Once You’ve Got the Chickens, You’ll Hardly Notice the Yaks: Reinventing the Diversified Small Farm

admin January 26th, 2011

I ran this post at science blogs last winter in response to something reader Claire said, and as I go through my annual spring planning for the farm, that usually involves additional livestock, I find myself revisiting the general principles, so I thought I’d re-run it here!  Bees are our next project, and probably geese, and then there are the fiber goats….

Over at ye olde blogge, on one of my Independence Days updates, a reader commented on something that I’d posted. I’d mentioned that we are having trouble with goat parasites – most specifically, meningeal worm. Meningeal worm is a parasite is hosted by snails and transmitted by the feces of white tailed deer. It is worst in camelids like llamas and alpacas, but goats are a secondary host, and two of our does, Selene and Mina, have had  it. It is most common after a wet summer and warm fall – this past summer (2009) was the wettest in living memory here – we had almost 20 inches of rain in June alone, and it was generally a warm fall, with few frosts. We’re lucky – we knew what it is, our vet knew how to treat it, and we caught it fairly early, so everyone should be fine.

In order to prevent recurrence, I have two choices. The first is large doses of wormer, much larger than one would typically give a goat. There are two problems with this – first, the possible health consequences of using this as preventative, the second that a growing immunity to wormers in general, including the two specific ones most effective on this parasite is a chronic issue with goats.

The other option is to try and exclude either snails or deer from our pastures and browsing areas. There are two options for this. The first would be an additional dog – we have a working farmcollie, but she’s not an aggressive territory protector, and we know that the deer have been coming closer and closer to the house since we lost Rufus, our alpha dog. The dog might exclude the deer from areas that the goats browse and reduce incidence of the parasite. (In fact, since this was written, we added Mac the Great Pyrenees).  The other option is ducks or geese or guinea fowl – ie, some animal that eats snails to reduce the density of snails on the material the goats are browsing. We’re considering both of these options (actually, we wanted both ducks and another dog anyway for various other reasons – we ended up with both).

Claire, commenting at the other blog observed that every animal we get seems to require another animal – that, for example, we use cats to control the mice, but if we aren’t to be dependent on commercial pet foods, that means we need to raise a meat animal to feed them (hence, in our case, rabbits). To the commenter, it seemed like a negative – one animal might lead to another.  And on a small homestead or urban project, you do have to place limits upon that sort of thing.

But for a farm, I actually see the comment as both true and a positive thing – that is, I think this is a really useful ilustration of why farms once were diversified, and why they probably need to be again. We could simply worm heavily. We could try draining the wetter parts of our pasture, or excluding all wildlife, or putting our goats in pens rather than on grass – these are other possible solutions to our problems. But they aren’t the ones we want to use.

What animals live on a farm? Of course we can all close our eyes and make the list – and in the old kind of farm, many species lived there at once – any children’s toy farm will have one of each common species. This is in complete contrast to the modern farm, where farmers raise sheep, or cows, or whatever, but an enormous preponderance of one animal. The classic small farm had sheep and cows, ducks and geese, cats and dogs. There’s an actual reason why our old vision of what a farm is has so many different kinds of livestock on it.

One is simply that diversification was more better for the farm economy. Having different crops to take to market at different times of year spaced out the work, and the profit. Different animals and plants use different habitats and kinds of land. But there are more complex reasons as well.

Consider this – a pasture that will support one cow but not two cows, will generally support one cow plus 2-4 sheep and their lambs. This is because the sheep will eat shorter grasses that the cows have already grazed, and eat some plants that are less palatable to cows. There are several advantages to this – the first, of course, is that you have lamb, wool, sheep’s milk and sheep manure as well as milk, beef and manure from the cow. But your pastures are also grazed more fully and more evenly, with fewer problems from unpalatable plants that would otherwise proliferate as the others were eaten down.

These analyses can get complex – the same pasture can probably also support an indeterminate number of geese which will eat shorter grass still, or a few goats (assuming cow and sheep are both Johnes negative) that will eat brushy weeds and clean out hedgerows. But do you want your hedgerows cleaned out? Do you have a market for geese? Might it be better to follow the sheep and cow on pasture with chickens who will eat pasture and insects and also help reduce worm pressure for next cycle by eating worms and worm eggs. Or perhaps you want to use that ground for growing grain next spring, and should put pigs on it to till it up…

The low energy farm often uses animals to do things that other farms do with fossil fuels. So rather than use a chemical poison to kill the snails on my property, I can use ducks to eat them. Besides not being a poison, I get to sell the ducks for meat afterwards. But they also require balance – too many ducks are not a good thing. I can’t always do what I want – I might find that I need another animal to fill a particular ecological niche on my farm – say, that I need Guinea Hens to reduce tick pressure on humans and dogs, even though I don’t particularly want them, or even though guineas are less profitable than chickens.

