Manure Management

Who needs a plow when you have animals?

We are in the midst of preparing one of our fields for an edible forest garden (aka food forest). The pasture is mostly in grass, but not in great condition. We need to deal with this grass, and there are a few ways to do it. Many people spray with herbicides such as Round-Up (glyphosate), but that’s not what we do. Some will use a tractor and plow it all up, till it up, rototill it, or whatever implement and term you may use… but we don’t own a tractor or any tractor implements. Some people use sheet mulching or some other form of occlusive mulching. We may actually use this method some, but not yet.

For now, we are going to let our animals do as much of the work as possible. They are good at it. They enjoy it. They fertilize as they go. They eat pest at the same time (grubs, flies, etc.). They give us a product while they are working (eggs and/or meat). And they are a lot cheaper to maintain than a tractor!

This is what we are doing:

Our sheep and pigs did the initial clearing of the land. They ate and knocked the big stuff down.

Our sheep and pigs did the initial clearing of the land. They ate and knocked down the big stuff.


This is how we initially rotated the animals: Sheep and pigs then chicken tractors.

Our Pasture-Raised Chickens

These were the Salatin-style chicken tractors we used to raise broilers.

Our chickens came next. We used Salatin-style chicken tractors to disperse the sheep and pig manure. They also ate more grass and gave their own fertilizer.

Once we were done with the broilers, we run laying hens in their place.

Our EggMobile!

The laying hens sleep in the mobile chicken coop, the EggMobile!

We pulse the geese and ducks through this area as well. They get

We pulse the geese and ducks through this area as well. They get some more grass, and they love to root around in the wet dirt making holes all over the place!

After the chickens come the pigs again. The sheep have moved onto another part of the farm with fresh pasture.

After the chickens, geese, and ducks, come the pigs again. The sheep have moved onto another part of the farm with fresh pasture.

The pigs do a fantastic job of really tearing up the grass.

The pigs do a fantastic job of really tearing up the grass.

We are left

While the area still has some grass left, the area is significantly denuded.

We will pulse the chickens through once more to spread the pig manure again and eat any pests trying to rise up. We also may do some mulching in areas that still have some grass hanging on. But we will see.

I much prefer this method than sitting on a tractor all day!


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A Visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm

I wrote the following words on Facebook a few weeks ago:

I first stumbled across a copy of Joel Salatin’s “You Can Farm” almost 15 years ago in a small library. I read it and was intrigued… maybe obsessed is a better word. His writing germinated in my mind, and grew ever so slowly as I attended medical school and travelled around the world. This morning, I had the opportunity to walk the land that was described in that book. Even though it is still late Winter and everything is brown, Joel’s farm (Polyface Farms) was still inspirational… It was worth the 15 year wait!

Now I want to share some photos and editorial…

Polyface Farms is in a very rural location. Granted, there are more isolated farms, but I doubt there are many that are anywhere as successful while still being so off the beaten path. I drove over roads that stretched across the brown Shenandoah Valley hills of Virginia farmland in late Winter for about twenty minutes and only passed one other car. The farm is an additional mile down an unpaved road. The drive was very pretty despite the lack of green and the fields of rather poorly managed land of the surrounding farms

As I pulled into Polyface Farms, I noticed that things didn’t look very different than neighboring land. Much of this was due to the fact that everything was still brown from Winter. I spoke with Joel Salatin the week prior at the Permaculture Voices Conference, and I knew that the farm would be at the tail end of its yearly slow period, just getting ready to be amped up for the Spring. However, as I pulled closer to the farm structures I started to notice a few things, and a smile spread across my face.

Interior of the Egg-Mobiles.

Interior of the Egg-Mobiles.

The first thing I recognized as being uniquely Salatin was the Egg-Mobiles (seen at the top of this article). These mobile hen houses get pulled around the farm so the egg-laying chickens can free-range the pastures for food. Supplemental feed is given, but this wild foraging produces some of the best-tasting and healthiest eggs possible. The Egg-Mobiles were not stocked at the moment, but not far from where they were resting for the Winter were three, large hoop houses (aka high-tunnels, polytunnels, hoop greenhouses), and I could hear some clucking.

Winter quarters for the laying hens are large hoop houses.

