Archive for February 24th, 2009

Bigger than a Bread Box: Larger Livestock for the Homestead and Small Farm

Sharon February 24th, 2009

My last post on this subject focused on little livestock for people in cities, apartments and small lots (and people on 500 acre farms who want to keep bees, chickens and guinea pigs).  Today’s post is on livestock for slightly (or vastly) larger spaces. 

You probably know what your choices are already – the common ones are horses (which provide draft power, transportation, pleasure, great manure, offspring), donkeys (traction, transport, guardianship, manure, offspring), mules (even better traction, manure, transport), Water buffalo (milk, tillage, livestock, manure), cows (milk, meat, manure, leather, offspring), goats (milk, meat, fiber, manure, packing,  offspring), sheep (wool, milk, meat, sheepskin,  manure, offspring), llamas (fiber, guardianship, packing, manure, offspring), alpacas (fiber, manure, offspring), turkeys (feathers, meat, the occasional eggs, offspring, manure), geese (manure, tillage, weeding, eggs, meat, feathers/down, property alarm/watch animal and offspring) and pigs (meat, offspring, manure, tillage).  I’m going to leave out buffalo, fallow deer, ostrich, emu and other fairly wild critters, on the assumption that if you want to raise these, you’ve already done your research.  Today will focus on common domestic livestock.

No animal does only one thing – and so no animal should be gotten for only one purpose.  Or rather, you may want sheep because of the wool, but you need to have a plan for how to deal with the other useful outputs – and whether you make a profit or get back your costs will probably depend on this.  Particularly if you are going to butcher animals, it honors them to make the best possible use of everything you get from them.  The old “everything but the squeal” model of pig butchering is pretty much what you want in your animals – so even you are thinking of milk when you get your goats, you need a plan for manure handling, one for what you will do with the kids, etc…

The other important thing when managing large animals (which can be thousands of pounds heavier than you, and even if they aren’t, often with a good head of steam can run you down) is that you work hard to make sure that they mostly get to be animals in the way they are designed to be.  That is, try and get them to do more or less what they want to do, or if you have to do something that will displease them, plan for it and have help, whether a good herding dog, a few extra pairs of hands, or the right equipment.

What animals you have will depend on a whole host of things – the time you can devote to them, the size of the animal, your physical abilities, your land base, whether there are potential males nearby for breeding, temperature, water availability and landscape, and your taste in creatures.  That last should not be underestimated – my friend who owns the sheep that graze our pastures each year says that there are sheep people and goat people.  She is a sheep people.  I am clearly a goat people.  I’m perfectly happy to help with her sheep, and eventually I may even own a few.  But I know my limits – the grand passion for sheep does not reside in me.  When a person walks towards a sheep, they walk away, generally (unless, of course, that person is carrying a bucket of feed ;-) ).  When a person walks towards a goat, they generally head over, to see if you are concealing a bucket of feed somewhere, maybe in your shirt.  Or maybe the shirt tastes good.  Or you might scratch their heads.

Now there are exceptions to this – all animals have personalities.  There are cuddly sheep, smart turkeys, malleable mules and presumably bad tempered water buffalo.  Uncut males of all species are generally more volatile than females, and the young of all species more energetic and excitable.  But generally, creatures have their characteristics, and you can broadly speak of them, if not by species, by breed within species. 

How much land do you need for any given creature?  Well, not much if you are going to buy or cut all their feed – enough for them to be comfortable.  But if you mostly want your animals to find their own food (usually the most time and money efficient way), it varies a lot.  How good is your pasture?  How well an animal will do on a pasture depends on the animal – horses generally can tolerate lower quality pasture than dairy animals, for example.  It will depend on rainfall – around here, a cow can be supported on about an acre.  In dryer places, it might be 20.

Small multi-purpose farms are generally well suited to multi-purpose, often older or heritage breeds of animals.  These were bred when polyculture farms were normative, and while they may not lay eggs as well as the most highly bred layers, or milk as well as the best bred milkers, they often are a good combination animal – they might not produce quite a fine a meat as a Dorset or as fine a fleece as a Merino, but for our climate, Romneys give a pretty good optimization of fleece, meat and suitability to the environment.  In a different place, with different priorities, it might be wiser to choose otherwise.

One factor to take into account is cost – I’m sure I’ll hear cries of horror from alpaca farmers, but I don’t think you should spend many thousands of dollars for any livestock – livestock, like clothing, has its trends.  This creature or that one is the next hot thing, and people will get rich breeding them.  And for a short while that’s true – and then they breed enough that the bottom drops out and they become ordinary livestock again.  I’m not convinced that the current trendy livestock (alpacas) are worth anything like the cost of them.  On the other hand, if they or something else is perfect for you, maybe it is worth the risk.

So what’s the right animal for you?  Well, if you have a small patch of land, there are very small versions of these critters – some geese that lay, live mostly on grass and provide meat for your family might be the best choice, particularly if you live in a tough neighborhood and need an alarm system.  There are miniature sheep, and very small goats.  I would say that you should probably not get into milking unless you really like the way it organizes your life – I love milking, but for someone with more desire to roam, it could be tough.

If you have the land, your choices are limitless – you can have as many livestock as you want and need.  I do recommend that people track their costs, though.  Keeping records of food, vet and other costs can be very helpful in determining whether you have a barn full of large pets or actual homestead helpers.

The more you think about animals in integrated ways on your land, the more you will like them – that is, putting animals where you want them, using their instincts and needs to meet your needs is what tends to make them profitable and helpful.  So, for example, putting your pigs on ground you plan to garden on next year will get the land rooted up and manured.  But be careful about overstated claims about what animals can do – sure, geese can weed your garden.  But some of the greens you grow may look an awful lot like greens.  Yes, you can have draft horses on 10 acres – but you may find that most of your draft work is growing food to well, feed your horses.  Not a problem if you love them and have other reasons for keeping them.  But think it through.

Our own journey to large livestock has been slow – we started the farm with chickens, moved on to ducks and then geese and turkeys, and only just last year added the sheep (which are not ours) the guard donkey, and the goats.  We’re still mulling over whether we will want more livestock – or if we will be content with our goats. 

My own suggestion is start slow, make sure housing and fences are in place, and know what you are getting into – get to know your creature, read about it, talk to people who raise them and learn as much as you can before you are confronted with a real live creature, considerably bigger than a bread box.


Fertile Inquiries – Creating and Sustaining Soil Fertility

Sharon February 24th, 2009

Gardeners like to compete with each other over who has the worst soil to start.  One will argue for his hard clay, baked in the sun, another for her sand, without a trace of organic matter.  I’ve got my own candidate for the worst soil ever – the stuff in the beds around my house.

Oh, texturally, it is among the best I’ve got – sandy loam, warms up nicely, isn’t too wet like much of the rest of my soil.  It had some nice enough foundation plantings, and I mostly ignored it for the first few years I was here.  But a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to make use of this growing space, and then I discovered that my soil, was, well…dead.

By dead, I mean there wasn’t a living thing in it.  Not a beetle or a spider, and especially not an earthworm.  It was weird.  I knew that some previous owners of our house were umm… shiny green lawn people, and I don’t know if that has something to do with it, but this stuff was “Its dead, Jim” dead. 

So we embarked on a campaign of soil improvement.  Any kind of soil improvement has two parts.  First, there’s getting your soil up to speed.  In some cases, this might not be much – maybe some ashes from your stove or a little lime to even out some acidity, or maybe a little rock powder for trace minerals, or a light dressing of the rabbit poop your rabbits make sure you get anyway.  If your soil is basically in good shape – you’ve had a soil test and you know that it is high in organic matter and sufficient in macro and micronutrients (check out Aaron’s soil fertility basics if these concepts aren’t familiar).

But what if it isn’t?  What if you’ve got dead soil, like mine, or rock hard clay, or soil (also like mine) that has been leached and has too much water in it?  Again, there are two projects here – the first is the short term building of soil so that you can get to gardening.  The second is the long term maintenence of soil health, and the addition of more organic matter, so that eventually, your soil can hold enough organic matter to save the world – or at least sequester as much carbon as possible.  Plus, things will grow better.  Win-win.