My dog keeps down predators, but requires some animal proteins to eat. Thus, she and the goats are reciprocal – without Mistress Quickly, the goats would be prey to the coyotes that den across the road. On a traditional farm she’d be paid in a share of their milk – we do this, although she also gets some dog food. The cats keep our grain losses down – for them (and other reasons) we keep the rabbits, which make use of marginal weeds that otherwise would be pests to us… The relationships are stronger when they are more complex and diverse, when there are more participants in each system.

Most of us grasp, of course, that monoculture is bad in general, but it is hard to viscerally grasp the consequences of reduced complexity, or of using one solution (fossil fuels and its outputs) to replace multiple resources. My own exploration of what our family needs for self-sufficiency plus income is a kind of re-inventing of the wheel, and not coincidentally, it comes to look more and more familiar.

There’s a price to be paid for all of this, as well as benefits – you can specialize, but only to an extent. You can pick and choose, but only to an extent. You will be more independent in many ways, but often, not as profitable as a farm that chooses the highest value crop and produces only that. There are costs in land use and resource use as well – the additional animals take space and time.

When we started out farming, we grew a huge garden and raised chickens. The chickens gave us eggs to put in the CSA baskets and eggs for the Challah we included in our baskets. They also gave us manure for our gardens. But we found that it was hard to get enough manure to support a garden big enough to run a 20 person CSA – we were dependent on neighboring farms, which wasn’t bad, but they didn’t always have manure when we needed it. Or we were dependent on soil additives and fertilizers that we didn’t make. We were also dependent on the lawn mower to keep weeds from going to seed, since we didn’t have enough stock to keep them down. Adding more animals made it better possible to grow the garden – but created new incentives to shape the garden in particular ways, so that we didn’t trade one dependency (on soil amendments) for another (on the feed store). Diversity was better – but not just more diversity, the right combination.

It isn’t just animals that work this way – plants do too. We know from research that in terms of output (as opposed to yield) diversified small farms produce more food, fiber and fertility per acre than monocrop farms. We know that polyculture is better for the soil, better for wildlife and soil life, better for people than monoculture. We know that different plants do well in different environments and that no 2 or 50 or 10,000 acres are precisely alike – trying to get the same amount of corn out of every single acre regardless of its conditions is not good for anyone.

This runs through pretty much every part of the diversified small farm, and it gets played out at the economic and social level – for example, running the diversified small farm with minimal fossil fuels takes people too. One way to do this, the traditional farm family way, was to have many children – but that’s not all that was involved. Neighbors traditionally shared work during busy times, sharing tools, resources and time – effectively allowing a farm population of four or five to expand to fifteen or twenty when it is needed.

The farm economy was diversified as well – my family often stops at a historical reenactment village that happens to be at approximately the halfway point between our house and my extended family’s. Once, while chatting with one of the gentlemen there, the village cooper, he observed that his shop would soon be closing, because he practiced cooperage only in the winter – spring through fall, he farmed. I was struck by this example of something that has always been true – only the most affluent farmers (or the ones in the best climates) actually farm all year round – the supplemental income that is the norm for farmers now has been the norm for a very long time. Thus, the cooper of 1830, my great grandfather who farmed and taught school in Maine in the 1890s, and the guy who farms and drives trucks now are all part of a logical continuity – that there is time for paying work in the winter or the dry season, and that farm economies are stronger when they are diversified.

Does this mean that everyone who gets chickens is doomed to own a yak?  No, of course not. But it does mean that once you open up a system to ecological management, the process of figuring out what its proper mix of species is isn’t an easy one. Honestly, if I didn’t want ducks and another dog, I’d find another way to do things. But it is the case that the small farm of the past has lessons for creating a low energy small farm of the future – there’s a reason that there are more species, not fewer.

We’re still figuring out what the right combination of creatures and practices are on our farm – still debating whether we can make a living using our marginal wetlands as they are, what animals we should be eating down our pastures with and what will be needed as time goes on. But we’re committed to this basic project – to the idea that it is possible to create an integrated, self-sustaining system where most of the interventions are productive, rather than reductive – that is, rather than just poisoning the things we don’t want, we can intervene in ways that create some kind of net improvement in our situation.


