If a person isn’t from a place where there are more cows than people, the first image conjured up in their minds when they hear the word “farm” is likely related to an elderly gentleman who went by MacDonald. After reciting a series of vowels, we heard about his happy little pigs, happy little sheep, and happy little geese.
In spite of the nifty rhymes, a curious mind of the 21st century may question if this delightful little place is an accurate representation of reality. After all, nostalgia is a frightfully effective amnesic agent. Understanding the reality of agriculture before 1960 becomes even more important now that people are increasingly interested in where their food comes from (which is a good thing!).
Before taking a trip down memory lane, I would like to point out that this post is not a slam on anyone who raises food in a natural/organic/free-range/grass fed system. While these systems may reflect some aspects of pre-1960 agriculture, the farmers in these systems are still taking advantage of modern technologies to conserve the environment. What I’m about to describe is what used to happen before the agriculture revolution that has been so successful in creating food security for the United States while preserving the environment.
So let’s start on the crop side of MacDonald’s farm. There were two methods of weed control for the ol’ fella to use–pull or cut them by hand or till them under. Pulling by hand is not as easy as it sounds, as an eighty acre field is the size of 32 city blocks. So it goes to tilling, which was done by horse-drawn implement. Continuously tilling, year after year, with a plow got rid of a lot of weeds, but led to soil erosion. And with the right environmental conditions in the 1930s, this tilling lead to the Dust Bowl.
In addition, those horse-drawn implements had a major drawback; the crops had to be spread out wide enough between rows for the horse to fit down. This meant that rows had to be 40 inches wide or more, leaving more exposed soil that could erode or was wasted by not producing a crop. Today, rows are 30 inches apart or smaller, fixing both issues.
On the animal side, where the whimsical tale of happy little animals is the most adored, things were just as bleak. Old MacDonald saved a lot of effort cleaning manure out of the hog and cattle pens by building them next to the creek or river. That way, the rains would just wash it away. As you can guess, that was a poorly thought out plan for promoting water quality. Today, all rain runoff is captured in holding ponds, to make sure it doesn’t reach the surface water supply.
What if Old MacDonald just decided to let the pigs run free around the farm? Well, that presented another set of problems. For one, free-roaming pigs can cause really nasty damage to other people’s crops and buildings. Just ask the folks dealing with feral hogs in Texas today. It also lead to diseases such as Hog Cholera being easily spread between multiple herds quickly.
It’s not that the cattle fared much better. Contrary to popular myth, the cattle were not just given forage, but grain to help them get fat for slaughter. However, without a good knowledge of nutrition, MacDonald couldn’t give these cattle a well-balanced diet like they get today. That made them prone to mineral, protein, and energy deficiencies. Preventable diseases, such as grass tetany, sometimes occurred because MacDonald didn’t know that they could be prevented with a little extra magnesium mineral.
In addition, this lack of nutritional knowledge meant cows didn’t always have a calf every twelve months starting at two years old. Their first calf was born when the cow reached three years of age, and they may have missed getting bred every few years. This drastically increased the environmental footprint for meat and milk, something that we’ve decreased significantly with better nutritional knowledge today.
This isn’t an inclusive list of ways MacDonald’s farm was not as wonderful as the myth makes it out to be. But don’t consider this an indictment of of Mr. MacDonald–he was just using the information he had to do the best he could. Which is exactly what we do with modern agriculture, only we have a vastly larger supply of information to draw from.
Just like everything from telephones to vehicles, agriculture is advancing every day. We are always striving to decrease our environmental footprint and meet consumer requests. And despite even our tendencies as farmers and ranchers to look back fondly on the old days, we can remember how far we’ve come as a gauge to how far we can go in the future.
Photo Credit: http://geekologie.com/2016/04/somebodys-been-watching-bob-ross-jumpy-t.php
Photo Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl