What’s the Dumbest Farm Animal?

Animal 4SQAt one time or another, I’ve tried my hand at raising nearly every type of farm animal. Cows. Sheep. Pigs. Chickens. Care to get more specialized? Turkeys and goats, rabbits and ducks. To put it in proper perspective, let’s delve into the obscure: guinea hens, peafowl, burros and even rainbow trout. Suffice to say, if it grazes or grunts, roosts or roots, chances are it’s spent time on our farm.

Because I’m a livestock farmer, people love to share their opinions about animal intelligence with me. Some folks think cows are the dumbest farm animal, while others insist it’s chickens. A vocal minority would have you believe that—when it comes to smarts—turkeys are the foulest fowl. Over the years, I’ve heard every opinion under the sun.

“My grandfather used to raise chickens. You know, they were the dumbest birds…”

“Everyone says sheep are stupid, but have you ever watched a cow drooling and slobbering? I mean, dumb as bricks…”

“I raised goats for a few years, and they’d always get their horns stuck in the fence. You’d think that after a few times they’d figure it out…”

In my line of work, I interact with animals daily. I’m just as likely to be feeding a fluffy baby chick as I am loading a thousand pound steer on the trailer, or trimming the hooves of a thoroughly uncooperative two hundred pound ram. And when things don’t go right—when the pigs tip over the new feeder and ruin their grain, or the turkeys roost on top of their hutch instead of sheltering inside—it’s tempting to throw my hands in the air and shout “Come on… why are you guys so stupid?!” Take my word for it: when a goat climbs onto your car and takes multiple craps on your roof, it can be truly exasperating.

Don't let his sweet looks fool you: this guy really wants to poop on your car.

Don’t let his sweet looks fool you: this guy really wants to poop on your car.

But it wasn’t until years later, as I was out checking on my cattle, that I finally realized what the dumbest animal on the farm is. Everyone’s heard the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side,” right? Well, on this day, the cows hadn’t finished eating the grass in their field. But there they stood, crowded around the gate, mooing incessantly for ‘greener grass’ just on the other side of the fence.

“What’s the matter with them?” I asked myself, just like I had done for years. “Can’t they just eat what’s right in front of them? They’re so spoiled. Why can’t they be patient?”

In the distance, I could see that there was still plenty of grass in their field. But as I walked closer, I began to notice something else. Although there was still lots of grass, it had been trampled, pooped and peed on. Flies were now buzzing over top of the copious cow patties. To top it all off, there were scores of flattened impressions where the cattle had slept the night before. The pasture reminded me of a huge, all-night college party: replace the cow pies with beer cans, and you get the picture. Who in their right mind would want to hang out here once the party was over?

Why is it we think our pets are so smart, yet are inclined to dismiss the intellect of farm animals?

Why is it we think our pets are so smart, yet are inclined to dismiss the intellect of farm animals?

And that’s when it occurred to me. The dumbest farm animal wasn’t a cow, a pig or a chicken. As it turns out, the dumbest animal on the farm was me.

The cows knew they were ready to move, even if I—the farmer—didn’t. In the past, I would have forced them to remain in the field an extra day or two, making them eat around their own manure, grazing the grass down to its roots. But on this morning, by opening a gate, I also opened up my mind. I gave the cattle a fresh block of pasture and left the ‘soiled’ grass behind, giving it time to turn the poop and urine into useful fertilizer in the future.

Imagine: allowing a cow think like a cow, instead of trying to make her think like a human. What a concept!

This shift in philosophy was easily transferred to my chickens, pigs turkeys and sheep. I designed coops, fences and shelters based on my observations of how the animals naturally behaved. How would I act if I were a chicken out on pasture? Where would I find water if I were a lamb? Where would I sleep on a hot day if I were a pig? By changing my point of view, my job as a farmer became easier almost overnight. All it took was walking a mile in my cow’s shoes… I mean, err… hooves.

Observing the cattle and sheep on a wintry January morning.

Observing the cattle and sheep on a wintry January morning.

Einstein once wrote, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I had spent years of my farming career insisting animals do what I wanted, instead of letting them be themselves. In essence, I was telling cows to climb trees.

Don’t get me wrong though… I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep goats from pooping on my car. No matter how enlightened we become, some battles just can’t be won. But to be a good farmer, I need to pay attention to what my animals are trying to tell me. Most importantly, if I’m ever going to be a great farmer, I need the wisdom to listen to what they’re saying.