My favorite way to build soil on something that is completely unworkable is the lasagna method, which is pretty much sheet mulching with some dirt or compost on it.   This makes raised beds, which is good if what you have is either wet or rock hard, or if you are, say putting your dirt on gravel or something toxic.  It might be tough in a dry, hot climate though – raised beds dry out and warm up in the spring earlier, and keeping them wet might be tough.  In that case, you might consider digging into the ground, creating sunken beds with the same mixture.

If you need to amend soil, you’ll have the choice of synthetic or natural soil amendments.  Generally speaking, you’ll want the natural ones.  I’m not a complete organic purist – I think there are times when artificial fertilizer use is justified.  But there’s a price to be paid for its use, and care is needed – otherwise you can end up contaminating your water supply, wasting your money and depleting your soil overall.  I don’t generally use synthetic fertilizers, and if I were to use them, I’d use them only on untilled soil with plenty of organic matter added, in small and precise quantities. 

You can buy an organic fertilizer mix, or you can make your own.  I generally use a mix of alfalfa or soybean meal, rock phosphate, and wood ashes, along with greensand and kelp, as well as occasionally special additions to deal with soil types or plant special needs.  But I don’t know about you, but I can’t mine rock phosphate from my property, nor do I produce enough alfalfa to fertilize my garden.  So this is not a long-term sustainable project.  I use these amendments sparingly, where they are needed to bring soils up to basic fertility. 

Then, we try to keep it there.  That means cover cropping a portion of our garden every year, integrating dynamic accumulator plants into our plantings (these are plants that bring up nutrients from the subsoil), undercropping with nitrogen fixers (these plants fix nitrogen from the air), mulching (we try to grow as much of our own mulch as possible in place – another good use for undercropping – a nice planting of buckwheat under tomatoes, or white clover under garlic can provide a living mulch and then the next planting cycle’s mulching materials), and the heavy application of organic material – that is, compost and composted animal manures.

Every time we take something off of the soil, we are removing nutrients from our soil, and depleting, to some degree, the organic material available to them.  High levels of organic material are essential for soil life and health – so faced with dead soil, the first thing I did was put my turkey poults in a chicken tractor on top of the border for a few days.  The easiest way to move the poop to the garden beds is sometimes to move the poop makers there ;-) .  Now since this was raw manure, I made sure there was plenty of bedding, and I wasn’t planting food plants there right away.  Had I needed to use it immediately, I would have switched to already composted manure, and gotten out the wheelbarrow.

Next, I planted the foundation plantings to annual alfalfa, since it was already summer, and warm.  Cover crops generally have a couple of seasons – they are spring, summer or fall sown.  You sow the fall crops to overwinter – to hold soil in place, and add organic material.  Winter rye, hairy vetch, fava beans (in some climates) are all common winter sown cover crops.  Spring sown crops are generally cut down in summer, and either stay in place all season (things like red clover), providing multiple doses of fertility and green material, or they are cut down (oats, say) to provide organic material for the fall garden.  Summer crops (buckwheat, annual alfalfa) can go in after the peas or the early lettuce, and grow fast and fill the space until fall.  For a site you don’t plan to get to for a year or two, perennial crops can do a lot to regenerate soil.

Cover cropping is very place specific – the best crops are specific to your climate, seasons and locality, so talk to your cooperative extension.  They are a powerful tool for building fertility, adding organic matter and improving soil, and one that is worth getting to know. 

My goal in the long term is for these beds to provide a warm, dry, moderately fertile site for mediterranean herbs and a few flowering perennials.  That is, I wasn’t trying to produce fertility for growing heavy feeders, like greens or corn.  So after the alfalfa, I added some greensand and kelp, a light layer of compost, and planted into the mulch I’d already established.  In went lavender, oregano, several marjorams and thymes, a rosemary that probably didn’t survive the winter this year, and some plants that like or tolerate similar conditions of slightly dry soil, lots of sun and only moderate fertility – catmint, echinops and malva.  And they’ve thrived. 

