Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How we manage our.....

Recently we have had a number of questions both on the blog and through our web site about how we take care of our pastures and animals. Many others like us are struggling to turn not well cared for small acreage into productive "mini-farms". Basically self sustaining, organic farms---at least to a degree.

Since our original purchase of the acreage we have divided it into 5 sections that are based on the soil type and plant growth. 4 of these sections are permanently fenced and the 5th is on two sides.
Each section has its own pros and cons and so each requires differing amounts of amendments and styles of application. Over time we have acquired, and hope to acquire, tools that will enable us to more effectively handle some of the property without owning a larger tractor. Some of the tools we have or hope to purchase are: a 30 gallon pull along liquid fertilizer sprayer, a pull along and hand push lime/granular product spreader, a new scythe for cutting along the sides of our dam and some barrels and a small pump for making compost teas. There are a number of other coveted tools---but those would help greatly.

Most questions we get are either about our soil restoration, how we graze our animals or how we care for our animals. We also get many good ideas from others on how they are handling their situations but this is about our property---so I will stick with our solutions :-)
Since we read many books, magazines and articles we continually come across new and well used ideas. We have picked through them and narrowed them down to those that, have or seem as if they will, work best for us with the tools and money that we have. We read and utilize ideas from The Stockman Grassfarmer, Joel Salatin, Neil Kinsey, permaculture, Albrecht method, and many many others. So let me comment on some of the things we have been asked and have learned. This is not to say any one person is right or wrong---just that it has or has not worked for us. All properties are different and so there for not all things will work all the time for everyone.

Do you rotationally graze your animals and/or do you graze the sheep and cows together?
Yes, Sometimes they are all together, sometimes they follow each other and sometimes they are split in segments. Currently the rams are with the cows, so pregnant ewes aren't continually harassed, and the ewes are in their own group. For grazing we have a permanent outer fence and then cross fence with electric wire to make smaller sections when needed. We are still working on improving our use of electric wire to rotate with though. Electric wire can be bulky, hard to reel and heavy when there is a lot of it. Also the poles have not been long lasting for us---and the better type work for cows but not sheep. A couple more problems we have with it are: 1) we have very rocky hard soil in a number of areas which requires a hammer to install the "temporary" fence--not the easy "step it into the ground" situation it's suppose to be and 2) Since we use wire and not electric netting (expensive but much much better and a possible future purchase for us) the rams and lambs can just slide through to the next pasture, or neighbors yard, when they are in their heavier wool phase. (And yes, we do definitely have a strong enough electric box which is very adequately grounded)

Do you use clover (legumes) to improve your pastures?
Yes and no. We do plant legumes in our pasture for our animals, and some smaller areas have some clover and vetch in them, but clover (including most legumes) does not like "un improved" soil very well. Clover hates acidic soil. Also, alfalfa can require irrigation here which we are not set up to do. So if you have rocky, acidic, crappy, steeply sloped and dry in spots soil--- as we do---your legumes will flat out not sprout or it will grow all stunted looking and not become a full, thick stand like it is suppose to. I know since I have seen it--pathetic looking stunted clover. This whole thing is kind of a catch twenty two as someone once said: "you need good soil to grow clover for clover to make good soil". So how are we addressing the improvement and eventual establishment of legumes in our pasture? By rotating the animals through each segment regularly so they can poop on the property (a major Joel Salatin recommendation) and by liming and adding other amendments to improve our calcium and nutrients needed to grow good plants (Neil Kinsey is a good writer on this subject). We are also choosing trees, such as thorn less honey locust, and shrubs for their nitrogen adding abilities to help with this issue. see here
This year we will also start regularly spraying our pastures with various types of liquid "teas" to help with soil tilth and fertility.

Do you grow grass and legumes only or add other things?
We actually add other plants, also known as forbs, to our pasture on purpose. Much research on our part made us realize that plants like chicory, pig weed, dandelions and other plants add much needed vitamins and minerals to livestock diets---which helps with overall health and parasite control. Healthier animals show more resistance to parasites--which is always a plus. Our cows don't seem as open to the forbs, though they do like chicory. And though I would like to see them eat more forbs it's o.k since we have the sheep who will eat them. A recent writer in Stockman Grassfarmer has been doing studies on how to teach cattle to eat unfamiliar weeds that are good for them including canadian thistle. Now I would consider Canadian thistle a serious weed, but the above mentioned chicory a benign "forb". Thistle is much more aggressive in taking over pastures but with training the cattle could be eating them and reaping the rewards of their nutrition--which are supposedly many. If all cows ate thistle, well then, maybe we might consider it a forb too. I don't think I'll add those to my pasture though :-)

Forbs are also good for your soil since they, like alfalfa, "mine" for nutrients. Dandelions (free seeds everywhere) have large roots that open the soil structure like alfalfa allowing in rain and oxygen---and when they die back in the winter they add all the nutrients mined from down below as a small bit of compost. Believe it or not I don't have dandelions growing in my pasture and constantly harvest seeds along road sides to drop in there. Either my animals eat them "all gone" OR they aren't getting established----go figure since most people with grass would love to have my problem. If I planted the culitvated kind in my garden---I am sure I would have thousands!
Look around on line and you will stumble into protein ratio of various weeds/forbs which can be very high at times---good stuff.
Another food source we are trying is to add multi purpose trees, as in honey locust, for fruits/nuts/seed pods for the animals. And, in the future, we will experiment with sowing in oats in the fall instead of just winter rye and maybe some buckwheat in the summer. (P.S---I had heard livestock couldn't eat buckwheat but recently saw a University bulletin on using it for hay---if anyone has knowledge of this I would appreciate a comment since I would like to try it)

