Sunday, May 17, 2015

Technology vs. Biology

Last month, I was invited to speak about our approach to protecting our sheep from predators at the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition spring meeting near Carmel.  The entire workshop was devoted to examining non-lethal approaches to protecting domestic livestock from predators like coyotes, mountain lions and wolves.  As I listened to other speakers, and to my fellow ranchers asking perceptive questions about non-lethal approaches, I began to feel that modern livestock production could be divided into two approaches: technological management versus biological management.  In other words, managing land and livestock using a linear, mechanical approach versus managing these elements by striving to understand and adapt to living systems.

From the standpoint of protecting our sheep from predators, we've tried to take the approach of living with predators rather than eradicating them.  Our entire management system has been devised to fit our sheep into their rangeland environment, rather than imposing them on it.  We move our animals frequently, just as wild grazing animals would move in response to predator pressure.  We use electric fences to discourage predators and protect our sheep, and we use livestock guardian dogs fill the ecological niche that would otherwise be filled by coyotes or other predators.  And we select ewes that give birth to active, vigorous lambs and that are protective of their offspring.

During the workshop, I learned that predator eradication systems can often increase predator pressure.  Coyotes, for example, will increase their reproductive rates when one of the alpha pair is killed.  When a dominant animal is killed, the subordinate animals in that group will begin to reproduce as they attempt to replace the dominate animal.  Killing an alpha, in other words, increases the number of coyotes.  While I don't have any direct experience with wolves, I've read that a similar dynamic exists.  The technological approach of killing all predators (whether they are killing livestock or not), it seems, can create more predator pressure in some situations.

A similar dichotomy exists in our approaches to stockmanship, I think.  A mechanical, or technological, approach to stockmanship relies on force and fear.  With enough people, dogs, horses, etc., we can make cattle or sheep go through a gate, walk up an alley, or load into a trailer.  A biological approach, in contrast, seeks to understand and use animal (and human) behavior to manage livestock.  Bud Williams, who helped countless livestock producers understand and implement low-stress stockmanship techniques, put it this way:

The "old" [mechanical/technological] way of handling livestock: "I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want."

The "new" [biological] way of handling livestock: "I'm going to LET that animal do what I want."

The "new" approach requires us to study livestock behavior.  If we're using dogs and/or horses to help us in this approach, it requires us to study inter-species communication (as I've written previously in "Thoughtful Stockmanship").

At least for me, these opposing approaches come down to our approach to life, in some ways.  With the amazing technology we have today at our fingertips, I think it's easy to assume that we have all of the answers.  The biological approach to managing land in livestock, by contrast, requires that we keep asking questions.  When something doesn't work as planned, the biological approach requires us to ask why - whereas the technological approach pushes harder, works faster - and yells louder.  When we find a coyote-killed ewe, if we use the technological approach, we kill any coyote we see.  If we use the biological approach, we try to figure out what we could do differently to prevent future conflict.  Again, Bud Williams sheds light on this topic.  The technological approach says, "That miserable, no-good ornery ewe (missed the gate, charged me, ran through the fence, etc.).  The biological approach says, "What did I do to cause the animal to react that way?"  Answers imply certainty - questions acknowledge uncertainty.

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