10 Responses to “Once You’ve Got the Chickens, You’ll Hardly Notice the Yaks: Reinventing the Diversified Small Farm”

  1. CindyR says:

    Wonderfully written article; easily understood, not preachy but full of ideas to think about. Thanks.

  2. TJ says:

    not a criticism – just an observation of language:
    “low energy farm” – we all know what is meant by that phrase, I am sure.
    but, if one were to detach for a second from the current meme,
    the diversified farm/farming we all want is actually the high energy.
    its the energy produced within this farm -all the critters making this and that – manure, pest control, meat, milk etc. etc.
    this energy and lots of it is what fills me with joy when i let the chickens out of the coop in the morning (i wish i had space for more farming but 5000 sqft lot is already “energized” to the brim)

    and come to think of it carefully – the industrial farm is the low energy (low joy) one – the “stationary cow” does not evoke high energy images – all the energy comes from outside – from the “Deep Horizon Oil well” and other environmental disasters. – the energy that farms runs on is not on the farm – its the trucks delivering to it – they are certainly expanding a lot of energy but when they do – they fill my lungs with soot – not joy.

    For as long as i can remember thunderstorms, lightnings, winds always made me excited and happy – it must be all that energy at least that’s how I identify it. Even now a good ocean breeze elevates my mood.

    I may not be representative of many people but for me energy is a joyful thing, I would love to see language of energy be used in a positive sense. Used to entice people into diverse farming instead of “guilting” them into a prius. Exciting people to ride a bike (high energy – yours and mine) – a thing kids do for fun – precisely because its high energy, that to me a beautiful image.
    Sorry i ramble.

    Thank you Sharon, great post.


  3. charlotte says:

    pretty good post it seems like you read my mind since my family has been trying to decide what animals we need


  4. Todd says:

    A note about Yaks. A good friend was given a small yak herd. She and her husband thought it would be fun. Unfortunately, there were two problems. First, although the yaks were on pasture, they still had to buy some feed. Second, and most important, the bull yak did not want anyone near his herd and would charge. By “charge’ I don’t mean he was bluffing. No, he wanted to gore the person. So, in the end they found someone else who wanted to try their hand at yak husbandry.


  5. Dave says:

    according to the bbc film, a Farm for the Future (great film), the Khaki Campbell is the best slug eater


  6. michelle says:

    We’ve had chickens for several years then added the khaki campbell ducks last year. I’ve been wanting to add goats too, but it is starting to seem, after much research & through others experiences, that it would be much more costly to have a home dairy than to buy milk directly from a farmer. To me it really makes more sense to put energy & funds into growing food. Still, even with knowing all the health care requirements , health risks & costs of goats, I think about having a few of my own. Is it crazy?

  7. d.a. says:

    We haven’t gotten to the point where the orchard/farmette can sustain all its denizens without outside feed & chow yet – dogs, geese, ducks & chickens – but I continue to do research on year-round greens & grains growing for our type of soil & climate. The dogs (two Great Pyrenees, one Anatolian/Pyrenees mix) will have to settle for regular kibble and canned food/scraps until I can make a deal with a local hunter. I can butcher chickens, but processing rabbits… just haven’t found the intestinal fortitude to do such a thing at this time.

    Oh, and I love our Khaki Campbell ducks!

  8. Sharon Astyk says:

    Hi Todd – That’s interesting – I’ve heard yak bulls are comparatively gentle, but good to know. I wonder if yak AI is available?

    Michelle, we find the cost of goat milk produced on our land to be vastly cheaper than buying equivalent quality milk – we can produce our milk for about $3 gallon, which wouldn’t even buy a gallon of industrial milk here, but obviously, YMMV. That does amortize the cost of the goats over years, and account for the costs of selling offspring. We think it would probably be cheaper over time even if we bought all of our feed, but that’s not the case for us, so I haven’t run the numbers as carefully.


  9. I loved this article. The complexity and interdependence of the plant/animal systems is fascinating stuff. Thank you for a good read on this wintery Groundhog Day.

  10. [...]     Now, a post from Sharon Astyk’s blog about animals: http://sharonastyk.com/2011/01/26/once-youve-got-the-chickens-youll-hardly-notice-the-yaks-reinventi...   and, saving what I think is best for last…   This is a post where someone was answering [...]

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