The never ending process of domestication

st croix

Of late, I’ve been perusing various sites and Youtube channels that focus on sustainable agriculture or, rather, agriculture that can work with significant reductions in fossil fuels.  Now, I should note that I am a skeptic, and I don’t think that any one solution is the actual solution to the problem. But there are people working on it.

Among the ones I’ve been following is a Missouri grass-fed beef farmer named Greg Judy, who runs cattle, sheep, and swine using intensive mob grazing techniques, which require the use of mobile live wires.  He uses very little worming on his stock, so he has had to reinvent some of the domestication selection pressures on his stock.

For example, when he started running his worm-resistant sheep, he had a simple selection criteria.  If it jumped the live wire, he shot it. Within just a few generations, he had put enough selection pressure on his flock that he had sheep that could be contained with just a single strand of electric wire.

Just that simple idea set my mind on the process of domestication. In its initial stages, all those thousands of years ago, the process probably wasn’t any more elegantly simple than Judy’s shooting the fence jumpers.

When the idea of truly scientific selective breeding came to the fore in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we were able to accelerate innovation in our various domestic strains. We bred animals that could gain weight rapidly on grain, that were docile enough to be crowded into feedlots, and that could be more easily transported via rail or by truck.

But now, the climate is warming, and the constant burning of fossil fuels is to blame. You can disagree with me on this, but most of the world’s leaders in politics and business agree with me.  Not enough do, of course, but enough do that we’re going to see policies put into effect that will make burning fossil fuels untenable.

This shift will mean that producers of meat will be forced to develop ways of running and finishing stock that will be based more upon grass forage than upon bringing in processed feeds, and this process will mean that we will have to change our selection criteria for livestock once again.

It may mean that the fence jumpers get shot. It will also mean that animals that cannot gain weight or give birth and nurse young on grass will be bred.

This constant adaptation of domestic animals to our societies’ various needs means that domestication has always been an ongoing process. We weed out the undesirable traits. We cull a little wild in the strain there, or we try to breed it back in over here.

Societies change. Climates change. Ecosystems change. Economies change.  Our understanding of biology is that populations of organisms change, too, and domestic animals undergo similar processes to the wild ones. It’s just that the human factors are the bigger driving force with these animals.

So we never just domesticate a species, and it’s done. In reality, we domesticate and select and select and select some more.

 

 

Natural History

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