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Forrest Pritchard

Forrest has been farming professionally since 1996. His new book The Face of Our Farms: 18 Extraordinary Farmers and Their 50 Favorite Recipes will be published Summer 2015 by Lyons Press.

29 responses to “What’s the Dumbest Farm Animal?”

  1. James

    Great article Forrest. I didn’t see it coming, until the last moment. I’m not a farmer, but I can see the wisdom in this approach. I’d guess the opposite approach yields inferior animals, inferior food, and an inferior farmer as they are all connected. Thanks for sharing. :-)

  2. James

    Thanks Forrest! Listening to your podcast interview now. Great interview!

  3. Tia Wylupek

    This is an excellent, well-written article and I LOVE it. I have been reading a lot lately about the power of opening our minds and changing our perspectives on, well, everything and this is a great example of it.
    Thank you for your fresh perspective :)

  4. woolfarmgal

    I too have farmed many types of livestock. And crops too. I have always found that the best use of my time is not fighting nature, but observing it so I can work with it instead. Sometimes I see where Gardner God has “planted” something and this is my clue as to what would best grow in that spot. This afternoon, I need to catch my sheep for shearing tomorrow. I notice sheep mostly tend to follow fence lines. So we have set up a dead end at a corner of a corral. We move slowly and corner the sheep at one end and as we ease closer, our sheep often then move along the fence into the dead end where we have a cattle panel waiting to close off the dead end. This saves us from having to run ourselves to death and needlessly stressing the sheep. Your article is an asset to any farmer seeking to improve their operations and save them needless work. I think as farmers we can give testimony to folks that nature and the nature of animals have superior intelligence to our own. Humans have much to learn. Thanks for your insight.

  5. Carrie

    “If I’m ever going to be a great slave-owner, I need to *listen* to what my slaves are telling me.”

    News flash: Your animals are telling you not to kill them.

  6. Jim Coleman

    Very deftly answered, sir!

  7. Molly M. Peterson (@MollyMPeterson1)

    As always I loved this. You write in a way that I can relate and even laugh — living on a farm myself — and say, ‘Yep. That’s about right!”. Thanks Forrest!

  8. wendy parker

    best way to keep a goat from crapping on top of your car? Get rid of the goats.. that was the final straw for me.. walking back to my car at the market one day and seeing goat crap all over the roof. I didn’t really mind the goat tracks on the hood, but the crap on the roof top sent me into “goat selling mode”. I am not a goat person. They were allowed as long as they stayed where we put em. that lasted 3 years and then they took to escaping. climbing cars and eating baby fruit trees..

    we have been goat free for 4 years now and I don’t regret it a bit!! lol.

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  10. Connie Owen

    My husband and I have just finished your book GAINING GROUND, it took us only 3 days. I grew up in a farming community and found myself nodding and laughing at familiar happenings. Your father reminds me of my own in habits and personality. My husband, Doug, is wanting to become a farmer. Your experiences have given him good ideas. We do not have land to start with though…do you have any advice for novices starting from scratch?
    Connie Owen
    St. George, Utah

  11. okcableguy

    EPIC POST MAN!!!! I’ve been down that road of “everything is stupid” daily… very good references to the philosophy side of the world too! Look forward to reading more like this!

  12. Andrew Barnet

    Great post Forrest. One part of this job that I love is that it forces me to get out of my own head and see things from a radically different POV (even if it is a chicken’s).

    In other news, MK and I both just finished your book, and we loved it. We would have finished it sooner,but you know how farming is in may. I would have thought that some of the characters in there were exaggerated but your Chip and Ellen were spot on. You have some truly hilarious stories…

  13. Quiet Traveler

    Hi Forrest, I loved your book! And your great lamb sausage! Thought you might enjoy this cartoon that recently appeared in the New Yorker:
    http://www.condenaststore.com/-sp/Do-you-ever-ask-yourself-humanely-raised-for-what-New-Yorker-Cartoon-Prints_i9560763_.htm

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  16. Becca

    Great post and so very true. Everyone in farming needs to be reminded of this from time to time. Working with animals definitely gives you a new (healthier) way of viewing the world.

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  18. Curt Groen

    Great post. I started reading this post and I was thinking, After everything I had been reading in my desire to start raising livestock upon my return to the family farm after a 35 year absence,my thoughts were turning to the fact that the dumbest animal on this farm, at present, was ME! Thank you for your videos and your posts, both are very informative.

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