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By Forrest Pritchard on May 21, 2013
At 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. 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? 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. 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.
New York Times bestselling author Forrest has been farming professionally since 1996. His new book Growing Tomorrow, Behind the Scenes with 18 Extraordinary Sustainable Farmers Who Are Changing the Way We Eat debuted October 2015 by the award-winning press The Experiment.