Category Archives: Bo Falk

CattleSystemDiagramUgandaheader

More cow love—carbs, carbon, and culture

By Bo Falk

Bo Falk and Limousin heifer yearlings
Bo Falk and Limousin heifer yearlings

Bo Falk is an agricultural ecologist who has learned how to live within the limits of the land over several decades. He lives on a heavily forested farm in southern Sweden, with some cattle and a pair of Belgian horses. Bo has developed a thesis on nitrogen fixation and nitrogen transfer of legumes, and he runs a small lab producing commercial rhizobia cultures. He is fond of carpentry, wood handicraft, and folkdance.

“Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land. In the course of time Cain presented some of the land’s produce as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also presented an offering — some of the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but He did not have regard for Cain and his offering. Cain was furious, and he was downcast” (The Book of Genesis, Hebrew Bible, via Wiki).

“Howard [T. Odum], through his work in Puerto Rico and with the White House Panel on World Food Supply, had become increasingly convinced that developing nations’ agricultural systems were poorly understood and might contain hidden efficiencies unknown to American experts. In particular, Howard was struck by the stability of millennial old cattle raising practices in Uganda and monsoon agriculture in India. Never one to evade a telling catch phrase, Howard quoted Gandhi’s statement that in India “cows are sacred because they are necessary” to frame his own analysis about the protein and manure returns provided by cattle in India. While experts were just beginning to study the systems of agriculture in the developing world, both Odums felt that the American agricultural system had also been largely unexamined from an energy perspective and had been widely misunderstood as a result” (Madison, Potatoes made of oil; Eugene and Howard Odum and the Origins and Limits of American Agroecology, 1997)

Early Odum diagram of a Uganda cattle system
Early Odum diagram of a Uganda cattle system

Nothing is as it seems when viewed through an energy lens. Sweden is heavily reliant on nonrenewable resources for economic function and for growing food. This becomes increasingly problematic when fossil fuel production declines past peak. What services do wild and domesticated ruminants give to the land? How can we improve the quality of the land while also returning our relationship with cows from an industrial model to an agroecological one?  Continue reading

Bo Falk with oxen and Amish equipment

Back to the Future

Ten teams of rather small oxen from 1914 driving timber loaded wagons.

by Bo Falk

Happy he who far from business, like the primitive are of mortals, cultivates with his own oxen the fields of his fathers, free from all anxieties of gain.  
–Horace

‪In Sweden, cows and oxen are part of our whole culture’s foundation. The first letter of our alphabet, A, is an upturned symbol of a yoked oxen’s head. In contrast to the limited number of draft horses in Sweden, we have close to 1.6 million cattle. ‪Most are dairy breeds, but we have meat breeds that were once also developed as draft animals. ‪The use of oxen as draft animals was originally necessary when the cows were too small and friskier; only those who could not afford the oxen had to make do with cows or with hand tillage without draft help. ‪With only 300 million draft animals in the world, hand tillage is extensive. ‪Agriculture on several continents is mostly unmechanized.

‪Two recent changes have caused expansion of mechanization to slow, even in our country. ‪Right now, the greatest credit bubble ever is bursting, which affects investments, jobs and paying ability. ‪We and the world should focus our attention on the idea that economic growth is a passing stage.

The author Gunnar Lindstedt  has said that we must have a million farmers in Sweden in ten years, which would be a little more than 1 out of 9 of our population. He argues that waning oil extraction necessitates less mechanization and more farmers. ‪In addition, the decline of world exports of fossil fuels is even faster than the decline of extraction. ‪Already now the world exports less than a third of all extracted fossil fuels (Energy Export Databrowser).  Also, in this system, our net energy is getting too low so that it becomes difficult to keep our complex society running. ‪In addition, the ability to borrow money for further energy production and the necessary maintenance of necessary infrastructure in the fossil fuel system is largely disappearing. ‪This transition may be almost complete in a few years and make it necessary to mobilize what we can in renewable resources.

Oxen move at about 10 km in two hours during fully occupied driving (time passes fast). These are Jersey oxen; the one on the right side is 170 cm high and weighs about 1100 kg! The young cow attached to the right side of the cart now weighs about 1000 kg!

Over the past century, the cattle and oxen of the western world have become larger. ‪A hundred years ago an ox was considered to be big enough for ploughing if it weighed about 600 kg. ‪Now, the standard weight of an ox is easily double that. ‪My biggest cow, a Hereford, weighs  about 1000 kg. ‪I recently heard of a Holstein cow that weighed 1190 kg. before slaughtering. ‪Thus, it is possible to get better efficiency by using our larger cows as draft animals rather than historically-sized oxen, and still get an acceptable tensile strength for ploughing.

Dairy Breeds and Herefords have a quiet temperament. ‪Their large udders, however, can be injured in work. ‪Using the cows during their dry period for ploughing work is advantageous. ‪ It trains the animals, reduces their fat cover and make them easier to breed. ‪Combining dairy breeds with Herefords would yield smaller udders, and the most basic taming and training to drive could be done in one day. The book Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide (Drew Conroy, 1999) is a rather good handbook on the topic of training. But I use the scandinavian traditional way of steering each animal by an ear with the reins attached to the horns.

For me the point in using strong cows instead of oxen is that they can be multipurpose and thus outcompete the oxen in terms of efficiency. They are strong, can provide meat and also provide milk and calves, which oxen cannot do. Therefore they are cheaper to keep. Then we can replace the oxen in Horace’s poem above with cows.

Test of the same oxen in hay raking with Amish equipment.

Bo Falk
‪Agricultural Ecologist & Laboratory
‪Hovmantorp, Sweden

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Hovmantorp, Sweden @ 56.8 degrees latitude