We Stand on Guard for Thee
Andrea is working in the farmyard, close to the gate that opens out to pasture. Some of the big grazers are coming down the corridor to the central paddock for water. There, approaching amongst them, she becomes aware of something small and incongruous. It is the fox that has been plaguing us, beautiful and relentless little killer. It is there using the large animals as a screen to approach the field-chickens unnoticed, or so it hopes.
But it doesn't work. Just as she's about to shout at the interloper, a streak of wolf-large whooly fur rockets out from behind her, followed by another and yet another These are our protectors, our livestock guardian dogs. They are almost on the fox before it realizes the very real peril it is in and bolts. By now our two other farm dogs have joined the chase. The fox won't be getting a free lunch from us, not today. Still, it is very lucky not to have been shredded.
The working group "livestock guardian dogs" is composed of a number of breeds, including but not limited to: Great Pyrenees; Maremma; Akbash; Komondor; Ovcharka. The origin of these dogs is lost in antiquity, but it seems they share a common ancestor that originated perhaps in Asia. They are designed for a pastoral style of livestock husbandry, that is, one that relies on free ranging stock out on open pasture. They are raised from pups right alongside those animals they are meant to guard, and long instinct borne out of careful selection over millennia instructs them that their job is to watch over this "family" and all it contains, and to guard it with their life. (In our case, we raised our pups alongside our chickens. The yaks and the draft horses don't need protecting.) They tend to be large dogs, capable of standing a chance against a wolf or bear if necessary. Custom sometimes suggests the dogs should receive a minimum of human contact in order for them to bond with their animal charges, but this hardly seems to be the case, Ours are extremely bonded to us yet do an exemplary job guarding, and at only slightly over a year old, they will only get better - it takes these dogs up to three years to fully mature. At any rate, we cannot imagine the loss that would be ours should we not have their friendship as we do - they are delightful creatures, full of character and personality. Furthermore, any dog this large, and programmed for savagery as the situation requires, certainly needs socialization with humans. Unless you are Ghenghis Khan, an individual infamous for harnessing his anger to produce a desired outcome. Then again, while some people who come on your place will certainly deserve to be bit on the ass by a large carnivore, Mr. Khan did not live in such a litigious age as we do today.
Amongst the breeds that compose this group of dogs are those famous for wandering large distances. I once had a friend who raised Pyrenees on his farm, for instance, this being one of the roaming breeds. When I drove over the prairie to visit him in winter, it was not uncommon to begin encountering the tracks of his dogs in the snow many miles out on the plains before I reached his farm. Two of his pups were our first livestock dogs, in fact. We couldn't keep them on the place, nor to be honest, anywhere near it. I suppose we got them a little old to bond properly with the stock. Whatever the case, and while I personally found their free-spiritedness both fascinating and endearing, the dogs were effectively useless to us when they were five miles away and the coyote five feet from the fence. We reluctantly returned them.
Our livestock dogs that are on the place now - the brothers Sounder, Ranger and Hunter - are a trio we rescued as young pups. Their mother is a Komondor, a huge and intriguing breed that is more aggressive yet less prone to wander, their dad one of my friend's old Pyrenees. Since spring has come on and the chickens are out ranging well afield, these new dogs have become pretty much the homebodies, tied to their job. But there was a time last winter when i was off deer hunting in the big woods that abuts our place, several miles deep into the sylvan fastness, and came upon tracks on a steep and trackless slope that i first took to be those of a pair of very large mountain lions. Wolf-sized prints. (There are lions here that leave such large tracks.) Then I detected claw-marks, which the lion of course, having retractable ones, does not leave. The prints were too round and catlike, however, to be those of wolves, found here as well. Then it suddenly dawned on me why these prints were looking so familiar as I continued to examine them. They were the tracks of my own pack! I was happy knowing they were out engaging the wilds as I was.
Our dogs are interesting to us on many levels, not the least of which includes how their physical appearance lends insights into the ancient ties between the livestock guardian breeds. For while both their parents were entirely white, two of the brothers are predominantly grey. A person might well wonder why this is so, yet in learning more about this guild of canines, will discover that other guardian breeds known from geographic regions abutting those from whence the "Komondorok" (plural for Komondor) and Pyrenees sprang indeed commonly have markings, hues and patterns not unlike those of our crosses. Breeds like the Pyrenean Mastiff, and the South Russian Ovcharka. The long buried lineages emerging readily from the ether of long ago with a little genetic coaxing.
It is normal these days when new laws are passed out in the country for them to represent some level of inhibiting nuisance to those rural folk living traditional rural lives. So it was with relief and hope that we reviewed new ordinances in our home county of Mountainview.
In Mountainview County, it is now writ in law that a barking livestock protection dog is not to be considered grounds for nuisance complaints. Nor is a livestock protection dog that is roaming off-property in the pursuit of its duties to be considered a "dog-at-large." Rather, these dogs are now being protected as the vitally contributing rural citizens that they are, essential elements of a productive rural fabric.
Now that's the kind of "progress" we need to see more of. Laws that actually favor, rather than hamstring, traditional farm economies.
A Most Elegant System
All Flesh is Grass, says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that's where it begins - with the grass. The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.
To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.
Grass is designed with grazers in mind. Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot. They stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh. Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on. The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil. The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too. Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both. Hence the old adage, "Keep down the shoot, kill the root."
The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens. On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows. In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger. They're on there, they hit it hard, and they're gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally. They aren't brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready. Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words. This system is called "mob grazing." It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.
This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity. Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don't like the grass too long. The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile "eggmobile," protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity. They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward. They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state. The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun. This way, we circumvent the need in today's large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you're used to eating comes from. And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised. And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible. We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.
It's a most elegant system. Enjoy your chicken!
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