Here's to the art of nurturing 

Good animal husbandry changes history and more

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They call it animal husbandry — the art of effectively raising animals for use by people, whether for their fluffy feathers, meat or milk.

"Husband" is from the Old Norse húsbóndi, hús meaning "house," and bóndi, "one who has a household." Husbandry in general refers to the cultivation of plants and animals. Or it can refer to applying the principles of good science to farming. If you husband something, you take care to use it wisely and sparingly, as in husbanding your resources, whatever they are.

But in the name of Mother's Day, I think we should call it animal "mothering," not husbandry, for what you're after is healthy offspring, whether you run a farm in Pemberton Meadows or the feed lot in Texas supporting 86,000 head of cattle due to the ongoing drought.

Even if you're an omnivore like me, you likely don't give much thought to the under-appreciated art of successfully raising animals to meet our many needs. Or, with the ancillary side of animal husbandry, raising the critters needed to care for our important plant crops. Here honeybees rule, but more than 300 species of fruit depend on bats for pollination, including mangoes, bananas, guavas — even agave for tequila.

Yes, we've herded reindeer for meat and clothing; even camels have been an important food source for people. But it's our most overlooked domesticated animals that we depend on for our health and wellbeing. And in a closed loop of nurturing, we tend the animals that tend to our needs so we can tend more animals.

With that in mind, here's a nod to the big three of our domesticated animal queendom (yes, there's such a word, we just seldom use it in our patriarchal world!); three that have lived quietly but with great influence amongst us for so long that we've come to take them for granted, much as we do our moms.

Perfect little piggies, chicks and calves

Along with chickens and cattle, pigs stand as one of the big three food animals we're irrevocably intertwined with.

Given their importance to us in terms of diet and economic worth, they're also the three animals we've manipulated the most through breeding and the like to encourage desirable characteristics, which constantly change alongside our own changing needs and tastes.

Let's start with pigs, since pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world. Over half of the world's pigs live in China, where the word for "pork" is also the general term for "meat."

If you've read Susanna Moodie's historical accounts called Roughing It In the Bush, or, Forest Life in Canada, you'll know how important pigs were to Canadian pioneers. Roast suckling pigs were a treat (sucking-pigs, they were called) and in one funny account she mistook the offer of a "roaster" for a "rooster."

A relatively small omnivore that grows quickly and bears large litters — today the average commercial breed bears 12 to 14 piglets per litter — the domesticated pig played a huge role in "progressive" development worldwide and still does, providing cheap, critical calories to hard-working people.

Looking after domestic pigs, or husbanding them, has long been an art. According to Eric Chaline in Fifty Animals That Changed the Course of History, archeological evidence shows that the wild boar, the ancestor of all our domestic pigs, was domesticated at least seven times throughout history, from China to Turkey to Southeast Asia.

Like chickens and cows, different strands of domestication led to specialized pigs, some for lard, others for bacon, and others for multi-purposes. Those for Iberian and Basque ham are massive with large bones. Others are smaller and slower to grow, producing leaner and darker flesh, which is closer in flavour to that of their wild ancestors.

Anyone who knows pigs will tell you they're highly intelligent, responsive creatures. Much like children, raising happy ones means allowing the moms (sows) to keep their piglets nearby, feeding them a good balanced diet, and letting them root around open pastures and the muck. (Check out Rootdown Organic Farm's pig share program for a share of a happy pig near you.)

Like pigs, chickens and cows have also impacted us irrevocably, but it's taken our patient tending to make the most of them.

Since they were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago from a feisty red jungle fowl found in India and China, chickens — gallus gallus domesticus — have become the most populous bird on Earth and chicken is fast becoming the most popular meat. We eat about 100 million tonnes of chicken meat and one trillion eggs each year, making them two of the most important staples in the world.

Part of the reason is what one scientist calls "the impressive feat of agricultural engineering." You can raise about four pounds of chicken meat from eight pounds of chicken feed in only six weeks! Now that's intense commercial chicken husbandry, not your basic backyard chickens scratching around the straw, herding their own little chicks.

In the west, chickens were totally unpampered backyard scavengers until the 19th century when we started importing larger breeds from China, eventually breeding and breeding them in rows of cages on battery farms where, well... you've seen the pictures.

You've also seen the images of the massive feedlots like the one in Texas mentioned earlier, which often over-shadow our long-standing care of cattle and cows. We domesticated them both — beef cattle and dairy cows — from the wild ox or aurochs, which browsed the forests and plains of temperate Eurasia, some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. The oldest site of domesticated cows is in Iran.

Breeders got serious about meat cattle in the 18th century, producing all kinds of animals for different purposes: more compact fatty animals in Britain (English Herefords and Shorthorns) vs. the rangy, leaner types like French Charolais and Italy's Chianinas, the largest breed in the world with 4,000-pound bulls and faces so appealing any mother could love them.

Given a cow's gestation period is nine months, just like ours, and the animals are relatively slow-growing, the aim of husbandry these days is to fatten up calves as quickly as possible — much like any typical mom's job.

On that note, Happy Mother's Day to all the hard-working, nurturing moms out there! Your qualities and capabilities are entrenched, if not obviously, in so many aspects of our good life.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who looks for the overlooked.

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