Adaptive Epigenetics & Rewilding Livestock
Written by, Daniel Griffith
A Case Against Castration, Separation, and Weaning Animals
Our farm’s interest in wild breeding—or rewilding our livestock—began during a winter blizzard. Standing outside in the snow and covered in freezing mud, my wife, Morgan, and I were trying to calm down our bull. Although alone in his paddock, he could smell the heat of our nearby herd of brood cows. Our winter rotations had brought the herd closer to him than we would have liked and just seven wires of high-tensile fencing formed his only impediment.
There I was—the snow falling and my back to his herd with my eyes straight on him. I was emphatically pleading with the pacing testosterone engine, “Buddy, it’s me. It’s Okay!”
Padraig, or Paddy for short, had always been a great bull for us; he was kind, friendly, had great form, and we liked his genetic pedigree. Typically, he was the nicest animal on the farm—often too nice. He was like a goat doeling that wanted to jump up on you. The only problem was that he was a bit bigger than a doeling.
During this blizzard, however, his head dropped and his ears flared. He was stressed and lonely; his testosterone was building but he had no release. Bovine are herding animals and he had no herd. As farmers, we were angry; we were cold; we were tired; we were tense. Yet, in the complexity of it all, we call all of this “natural” farming. Like this was natural at all.
After calming him down and moving the brood cows forward two days in the rotation to put some distance between them, Morgan and I returned to the house and immediately started brainstorming. There had to be a better way to raise “natural” animals. Fortuitously, we stumbled onto the holistic husbandry system of wild breeding.
WHAT IS EPIGENETICS?
The basis of wild breeding is founded within the scientific understanding of epigenetics, which concentrates on the changing gene expressions of living organisms given external climatic pressures. Understood in the human-to-animal context, epigenetics focuses on the genetic and behavioural interaction and adaptions between managed animals and their environment.
This holistic context seeks to uncover the relationship between a local species and its biosphere. Just as every farm differs in its biogeochemical sonata, so too differs the adapted genome of its domesticated livestock, resulting in unique and ecologic-driven genomic expressions. Treat an animal like livestock and it will adapt to its domestication, for good or bad.
In his book, The Call of the Reed Warbler, Charles Massy discussed these biosphere driven genes in terms of Australian sheep that were fed “saltbush for the full term of their pregnancy”. After their term of exposure to an extremely salty forage, the study concluded that the lambs born demonstrated a “capacity to more efficiently excrete salt” from their forage. Additionally, their kidneys showed “clear changes in renal structure, which enabled this higher salt-excretion capacity.”
In both form and function, the gene expressions of these ewes had adapted to their environment, although their DNA sequencing remained static. They were still sheep; but they were adapted sheep.
Conventional cattle management is intensive. You have your brood herd; your yearling heifer herd; your stocker or bull herd. You then expand, contract, and combine these herds according to your breeding calendars, seasonal pressures and markets.
For spring calving operations, summer means castration and early autumn means weaning. On to the next breeding cycle drums production’s dictum. For some, winter means genetic testing and breed registrations, as though the animal does not exist until it has a number. We have to stop, separate, and sequence our herds so that we control breeding, birthing, and sale.
However, the foundations of regenerative agriculture are humility and biomimicry: we need to be humble enough to consider, observe, and then smart enough to mimic the beautiful patterns of the natural world. The winter blizzard forced Morgan and I to stop—the observations came next.
Regenerative grass-farmers and holistic managers operate off of the belief that wild animals intensively and rotationally graze on their own due to both the natural and external forces of seasonal pressures, breeding and calving tendencies, and predators-herd relationships.
In his book, American Buffalo, Steven Rinella wrote that in 1784, an Appalachian traveller compared recently buffalo-grazed ground to “land that had been ravaged by an invading army,” and he compared the winding buffalo trails to “public roads in a populous country”. Natural buffalo herds had not grazed the top third of the plant—they acted as one herd and trampled and consumed everything in their path. The regenerative result of this dense and entirely natural herd effect was nutrient-dense and rich grasslands never before—or again—seen on this continent.
The herd effect went deeper than simple range management, however. The unbroken and solidified bonds of a unified herd, one that is uninterrupted by man’s input, forces the brood cows to cycle in unison; to calf when the seasons are welcoming for new life; to wean when the calves are ready and fit; and to be naturally guarded by the lead bull(s). The ruggedness of the natural world formed these epigenetics eons ago and produced hardy, stable, fertile, healthy, well-formed, and happy animals alongside resilient, strong, rich, and nutrient-dense ecosystems. There was one unit and everyone from the ground up profited—even the ground itself.
The blizzard was our portal to the past. Through the falling snow we saw wild herds of ancient bovine with gene expressions formed by and fit for their natural surroundings and we began to question the ethical and long-term epigenetic validity of modern animal husbandry.
