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Yet another challenge

Friday, October 05, 2012 - Updated: 7:50 PM

Hakuna Matata it wasn't. When 69-year-old Oregon farmer Terry Vance Garner failed to return from feeding his 700-pound hogs, family members went to investigate. They found little more than his dentures. The hogs had devoured him.

While many possibilities, including foul play or a heart attack that may have rendered him helpless are being considered, authorities are not ruling out the pigs having killed him because they wanted to. Indeed, he had previously been attacked by a sow protecting piglets.

There is little doubt in my mind that this horrific incident will soon be whirling in the animal rights spin cycle, because it certainly doesn't offer many arguments in favor of their choice of hog housing systems. These pigs ran loose on the farm rather than being confined in conventional barns that have evolved over centuries of animal farming.

However the folks reeling in reams of money generated by cute pictures of sad puppies and sorry kittens have no concern for the price of food in the supermarket or the health or safety of the people raising the bacon. They are interested in dollar signs and have found a nice little niche market in tugging at heart strings, with no regard for either science or common sense. They get away with it because almost no one actually farms any more or is even distantly related to anyone who does.

Today only about 1 percent of the American population defines farming as their livelihood. According to the EPA, there are only about 960,000 people claiming farming as their principal source of income. Only one in four farms generates enough money to meet expenses. The average age of farmers is 58 years and has been steadily rising for quite some time. The average individual farmer produces enough food to feed 155 people annually, a number which has climbed even more steadily than the average age of participants. In 1960 it was only 25.6 folks.

It doesn't matter how many increases in efficiency science and farmer innovation create, however. A lot of people love to hate us. One of the next targets in the animal rights scope is the dehorning of cattle. Although this is usually done quickly and as painlessly as possible when animals are small, and is as much in the interest of the animal as the people who care for it, activists find it unnatural and want horns left on cows.

You have but to watch a group of cattle interacting to understand why horns pose a problem. Cattle operate under a pecking order not unlike chickens. The strongest ones boss the less powerful around, insisting on being first at the feeder, first through the door and at the watering trough, and they often fight just to prove superiority over herdmates.

Their means of engagement with one another is head butting, hooking, slamming, thrusting and stabbing with their horns if they have them. They can do a lot of damage. I have known of horses being disemboweled by cows with horns on farms right in this area.

People are even more vulnerable. Remember the running of the bulls in Spain? A barnyard with 50 or 100 or 1,000 horned cattle would be at least as dangerous. Even the gentlest-seeming pet dairy cow can inflict nasty damage with her head, merely by flinging it at flies. I can personally attest to this, having been in the way on more than one occasion when milking. I can't imagine how badly I might have been hurt if the tame, friendly animal I was working with had horns.

As always when faced with a challenge, American dairy farmers are finding answers to this question. Some cows are born polled, which means that they naturally have no horns. Over the years there has been some interest in incorporating polled genetics into the world's dairy herd. In fact we used a few polled bulls here, back when the kids were small. We really liked not having to call our veterinarian to dehorn calves. However, as with the introduction of any trait into the genetics of a carefully bred population, there are significant economic tradeoffs involved.

Today's dairy cow has been bred for many generations to be sound and strong of body, with feet and legs that will stand up to use, the ability to eat and process a large amount of forage, and the will to produce a lot of milk, all while staying healthy and vigorous. The best modern animals do not generally carry the gene for absence of horns. Adding those which do to the breeding population, the gene pool if you will, may mean loss of these other important traits. Thus it is an effort which will take time. Meanwhile, removal of horns by other means is a necessity for both the farmer and the cows themselves. The animal rights fringe does not care about this or about the dangers of free-range hogs or anything but exploiting emotions for profit.

By the way, photographs show that the farm where the hogs did the horrific deed was an idyllic site, nestled among green-clad mountains, with comfortable-looking run-in buildings and verdant pastures, much more pleasing to human emotions than conventional modern barns and hog houses. It probably wasn't anywhere near as safe for human beings, though.

No matter how this terrible incident plays out it should serve to open eyes to the possible unintended consequences of changing housing systems and to potential dangers faced by people who work with animals.

And speaking of farming, I wonder how many paint ballers know that paint ball guns were originally livestock and tree-marking tools.

According to the History of Paintball, during the 1960s, woodsmen asked Nelson Paint Co. to invent a device that would propel balls of paint at trees for timber marking. Can't you just see those first farm kids, or even grown up farm kids who should have known better, taking a whack at each other while going about sorting cows? I sure can.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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