The intensive production of animals (and other products such as eggs and cheese) is clearly now widespread, and I suspect that we (the consumers) all have 'divided minds' about this. We hope that the animals are living happy lives on a traditional farm, but we would also like to buy all our food cheaply - we suspect that what we are buying comes from intensive sources, but we probably prefer not to know.
A century ago there were many animal health problems, which have largely been resolved, except, they have been replaced by a new set caused by different conditions. Anthrax has been eradicated for example, and rabies in the UK and most of Europe
Many animals are now kept in intensive conditions, and perhaps a combination of this and other factors has been implicated in some recent outbreaks of animal disease, some of which appear to have also endangered human populations.
To briefly note some of these problems, with the apparent causes:-
A century ago - The working horses on each farm consumed about 10% of a farms output. Working horses in towns and cities took another 10% of the national production, much of this being oats and hay. Maybe a third of all land was used for hay-making, where the dried grasses were stored and used to get the animals through the winter, and kale and beets were also grown as animal fodder crops. Even animals wintering outdoors such as sheep and beef cattle would need additional feeds to be in good health for lambing and calving, depending on the quality of grazing. Pigs were generally fed on left-over food from hospitals and schools, chickens found what they could in the farmyard, though extra feed would probably produce more eggs and fatter chickens.
There were high losses in storage in bygone years - if grain was not dry enough, it could be spoiled by mildew or fungus, there were high losses to mice and birds, apples could only be stored for a few months, potatoes and other roots could be stored under heaps of earth for 6 months, cabbage could be pickled, jams could be made, hams and fish could be smoked or salted, and people could get through the winter until the first green shoots of spring arrived, perhaps tightening their belts a little to get by.
Later, foods could be canned, bottled, or dried.
Plant species have been improved ever since people stayed in one place and began planting seeds. Slowly, they selected the best varieties from wild plants which were barely edible:- carrots, parsnip, grass seeds which are the basis of barley, wheat and oats, fruits. Slowly, they saved and re-planted the seeds from the plants with the best taste, or biggest seeds, or that grew best in a dry year. Gradually, these species improved.
A century ago, there were only Natural Fertilisers – there was plenty of manure from the horses, cattle, pigs, and all the horses in the towns and cities too. There were two aspects to using it in the fields:-
- The animals wastes added to their straw bedding made manure, which put nitrogen and organic matter back into the fields when it was ploughed in.
- The stuff had to be disposed of somehow - you couldn't dump it in the rivers without poisoning the drinking water of the people downstream.
Tractors and Other Farm Equipment
At our starting point, 120 years ago, virtually all farm work was done by a combination of working animals (usually horses) and manual work by people. This was tremendously slow, inefficient and expensive.
One estimate of the costs of cultivating a 10-hectare field (about 25 acres) in one day is as follows:-