Fact or Fiction? Barnyard Myths Exposed
By Suzanne Cox
Just when you think you’ve heard just about every farm myth imaginable, someone goes and gets creative. Between our own farm and those of our parents, we have just about every “common” barnyard critter imaginable, and a few not so common ones. We love getting inquiries from those on the brink of starting a farm, those with an incredible desire to get back to a more self sufficient lifestyle but without the knowledge and confidence level to take that first leap. Through the years we have helped people interested in chickens, pigs, sheep, alpacas, and turkeys begin their own operations. Our philosophy has always been to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The good, bad, ugly, stinky, and totally disgusting truth. Anything less would not be fair to these people depending on us for “real” knowledge. Not the prettied up, well dressed, rose scented version of the truth that may guarantee us a sale. The great side of this is we sleep well each night with a clear conscious. The down side is we do occasionally walk away without a sale. Even then we manage to leave those we have talked to with more knowledge and skill than they came with.
It should be the goal of every person involved in an agricultural practice (or any industry for that matter) to do the same. Occasionally however, bad information gets thrown into the mix. This isn’t always done purposely or with malicious intent, but the effects are no less devastating. We have heard some good ones lately, and I’d just like to share a few now.
Poultry There are several things I commonly hear or get asked about poultry that just aren’t true.
You have to have a rooster to get eggs. We recently had a woman tell us how badly she wished she could keep some backyard chickens. I asked her if they were not allowed in her area, and she said that roosters were restricted. She had been told that meant her family could not keep chickens for eggs because hens had to have a rooster. This is simply not true! Hens will lay eggs regardless of a roosters presence. However without a rooster they will not be fertile, meaning no baby chicks. But by all means folks, buy you a few hens! Everyone should have at least a few hens in their back yard to eat their kitchen scrapes and make nutritional eggs for the family. Why buy nutritionally lacking grocery store eggs when you could raise your own nutrient packed eggs from a beautiful backyard flock instead?
If you raise turkeys with chickens they will all die. We raise turkeys, chickens, guineas, ducks, and are starting with geese. It amazes our visitors that our turkeys, chickens, and guineas are all raised together. And it simply blows their minds that they are all raised in a pasture, scratching and scavenging amongst sheep. Why is this so shocking? This is how it used to be done! Over the last 50 years though we have migrated away from integrated livestock and entered a world of monoculture agriculture. This is true for fruits, vegetables, and livestock. When we first got started with turkeys we were told be several seasoned farmers to absolutely NOT let our turkeys get near our chickens or they would all die. I was terrified! Apparently it is a common belief that mingling turkeys with chickens will lead to an almost immediate outbreak of disease quickly followed by death. I am well aware of the Black Head disease. And I do not doubt that it is a deadly disease that strikes turkeys. However, it is possible to successfully raise healthy chickens and turkeys together. I don’t think this, I know this. We have proven it, and others like us have done so as well. We have never had a single turkey drop dead after a rendezvous with a chicken. On the contrary, we have had the most success with our young turkeys when they are hatched and raised with several chicken friends. Chicks are smarter than turkey poults, plain and simple. While chicks figure out the feed, water, heating, and bedding system rather quickly turkey poults will still be cocking their heads from side to side trying to figure out what these things are. As the chicks go about their normal chicky business, the poults will observe and copy their behavior. The result is fewer dead poults from stupidity. We always leave these few chicks in with our poults as they mature. The result is adult 40 lb. turkeys roaming around the barnyard with their little 6 lb chicken friends side by side in harmony. Fighting or picking on the chickens does not occur to our turkeys, because they see them as buddy’s instead of intruders.
You get eggs from egg layers and raise meat birds for meat. Guess what people? Chicken is chicken is a chicken! I guarantee you if we lined up 5 samples of fried chicken from a traditional egg laying breed (say, Barred Rock) and 5 samples of fried chicken from meat birds (lets use Jumbo Cornish) they will all taste like… chicken! Diet, age, and processing method have far more to do with the taste of your chicken than breed does. Now there are differences in the amount of breast meat, size of the carcass and age at slaughter amongst the breeds but I guarantee you they all taste like chicken!
Alpacas My parents brought home our first alpacas in 2000. Since that time we have actively participated in breeding, raising, training, and showing these majestic creatures. My mother trained in the fiber arts and is now a skilled weaver. I myself entered into the AOBA judging program to become a certified judge in 2007. There isn’t much between us that we have not experienced first hand with alpacas. In the past few months I have both heard and seen in print inaccurate information regarding these animals. While I believe most to be honest and un-intentional there is one in particular that I feel has been created for the sole purpose of increasing the sales market of alpacas. It does make me angry when I hear this as I feel some buyers are being taken advantage of so lets start with it.
