Living with Livestock, Part One: Food In, Poop (or is it Compost?) Out

When I walked into my first of a series of four livestock workshops at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the curriculum, but I was pretty sure what to expect of the students: a bunch of new-age, backyard chicken growers, to be sure.

But the variety of attendees surprised me. Ages ranged across the board, as last year’s college graduates joined professionals on the verge of retirement. People had come from as far as Stillwater and Savage to be there. And their reasons for coming ranged just as widely. The Stillwater guy, who came with his mom, was hankering after a plot of land in Wisconsin to start up a grass-fed beef operation. The woman who had always helped her neighbor out on chicken slaughter days had just bought her own first load of 240 chickens to sell in a CSA. The supervisor of the Farm in the Zoo wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew it involved learning more about farm animals.

The closest person to a backyard chicken grower, was, uh… me.

In a nutshell, the idea behind the course is to learn how to raise livestock in four easy lessons. Which sounds ambitious, until you realize that we aren’t just learning about cows and pigs and chickens, we’re also throwing in goats and sheep and making an occasional foray into horses and llamas. Then it sounds downright overwhelming. But the point of the class, offered by the U of M’s extension service, is purely to give would-be livestock farmers an introduction to the main issues and a list of publications and people they can call on when their first ewe calves.

In the first class, charmingly entitled “All Creatures Great and Small: Care and Feeding,” we mostly learned about how food goes into animals and what to do with it when it comes out. It turns out that a cow’s rumen and a chicken’s crop served a similar purpose in the wild. Cows and chickens, being popular prey species, didn’t care to spend all day in open fields playing target practice with wolves and foxes. So they had to be able to grab a lot of food relatively quickly and bring it to a shelter where they could digest it. Voilá – the rumen and the crop evolved as internal storage bins where the animals could stuff masses of food to absorb at their leisure.

As elegant as animals’ digestive systems are when considered from an evolutionary point of view, their feeding behavior on the farm presents challenges. The feeders – the troughs or containers from which the animals eat – must be built to withstand the occasional overly enthusiastic patron. Horses will chew them up; rams will batter them just to hear them clang; goats will climb right into them. It takes some ingenuity to design a good feeder.

And then what do you do with what comes out the other end after they’ve eaten? I always knew there was a difference between poop and compost, but I never really understood it -- and now I’m more confused than ever. Compost is poop that bacteria and fungi transform, or in the case of vermiculture as practiced at urban-farm inspiration Growing Power in Milwaukee, poop that worms process. But when worms "process" it, they just turn it from pig/cow/sheep poop into worm poop, or "castings." So it’s still poop, right? So why do people who wouldn’t touch pig poop with a ten-foot pole wax eloquent about the joys of running their fingers through fresh worm poop? I think I need some extra help after class.

On the agenda for next week: a deep dive into swine and poultry and an introduction to “zoonotic diseases,” whatever those are.


Angelique Chao is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who contemplates the ethical implications of our food choices. She thought she’d left philosophizing for good when she finished her dissertation and joined the business world; but after several years of corporate life, her natural disposition reasserted itself; she’s now a full-time writer and researcher. When she’s not out touring farms and processing facilities, you’ll likely find her at one laptop-friendly spot or another -- a library, a coffee shop, or home. She blogs at From Animal to Meat. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Pastureland Butter is on the Verge of a Comeback.