Have you tried worm compost on your pasture?
No, but I would LOVE to. Worm compost/castings have been show to be one of the absolute best items you can spread on your pasture or garden. Castings (even at the low rate of 200 pounds per acre) improve ph (rendering it neutral over time), add humus,make minerals available to plants, improves soil structure and on and on. The more worms you have in your pasture ---the better. They won't just come 'cause you want them though. You have to have a closer to neutral ph in your soil for them to be comfortable. Ph is my main problem: but when worms do finally show up---wow!
We could get worm compost in large enough quantities for our pasture IF we want to pay $285 to have it brought to us in a truck from 2 hours south of here. That's not including the cost of the castings either--hence our reason for not using it yet. One of these days though......maybe I will have a huge huge huge worm farm in the alloted 10 foot by 4 foot spot I have set aside and produce great volumes of castings for my pastures every year. hahaha I wish!

Are you completely organic with your animals?
We try to be. In regards to feed we aren't really "organic". We try and grass feed our animals as much as possible off of our own pastures which we handle in a completely organic matter. When we purchase hay though, we are not getting a certified organic product and depending on the farmer---it can be more or less organic than others. Certified organic hay has not taken off around here yet but we look forward to when it does.
In regards to grain: again, sometimes we get organic and sometimes we don't. Availability and price both play a part. We don't really feed that much grain so this is not as much of an issue for us as it would be for some. It could be though when we are milking our cows and drinking the milk.
This year we are trying to grow enough grain, by converting our front yard into beds, to feed our chickens through next winter. This way we will be assured our chickens and eggs have been completely organic and gmo free. We will work towards growing enough for the chickens then try to grow enough for the cows while they are milked.
Another issue when considering organic handling of animals is whether they are "doctored" in sustainable ways. All livestock have parasites and diseases that can afflict them. Internal parasites are one of the biggest stumbling blocks to organic/sustainable animal production. We are currently experimenting with different ways to keep our animals free of internal parasites without relying on chemical wormers. We STRONGLY advocate the use of FAMACHA before ever worming a sheep or goat. We have also found that vitamins and minerals seem to play a much much larger part in keeping our animals from carrying dangerous levels of parasites or getting sick than we previously understood. Many diseases that afflict livestock from Johnes disease, hoof problems, CAE in goats to scrapie in sheep, and many other things, are now thought to stem from nutrient problems. It's hard to believe, but in reality we still don't know much about how soil and nutrients work together to effect our health and that of our livestock. It's a part of research that is overlooked frequently.
Yes, we have vets scoff at us for our belief in famacha and using vitamins and minerals for health of our animals. We are going on two years now with the things we have experimented with and we haven't lost an animal and we only seem to have made them healthier. Better coats, faster growth, healthy babies and on and on.
We did lose animals previously ---before we used our noggin and figured it out on our own after many many vets called for advice in many many states. It is hard to find a vet that will stray from the text book---even if your animals are DYING. I look back at goats we had and that the vets "wrote" off. I now know that in a couple of cases simply feeding kelp or other mineral supplements BEYOND regular livestock mineral salt blocks would have helped them immensely and solved two issues we had at the time--one of them infertility. It was simply a matter of nutrients. That was 12 years ago though---and even less was known then. Argh! Twenty twenty hind site :-)

Well, I hope this answers some of the questions. I know there are many more but with time I will eventually address all of them. If anyone wants to talk organic pastures or animals contact me at my email address alandtc at(@) catt.com

SmallMeadow Farm Icelandic sheep, Irish Dexters and heritage chickens


john.white said...

Have you thought about doing your own worm composting? I've done it at the bin level and know that it must be problematic to transition from the backyard to the farm, but it seems like there's a lot of resources out there.

Here's one:

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

Hi John:
yes, we are going to try "volume" vermicomposting this year. We have even hatched schemes on getting the school and local market waste products to try and acquire enough food for them to get lots of castings for our pasture. We will see if we can acquire enough waste (easily) and if we will have the room to keep it going correctly;-) Thinking of making that much is kind of daunting though, I have to admit.

john.white said...

The wormwigwam (wormwigwam.com) seems to be what you're looking for. I read reviews (google: reviews wormwigwam) which discuss getting the kinks out of the system. Sounds really cool. How does $500 aquisition cost affect your farm economics? That is, how much benefit can you see from something like this? You mention getting feelers out for organic waste...

Have you thought about piloting a small DIY bin for household and farm waste to get a feel for it?

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

Yes, we have looked at that before--I am not sure that I want to spend the money though. I have to admit---theirs does seem to be the easiest idea. We have finally decided to do a "windrow" style approach but with blocks? around and not on cement. We have a nicely sheltered area---we are guessing as to volume that it will handle and produce currently. When we re organize our garage this summer we will see if we have room for a bin on legs (larger than we are able to keep inside) to run year round for household trash. I will definitely update at the end of the summer to tell how much castings we harvested (we do have scales) and how much trouble we had collecting "food" and sifting worms from this style. Do you vermi compost? You should blog about it if you do---not many people understand it and most who do don't blog about it much.
good day!