Many perennial plants make wonderful fertility enhancers to annual gardens - whether perennial nitrogen fixing shrubs, whose leaf litter and root nodes enhance the trees and perennial plantings around them, comfrey and stinging nettle which can be cut for mulch or compost, small trees integrated into garden sites to provide leaf mulch, or perennial living mulches.  This is one of those things that has potentially enormous long term yields, and has really only begun to be explored in a deep way.

The best soils for sequestering organic matter will be those that are in perennial plantings, that have constant inputs of organic matter – these include forests that are enriched yearly by leaf drops, permanent pastures which are manured by grazing animals (Peter Bane, editor in chief of Permaculture Activist magazine found that Joel Salatin’s grazed pastures sequester as much carbon as a similarly sized forest after decades of grazing), and perennial gardens that are carefully managed to provide their own needs.

I maintain fertility in the perennial planting I established in these beds by the occasional dumping of animal bedding on the ground, permanent mulch, wood ashes from our stove, and a strewing of kelp.  I’ve also grown an annual crop of chamomile, a good dynamic accumulator, and left everything but the flowerheads in place.  I give the whole thing an occasional boost of nitrogen by dumping dilute urine over it – urine is safe and diluted 1-7 (1-10 if you don’t drink enough), it provides a real boost to plants. 

More demanding annual feeders get composted chicken or goat manure, plant compost, weed and manure teas.  Other plants might also get living mulches, and I rotate plants as wisely and carefully as I can, following the heavy feeders with nitrogen fixers or light feeders undersown with nitrogen fixing cover crops.  My whole garden gets rotating quantities of worm casting to supplement the soil and improve its texture. 

Meanwhile, in maintaining, we try to put back what we take off.  Crop residues are left in place, either chopped down and incorporated into the permanent mulch or they are burned in our woodstove (for heavy, dense stalks) and returned as ash.  Some of the nitrogen is returned in the form of urine.  We mulch as much as possible with our own mulches – grass clippings, leaves and plants grown for compost or as mulch plants.  We try not to steal too much from any one other place – but we gratefuly take things people discard, like leaves from yards when we venture into suburbia, or horse manure from our horse-keeping neighbors.

Animal manures have a very powerful role in gardening – in a perfect world, we’d compost all human manures until they were thoroughly pathogen free, and restore the soil with what we take off.  But whether this is safe is debatable, and anyone who shares food will not want to risk a lawsuit.  So composted animals manures are a powerful tool for maintaining fertility – one of the reasons that polycultures of animals and plants are generally more effective than either alone.  We use composted human manures only on decorative and tree plantings.

Two particular ways of maintaining fertility deserve mention here – fungal soil support, by mycorrhizae (tiny fungus  that colonize the soil) and terra preta.  Mycorrhizae have a symbiotic relationship with the roots of many plants, and can enhance the ability to plants to uptake nutrients and deal with water stress among other things.  Many soils are fungi deficient, and an application of mycorrhizae can improve your plants ability to absorb the nutrients in your soil.

Terra Preta is a fascinating subject – and one still uncertain.  Terra Preta involves adding plant based charcoal (ie, not the briquets at the grocery store) to your soil.  What this does is still a matter of speculation – it isn’t clear, for example, whether the charcoal itself or the organic processes it enables are actually what creates the rich soil involved.  Nor is it clear that all soils respond equally well to terra preta inputs – for example a study found that boreal forest soils did not seem to respond to biochar applications.  That said, however, there have been some fascinating results – biochar supplemented soils seem to stimulate nitrogen fixing in legumes, for example, and while charcoal supplemented soils enable plants to take up more minerals, the soils deplete more slowly.  I’d encourage everyone to consider experimenting with biochar as a way of improving your soils. 

We’re not a closed circle by any means – we still take advantage, as long as they are available and we can afford them, of valuable amendments.  But the idea is to lose as little as possible, while getting the best possible balance between improved soil, the health of the world, and a system in which you need to bring in a little less from offsite each year.