grazing, or fresh water rather than anything to fear. I shear the sheep and do as much of the management myself that I can.
On the rare occasion that a vet needs to be involved, we have a lovely local practice who work calmly with the animals. The abattoirs we use are local, family run and treat the animals with calm respect. I take my time when dropping the animals off to ensure they are calm and at ease. The vast majority of abattoirs do not in any way reflect the awful scenes shown online. These are a symptom of industrialised systems built entirely on economies of scale and not putting the animals first.
The Real Question
So for me the question does not stop at whether to eat meat or not, but exploring the full range of options around how ethical we can make the meat for those who choose to eat it. The meat produced on small-scale permaculture farms around the world are very likely to be high welfare, happy, healthy animals. The basis for this production is healthy soil which leads to healthy plants, animals and humans. The completion of this food cycle comes back to the consumer. When we sell our produce direct to consumers there needs to be good communication and often a re-education of cus-tomers. As customers we can nip into a shop to buy the specific cut of meat we prefer whenever we like, whereas buying direct from the farmer it is often most economical to buy ‘half’ or ‘whole’ of a lamb for example, which involves sometimes learning about and experiencing the flavour of various cuts.
Completing a full cycle of any permaculture process, we go through observing, exploring options, making decisions, developing action plans, implementing them and then taking regular points to keep observing and re-evaluating. The ongoing observations and re-evaluating is something that is never far from my mind. Whilst out in the field, watching the animals and the pasture, the considerations are always a balance of short, medium and long term planning – how do decisions we make today affect the whole system tomorrow, in the next few months, the next few years but also into the much longer term of eight generations down the line. Many farmers are thinking this way whether we realise it or not and whether they talk about it or not.
+ We borrow a neighbour’s bull, in exchange for giving them their Christmas turkey.