Artificial Availability

Responding to an invitation for a holiday party that would require an overnight stay in Bethesda, I warned my hosts that it may not be possible given that lambing and kidding season has started. “What? I thought they had their babies in the spring,” they replied and once again I had to remind them that if they wanted a plump leg-of-lamb worthy of their spring holiday celebration be it Passover or Easter that I needed to be having babies now.

Dishing the Dirt had this conversation last year when we talked about tomatoes in December. Thanks to modern greenhouse technologies, we can have quite a bit of locally grown produce year-round at Central Farm Markets. However, few understand that the same dynamics of artificial seasonality are also at work with livestock production.

Livestock can be consumed at just about every point in their lives. Size and age are often dependent upon cultural geography more than any other factor. Having a diverse customer base, I’ve had to learn to adjust breeding schedules to have the right size at the right time. This is easier said than done.

Certain breeds (especially heritage breeds) within species can be seasonal breeders, meaning they are only sexually active at certain times of the year. Farmers have selectively bred animals for generations to alleviate seasonal breeding so that no matter what time of the year females are exposed to males, they will ovulate and conceive.

Farmers and food purveyors often advertise no added hormones in their marketing in regards to synthetic implants to increase weight gain and milk production. However, hormones are also routinely used in artificial insemination and estrus synchronization so all the animals can be bred and birth within a similar window of time and to assist in birthing. This allows for year-round breeding on the farmers’ and customers’ schedules – not Mother Nature’s .

While lambing and kidding in late fall/early winter can muck up my end-of-the-year party plans, it does have multiple advantages. First, there are no flies, less pressure from parasites and (hopefully) less mud due to freezing temperatures. This results in healthier young that grow well. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but young lambs will mimic their mothers’ feeding habits. With access to tender green grass which is high in natural sugars and water content, lambs will fill up with forage as opposed to milk. Hay is not as palatable, so lambs to prefer their mother’s milk for sustenance.

But it’s not only beef, sheep, goats and pigs who are subject artificial seasonality. Poultry – both meat birds and egg layers – must be coaxed into year-round production.

Everyone loves a tender, plump bird, but there’s a reason you won’t find fresh pastured poultry at markets this time of the year – it’s freezing cold outside. Commercial poultry production has resorted to raising birds indoors in a climate-controlled environment. Pasture-raised poultry can either eat to grow or eat to stay warm, but they can’t do both. In the late spring, through summer and early fall, meat birds will grow to market weight in six to eight weeks when housed outdoors with access to bugs, grubs, worms, beetles and an occasional snake or mouse (yes, chickens are ruthless hunters with excellent eyesight and a lightning-fast beak) along with a well-balanced feed. But those birds in early spring or late fall may require an extra week or two to put on enough weight to make a decent meal. In cold, wet weather, the birds won’t grow at all no matter how much you feed them – a losing proposition for everyone.

Then there are eggs, everyone’s favorite. Winter egg production starts dropping off in fall as daylight and temperatures decrease. For optimal laying, chickens need at least 14 hours of daylight. Commercial egg houses (both caged and cage-free) can artificially eliminate seasonality with heat and light. They also use breeds that have been specifically bred for production. We’re coming up on the shortest days of the year combined with bitter cold and I can guarantee that the ladies will choose expending their energy on staying warm instead of laying eggs.

As a farmer, I strive to provide my livestock with as natural a life as possible, but at the same time must balance consumer demand and a need to make a living. And my social life? The animals always come first.

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