Winter quarters for the laying hens are large hoop houses.

Another hoop house with a different breed of egg-layers.

Another hoop house with a different breed of egg-layers.

The hoop houses are the Winter quarters for the egg-laying hens of the Egg-Mobiles. These are drastically different systems than the confinement poultry houses of modern agriculture (just run a Google image search for “confinement poultry, and you will see what I mean). You can smell a confinement poultry house from a long distance off, the chickens are packed in tightly, dead chickens are scattered on the floor, and you need to wear a hazmat suit to walk in there, literally. No… these chickens of Polyface Farms were happily scratching in the bedding on the ground, contentedly clucking, hopping into the nests to lay eggs, and the air did not have a stench. I did smell animals, but it was not bad… it was fowl, but not foul! I would have no problem with my children walking in there to collect eggs.

Polyface Farm pigs.

Polyface Farm pigs.

Each hoop house was divided into two sections. About one half or one-third housed the chickens, and the other part housed pigs. I am not entirely sure how this system worked, as I was doing a self-guided tour. Joel was out at a speaking engagement when I was able to visit the farm, and I only had a few minutes to speak with the current farm manager before he had to get back to work. But I am pretty sure that the pigs and chickens rotated back and forth to both sides of the hoop house. There were two areas that were/could be closed off in the center of the hoop houses, and I think these are used to move the animals while keeping the pigs separated from the chickens.

I will add that these pigs were great! Friendly, outgoing, and happy. They also had a bit of a pig smell, but nothing more than a well-kept petting zoo. Which is saying something, because there were a lot more animals here than in a normal petting zoo.

Rabbits are also kept at Polyface Farms.

Rabbits are also kept at Polyface Farms.

The rabbits are kept above the chickens!

The rabbits are kept above the chickens!

Less than a hundred yards down the slight hill from the big hoop houses were some smaller hoop houses. These housed the meat rabbits. I had read about Daniel Salatin’s (Joel Salatin’s son) rabbits previously, so it was also great to see these in person. The rabbits are kept in raised cages, and the egg-laying chickens “free-range” underneath. This stacking of function (literally and figuratively) enables two species to mutually benefit each other. The rabbits drop mature, hay, and feed which provide food and activity for the chickens. The chickens eat any pests that may normally harbor in the rabbit bedding and droppings. Since one animal is a chicken and one is a rabbit, there is a bit of pest/host confusion as well. This is a simple, yet very well-designed system.

The Turkey-Mobiles.

The Turkey-Mobiles?

I knew the Saltins raised turkeys as well, but I had not read nor heard how they did it. I saw this contraption sitting near one of the hoop houses, and I thought it was empty. As I was walking around it, I heard a little rustle inside. I peeked under the hood, and saw a bunch of very young turkeys. This seems to be a variation of the Egg-Mobile. My guess is that it is pulled around to free-range the turkeys… either that, or this was just a temporary holding location for the animals.

The pigs and cattle in the barn.

The pigs and cattle in the barn. Note the ground level difference between the two sections of the barn.

I then decided to wander over to the barn, and all the things I had read about came flooding back. The Saltins do not keep their cattle in the patures over the Winter. They keep them in the “barn”. This barn is not the typical dark, dank structure. It is an open-air roof with almost no walls. The cattle are given fresh hay and bedding on a regular basis. Corn is occasionally dropped as well. The cattle end up standing higher and higher off the ground as the bedding piles up. The corn starts to ferment a bit as well. Toward the end of Winter, the pigs are let into the barn in sections. They love the little kernels of corn, so they root and dig it up, loosening the packed bedding. After the pigs have everything turned over and aired out, the Salatins use a tractor to move this almost-compost out of the barn to be spread in the pastures as high-quality fertilizer. The cattle are kept high and dry for the Winter, and the pigs get to do what they love, root around looking for treasure. Another beautiful system!

The simple, yet efficient, structures of Polyface Farms.

The simple, yet efficient, structures of Polyface Farms.

I also want to point out that many of the built structures on the farm are simple posts or logs, unfinished and unmilled. Most still have the bark still on them. The cost in time and money to use finished wood is really a waste unless you are focused on asthetics. The Salatins are not. They don’t want things to be ugly, but they do care about the bottom line, and it shows. Extra cost is not taken on beautifying poles for a barn. Simple and efficient.

