Four months. That is how long we have been living at our new farm. At times, it seems as if we only just arrived, but we have accomplished a lot in such a short time. Here are a few of our accomplishments: We unpacked our boxes; we cleared thousands of Eastern Red Cedar saplings from our pastures (major thanks to a visiting youth group from Michigan); we got geese, ducks, chickens, guineas, pigs, and sheep; we’ve had our local NRCS Agent (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and the state grazing specialist out for a consultation; and we have our first conference (Greg Judy’s Risk Free Ranching Course) starting in just a few days!
Looking at what we have already accomplished in such a short time makes me see why my wife tells me to be careful. She has been a solid voice for moderation while still entirely embracing our new agrarian life.
I have been really busy getting these things done, and have had a lot less time to write. I thought I would take a moment to explain some of the thought process behind what we are doing. This first article will focus on the animal systems we have. We put a lot of focus on animals right away, and there were a number of reasons for this:
First, experienced Permaculture teachers and practitioners have always recommended giving yourself a full year at a site before you start to implement a design. I think this is wonderful advice. We have only lived at our farm for four months, but we bought the farm 10 months ago. We visited as often as we could before we moved here full time. After almost a year, I feel like I am finally ready to commit to some more permanent design elements, like trees. Everything we have done so far with the animals has been temporary… temporary fencing, mobile structures, and walking animals. We can change any aspect of the animals’ location within a few hours at most.
Second, I wanted to get some production started, and animals don’t really care what time of year it is. There are better times of the year to plant trees and shrubs and put in a vegetable garden, and the middle of the Summer (when we moved) is not that time. Granted, I want to get trees in the ground as soon as possible. It is often said that the best time to plant a tree is five years ago. The second best time is today. This is because it takes many years for trees to get established and start producing. However, as I explained above, it is important to take time to get to know your site for a bit first. It can be difficult at best to move trees once they are planted, so getting them in the right spot, according to a good design, really does matter. Conversely, our animals can be put onto the land, moved just about anywhere, and start producing right away.
Third, our land needs some animals. The land had been poorly managed for many years before we bought it. We have about 40 acres/16 hectares of pasture that have had cattle open-grazing it most months of the year for at least a decade. The pastures were also overstocked. This has resulted in overgrazed, over compacted soils that favored early succession plants and shrubs instead of lush pasture. Fortunately, due to this land being used predominately for hunting, not many chemicals were applied to the fields. We still have a fairly diverse mix of species in the pastures even if not all the species are ideal. And I like diversity in my pastures! In my temperate climate, rest is needed when the land is overgrazed. But, if we take all the animals off the pasture, the pastures will shift to an early woodland with a return of the Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), Sumacs (Rhus species), Brambles (Rubus species), Rose (Rosa species), Elderberry (Sambucus species), etc. (Note that many of these species are great in their own right, but not necessarily what we want all over our pastures.) The land will stay in pasture by properly managing the sheep with rotational grazing, and the land will benefit from the sheep and chickens’s manure deposits, but the these animals will be gentler on the land than too many cattle.
Before I get into the specifics, I have to state that our animal systems are currently at the homestead level. We are experimenting with multiple animals to see what we like, what works for us, and what we feel like we can scale up to a farmstead/commercial level.
Our geese are about 15 weeks old. We have a mix of Large Dewlap Toulouse Geese and Pilgrim Geese. We had to put one down due to a leg injury that was not healing. I made a ragoût d’oie that night. This is a simple French peasant dish I made with goose, pork back fat, sausage, root vegetables, wine, and of course, goose. It was delicious! We plan on processing one more male Pilgrim goose, and the rest of our geese will be breeders for us.
Our ducks are about 14 weeks old now. We ordered a straight run of about 30 Rouen Ducks, and we ended up with about one third females and the rest males. One duck was killed in an unfortunate accident involving a piece of falling wood. I made a green Thai curry with duck that night. This was also delicious! We plan on processing about 80% of the males for meat and keeping the remaining ducks for breeding and egg production.
Our 20+ Guinea Fowl are also about 14 weeks old now, and they are pretty much free-ranging the property. They have identified the area behind our garage as their primary home, and this was by design. In a future article, I plan to explain our process of training Guineas to stay at home while still allowing them to free range.
We have seven pigs right now. Five are feeder hogs, meaning they will be processed for pastured meat and fat when they reach the right age and weight. Only two will be breeders for us. These are a mix of American Guinea Hog (from the American southeast) and Kune Kune (from New Zealand) from my friend Cliff Davis of Spiral Ridge Permaculture . I plan on introducing a wide variety of genetics to develop a pig that grows well on our pasture but can also take windfall fruit and seasonal mast (nut) drop in our 50+ acres/20 hectares of forest filled with walnut, oak, and hickory trees.
Our 10 Katahdin Hair Sheep ewe lambs will be bred in November this year so they can lamb in early April (Spring time for us). Hair sheep are meat breeds that do not make wool that requires shearing; they have hair instead. We plan to grow our flock and then select for foraging ability and disease/pest resistance. We are currently running our sheep and pigs together on our pastures, and will likely separate them in the next few months. Though for now, they are getting along quite well.
Finally, we have our new chickens. We have one flock of layers comprised of a variety of heritage breeds (Ameraucana, Buff Orpington, Dominique, New Hampshire, Rhode Island Red, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, and also a few Golden Laced Polish chicks since my kids love their crazy “hair”!) for egg production. Our other flock is the broilers (meat birds). We are trialing a pasture-raised tractor system modeled after Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. We have one run of birds that are about 3 weeks old and are in the tractor on pasture. Our second run is about 1 week old and is currently still in the brooder.
There is a lot of infrastructure required to get these animal systems up and running. There is fencing and feed and feeders and waterers and watering systems and rotations and routines to establish. And this is required for each animal system. This is not done alone! Of course I work on just about every project, but our intern Dan also works a tremendous amount on all of this as well (my wife and I frequently say he is going to ruin our expectations of any future intern!). My wife, in addition to running the household and homeschooling our kids, jumps right in with animal care on a regular basis. My father also lends a hand with the animals and really enjoys it, but as a quasi-retired carpenter, he is steadily busy with multiple remodeling and repair jobs around the farm. In addition, my father is consulted on any building project on the farm. My mother doesn’t do a lot of work with the animals, but helps watch our kids so we can do work around the farm. She also helps my wife maintain the household. The kids are pretty young at this point, and their “help” slows us down, but they are usually pretty eager to help with the animals.
Obviously many others have accomplished much more in a shorter time, but we are proud of what we have done. And while we have accomplished a lot in a short time, these are shared ventures on a multi-generational farm and homestead. One person can do a lot, but not as much and usually with a lot less fun, as multiple people working together toward a common goal.
So this is what we have been up to for the last four months. This is why I have been a bit absent in my regular writing of articles. But we are having a lot of fun!