Why do we disbud our animals when natural horns have been proven to help the cattle release excess body heat in the summer and provide them with additional protection from predators? Why do we castrate our bull calves when such a violent action inhibits their natural body growth and negatively effects their hormone balances? Why do we wean our animals when their mother’s milk supplies all the essential nutrients needed for their healthy growth and the lack thereof inflicts severe physical and mental stress (for both the mother and calf)? Why do we separate our bull(s) for a good portion of the year when we believe that his fertility is one of the main fundamentals of a successful farming operation and this separation causes documented reduction in his fertility? Why do we run multiple herds when one herd is more complete, less time-intensive, and arguably healthier for itself and its ecosystem?
I believe it is because we are afraid to let our animals become natural; we are afraid of rewilding and losing our civilisation’s dominance over convenience; we are afraid for our production of natural products to become truly “natural”; we are afraid of what our local and undomesticated biome will do to the genetic expressions of our domesticated products; we are afraid of truly becoming humble and allowing nature to be our partner and not our subject; we are afraid of becoming native to this place; we are afraid of losing our civilised genome.
These were our reasons, at least.
Covered in the freezing mud of our “place”, Morgan and I realised that the genetic expressions of our herd had been negatively impacted by our orderly, “holistic,” and modern system of animal husbandry. In trying to “mimic nature”, we had destroyed it. We had created a false environment that stupefied our animals and their natural instincts.
Although driven by holistic context and goals, our feedback loop admitted serious errors in our management. Although we were attempting to mimic nature and its inextricably complex web of interrelationships, we had neglected to let nature be natural. How could a cow express its “cowness” if we treat it like a negligent product to be manufactured—albeit rotationally grazed and 100% grass-fed—and not an inherently intelligent and wise animal to be partnered with? We are “husbands”, remember? Can animal husbandry be “ethical” if it is not natural? Was our bull expressing its “cow-ness” during that blizzard?
If epigenetics tell us anything it is that we as regenerative grass-farmers are making more of an impact that we think. Our husbandry is either restoring or destroying the beautiful and intrinsic wisdom of the natural world. A sunrise is beautiful; the natural instincts of an animal is sublime.
The longer we stupefy our domesticated livestock the more desperate the situation will become. Just as with topsoil, the erosion of natural instinct is the erosion of true health—and we are closing to a point of insensibility.
Instead of breeding for meat production, breed for the mother’s ability to appropriately raise and then kick her calf; breed for hardiness, not hair colour; breed for instinct not size. Cull animals that stray from the herd—become the wolf in the herd-predator relationship.
Since the blizzard, we have decided to rewild our cattle—to allow our natural environment to impact the genetic expressions and adaptation of our animals. We now strive to ethically raise natural animals naturally within nature. It’s that simple. We run one group all year around; we do not castrate; we do not wean. We simply partner with them and help direct their energies into symbiotic systems of abundance. We mimic the predators of the true wild with electric fencing and culling.
We have been told we are crazy; that is fine. Let me tell you why this works for us:
1) Decreased stress for the animals and farmers – we have no buck pens; no boar pens. We don’t have castration equipment or head gates. The contiguous social structure of our herd and flocks produces farmers and animals that are happy, healthy, and with little external stressors.
2) We don’t have to fight animals – typically, calves, lambs, gilts, and doelings are hard to fence. They are small enough to make the normal fencing intent on containing their parents ineffectual. However, if the mother/child bond is never broken and the herd acts as one, we have found that all young animals stay with the herd and don’t even test the fences. Unified herd instinct becomes the greatest fence there is.
3) Breeding’s calendar naturalises – wild animals breed according to the seasons. They understand the cues of seasonal sunlight, weather patterns, and nutrition far better than we do. If they are left in a unified and unbroken herd and, if their epigenetics are “rewilded” to your local biome, then their natural instincts will effectively retune to their natural environment. This includes their cycles.
4) Breeding becomes shared – all farmers have breeding goals; so do animals. All farmers have an idea of their perfect genetic lineage; so do animals. By partnering with your herd’s breeding dictates you are in a way sharing the breeding decisions with your animals. By wild breeding, we are in a sense rewilding our own species. Simply, breeding becomes shared: it becomes partly what the farmer wants and partly what the intrinsic nature of the animal wants. The end results are deeply healthful lines of genetic expressions that are adapted to your farm’s exact environmental pressures.
5) Decreased wasted management time – by running fewer herds and spending time observing and bettering their lives, rather than castrating and weaning them, we have the peace to make better decisions. The overall stress on the farm is reduced, which makes both the farmer and the animals extremely happy and healthful.
In 1938, Sterling North declared, “Ardently as I have scanned the writings of Europe’s half-pint Napoleons I find but one undoubted truth uttered between the two of them. Each has said in effect, ‘It takes a rich land to support a democracy.’ Every time you see a dust cloud, or a muddy stream, a field scarred by erosion or a channel choked with silt, you are witnessing the passing of American democracy. The crop called Man can wither like any other.”
Can the crop called Instinct wither like any other? Epigenetics says, yes.