A beautiful calf watching me explore the barn.

A beautiful calf watching me explore the barn.

I don’t actually have a bucket list, but it I did, visiting Polyface Farms would be on it. I plan on visiting again in late Summer or early Autumn when everything is in high gear. There is only so much you can read in a book. Walking the land and seeing things in person allows us to learn a lot more. I tried to share a bit of that in these photos, but if you are ever near Swoope, Virginia, I would recommend you stop and visit.


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Photo References: All photos in this article are mine. If you would like to use them, please let me know!


Questions from Readers: Growing a young grape vine

Question from Elizabeth in South Carolina (Zone 8).
Humid Cool Temperate Climate (hot Summers, cool to light cold Winters).

I rescued a Muscadine (not really my favorite, but it was an experiment) and I bought a black table grape suited for this area last winter. I put both in pots as I wasn’t sure where or what I was going to do with them. The black grape has taken off. It’s center is still woody with no vertical growth, but there are two lateral shoots: one about five feet the other maybe nine feet. I’ve finally figured out a spot to put them in, and now I’m stuck. A few issues:

  • pruning – I’ve read you shouldn’t prune the first year. So far so good. Do I wait until after next year to do this or after this winter?
  • height – As I planted in pots, once I place them in the ground the lateral shoots will be quite near the ground….not ideal from what I’ve read up on. Not sure what to do….
  • vertical growth – Does one of the lateral shoots become the vertical growth? What encourages it to grow vertically up the support to then allow lateral shoots to grow out? Does this make sense?


My Answer:
Pruning grapes: You are mostly right. The vast majority of growers do not prune the first year, but some growers with a lot of experience will prune their first year. I wouldn’t prune the first year. If you (or I) had that much experience, than you wouldn’t be reading this!

Height and vertical growth: Don’t worry. It’s all about training the vine as I explain in the next section.


Click on the image for a brief, illustration guide to yearly pruning of grape vines.

Training Grape Vines (a terribly brief intro in just a few sentences): You will not get any vertical growth from the stump. That woody core will stay short and lumpy forever. All the vertical growth will come from the cane you select to be your main trunk. Over time, this cane will become thick and woody itself. Side shoots (cordons) will eventually grow from it and give you the lateral growth. This training will take a few years to get into full growth and production. Here is a nice page that explains it a bit more with photos, but I will repost one image:



Grape vines growing over a pergola on a rooftop in Gaziantep, Turkey (about 100 miles from where I used to live!)

Permaculture Twist: You didn’t think I would skip this? You can plant the grape vine in a traditional Vertical Positioning System, or you can use the grape vine’s innate characteristics for you to perform additional functions than food production:

  • Grape vines are, in fact, vines. They are good climbers.
  • They grow fast and far each season.
  • They are deciduous. Leaf growth/drop can give you seasonal shade and privacy.
  • They attract good and bad insects.
  • They produce tasty fruit that people and birds enjoy. Netting may be needed.
  • They have edible leaves.
  • They have vines that should be pruned each year to maximize quality production the next year, and these vines get a bit woody.
  • Grape vines have a high need for nutrients to sustain production.
  • These are just a few characteristics off the top of my head. I am sure there are a ton more.

A rooftop in the Turkish town where I used to live. You can just see the main grape vine trunk growing up the side of the house at the closest corner to the roof.

So instead of the traditional row of vines, what about:

  • Growing grape vines along a fence to provide privacy for an outdoor living space. You will only be out there when the vine is growing anyway (seasonal… Spring through Autumn).
  • Growing grape vines over a pergola or trellis system to cover an outdoor living space. This provides seasonal shade and cooling for that space and easy harvesting of grapes. I saw this numerous times in living in Turkey. Many people had blocky, flat roofed homes. The entire roof had a trellis system. The grape vine ran from the ground, up two stories, and then spread over the entire roof for the growing season. This cooled the house, provided a comfortable and private living area on the roof, and provided food in the form of grapes and leaves, while also providing stick fuel for cooking at the end of the growing season. The trunk was two stories high and probably took a few years to develop, but so worth it! Other homes had the grape vines growing in large tubs on the roof itself.
  • My favorite technique for a few grapes vines is for people who have chickens and seasonal Japanese Beetles… pretty common in South Carolina from what I recall. Grow the grape vine over the chicken coop! The vine provides seasonal shade to cool the birds in the hot summers. This reduces heat stress which also increases health and disease/pest resistance in the birds. This reduces watering requirements for the birds. Chickens like to eat any grapes that may fall. They also enjoy the occasional grape leaf. Japanese Beetles seem to enjoy grape leaves as well. They have a “tuck and roll” technique of evading predators when they get frightened… very difficult to control in a classic row crop. But, when growing over a chicken run… just shake the vines once or twice a day, and the chickens will be singing, “It’s raining food!” This reduces (not a lot) the feed bill for the birds. It manages a grape pest with no chemicals and requires only a few seconds per day. It is also entertaining! Finally, the grape vine roots will be growing under the chicken run soil, high in nitrogen. This reduces, and possibly eliminates, the need for fertilizing the grape vines. This is an ideal Permaculture system!

Good luck! Send photos if you can!


Grape vines growing up a wall in the city of Göreme in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. I was fortunate to visit this area many times while I lived in Turkey.


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Making a Mushroom Patch: Shaggy Mane Mushrooms

I wanted to write a quick article outlining how I created another mushroom patch over the weekend. As I said in my previous article (Making a Mushroom Patch: King Stropharia (Garden Giant) Mushrooms), this is an experiment, for as far as I can tell, there has not been any mushroom cultivation on this island in the Azores. The Azoreans as a whole are fairly fungophobic (please see my article on Fighting Fungophobia for more details). If there has been mushroom cultivation on any of the Azorean islands, I am fairly certain it was not for edible, gourmet mushrooms, if you know what I mean.

For those of you who have never attempted growing your own mushrooms, the idea can seem a bit overwhelming. I will take you through how I set up my patch, step by step. It is really rather simple. In my opinion, there should be at least one Mushroom Patch in every garden around the world.

As I explained in my previous article, I ordered my mushroom spawn from Fungi Perfecti. This fantastic company has always had great customer service and quality products. I highly recommend them. Also, I plan on performing a number of experiments with a variety of mushroom species. I started with Stropharia rugosoannulata, also known as the King Stropharia, the Garden Giant, Wine Cap Stropharia, and Burgundy Mushroom. This project is with Coprinus comatus, also known as the Shaggy Mane and the Shaggy Ink Cap. I wrote a more indepth article about the Shaggy Mane mushroom which you can read if you are interested. It is very common around the world. The genus, Coprinus, literally means “living on dung”. For the Shaggy Mane, this means it grows well on rotted or composted manure which is what I am using for my project. The 6-12 months it takes for the mycelium to spread through and breakdown the manure before it produces mushrooms is plenty of time for harmful pathogens to be die off. Also, mushrooms should be cooked!

However, Shaggy Mane mushrooms can also grow in rich compost if you are nervous or repulsed by using manure. This is also considered one of the easiest mushrooms to grow outdoors.  I would agree after setting up this Mushroom Patch. Let me show you…


This is how the box shipped from Fungi Perfecti.


Inside the box was this plastic bag filled with wood chips and sawdust, white with Shaggy Mane mycelium!


Here is the location of the mushroom bed. Just on the other side of the compost bin is my initial King Stropharia Mushroom Patch. For the same reasons, I placed this patch next to my compost bin. Close enough for regular monitoring and watering (if needed), but out of the way.


I removed the grass and any sticks and large rocks from the area. It is about 3 feet square (0.9 meters).


I piled on a load of moderately well processed compost, a thin layer of straw/crass clippings, and then about fifteen gallons of manure. The manure was probably about 1-2 weeks old. I rescued it from a corner of an open barn where cattle and sheep were being raised.


Next, I crumbled the mushroom spawn (the white block in the photo above) over the patch and watered everything until the pile was wet.


Finally, I mixed all the layers together very well to evenly distribute the spawn, and then I watered it all again very well. I then covered it in some dried garden clippings. And now I wait…


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Photo References:

  • All photos (other than the one of the mushrooms) are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them. Thanks!