Alpacas make excellent guard animals. This is perhaps the most ridiculous claim I have heard in more than a decade of being in the alpaca industry. I will not sugar coat this in any way, Alpacas are most definitely not guardians! Lets think this one over. An alpaca is not a fight or flight animal, they are hard wired towards flight. This means when a predator says BOO they scream “Run away!” Alpaca’s average 150-180 pounds of fluffy softness carried on four split toed feet on soft pads. They completely lack upper teeth, having a hard bony palate on top and teeth on bottom. All alpacas hum and males orgle as well. What exactly is an alpaca supposed to do while guarding a flock of sheep, chickens, or goats? Hum softly to the predator while they attack it with their bony palate and cute fluffiness? When you know the physical and behavioral characteristics of alpacas you soon realize this is just common sense! Keeping an alpaca with a flock of chickens or other poultry can deter winged predators by simply being there as many birds of prey will avoid attacking in close vicinity of a larger animal. However these creatures are just not made for true predator control. They would simply be an easy target for a pack of neighborhood dogs, coyotes, bear, bobcat, or any other significant threat. I actually heard a man say to a woman today that having an alpaca in with her chickens would distract her predators and draw them away from her flock. What a cruel suggestion! Not to mention a costly one.
Alpacas do not spit. I have to laugh at this one. Anyone who has spent any time around alpacas on breeding day or shearing day will tell you this is not the case! While alpacas do not typically spit un-provoked, this does not mean it is a rare occurrence. Beyond breeding and shearing time they will spit for many different reasons. Females will spit at their cria while trying to wean them. Bred females will often spit at other alpacas who get in their “space” during late pregnancy, young males will spit at each other during play and while vying for position in the herd. Try to dose one with oral medications or administer shots and see how quickly you are covered in green, sticky, smelly, half-digested cud! Try telling a halter show judge that alpacas don’t spit! You will most definitely be laughed at as these poor people frequently get the honor of being a human target while inspecting animals in the show ring.
Alpacas don’t have to be shorn. Unfortunately most people do not discover how false this is until they find their alpaca dead in the field from heat stroke. This is a miserable way for an animal to die, and the greatest tragedy is it is totally preventable! Unless you are in the most northern and coldest corner of the United States, then yes your alpacas most definitely need to be shorn at least once a year. This summer a woman just down the road from us was telling my husband how she really was thinking about having her “guard alpaca” shorn. She has kept one alpaca with her goat herd for several years here in middle TN, never once having him shorn. My husband gently encouraged her to do so quickly, as the temperature in May was quickly climbing. In August when they next spoke again, she told him that her guard alpaca had been found dead next to their pond in the middle of their un-shaded field. He was still in full fleece. Temperatures that month broke historical records, with several weeks of highs reaching over 105 degrees.
Pigs Andrew and I were hesitant to get started with pigs. Several people we know, including his own father, told us this was something we just didn’t want to mess with. Pigs are smelly, dirty, nasty creatures that are hard to keep up and stupid they said.
Last year, as many of you know from our “Plowing With Pigs” blogs, we were so desperate to clean up our horribly over grown garden spaces that we brought home a pair of pigs to plow the area after reading a GRIT article by Hank Wills. We soon discovered that everything we thought we knew about pigs was completely false! One year later, we have one garden currently occupied by 7 feeder piglets and 3 other pig pens containing adult breeding stock. Our pig pens in fact are not pens, but tracts of wooded acreage fenced off by a simple 2 and 3 strand electric wire system. Our females give birth outside, pasture farrowing in simple huts with pig rails. They are not closed up, kept in close quarters, or locked in birthing crates.
Pigs are incredibly intelligent creatures. They are not dim witted, stupid, and dirty. In fact, pigs happen to have pretty good hygiene when given enough area to roam freely and not wallow in their own muck. It is true that pigs will find a low and soft spot to wallow out a mud hole. This is not done to be dirty, it is simply how they cool themselves. See pigs do not have sweat glands. Imagine it being 105 degrees with 90% humidity outside and you can not sweat! How would you cool yourself? A dip in a cool pool perhaps? A mud hole is the pigs version of a swimming pool. Covering themselves with mud cools them as water evaporates from the surface of their skin while also acting as a sunblock to prevent their skin from burning. As soon as the temperatures go down, those muddy pigs will seek out a source of water. Pond, stream, or yes even the water trough will do. They will bathe and emerge squeaky clean! They will stay that way to, at least until the next heat wave.
There is a learning curve to every new adventure you under take. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned the hard way. Those with experience and knowledge in their field should do their best to portray their industry in a truthful light. Integrity is far more important than a sale. When something doesn’t work for you, share your opinion and experience with others honestly without coloring the facts. And when it does work, share that too! Perhaps you can help train the next generation of farmers. Without them, our country is in serious trouble indeed.
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