Soil

Pig Plows and Wildflowers

I don’t own a tractor.

There may come a time when I change my mind, but I actually hope to never own one if I can help it.

But I still could use some earth turned from time to time.

Fortunately I have pigs.

And they can beautifully plow up a field. I have struggled to bury a shovel blade in the same soil that my pigs move through with seemingly no effort.

And they only use their nose!

Pig plow in action.

Pigs who root are happy pigs!

Pigs are amazing animals.

This same plowing efficiency is why some people do not want pigs in their pastures. That’s understandable. Especially if it is a good pasture. The pigs will tear it up.

The key to grazing pigs on pasture… and yes, I do mean grazing… my pigs love fresh grass! …but the key to grazing pigs on pasture is to make sure the soil and pasture are not destroyed by the pigs in their process of tearing it up.

And that’s not a contradiction.

A pasture that is torn up and left with patches of bare soil has the real possibility of being destroyed. A pasture that is torn up and then quickly covered again with grasses and other pasture plants is not destroyed, but is stable or even improved.

And this is the process we are implementing on our farm.

The rolling hills and valleys of our pastures.

Our farm has some areas of pretty good pasture and really bad pasture. Not surprisingly, the worst areas are on the ridges of our many hills. The topsoil is very shallow or even non-existent and has almost no organic matter.

These infertile, poor-soil ridges are the perfect place for our pigs.

This is our “soil” on the ridges… not very good

Between the Broomsedge and erosion already present on the ridges, it was pretty easy to see where we should start working to repair the soil.

Here’s our plan:
We set up a paddock on the ridges. We use poly braid electric fencing with a portable electric solar charger. The paddock will not extend too far on either side of the ridge where the pigs can cause significant erosion. We just want the soil turned over. We add hay to the paddock. The pigs eat some of this, but mainly they nest in it at night. After a few days, and this all depends on the size of the paddock and how much rain we get, the paddock will be sufficiently pig-plowed, and the pigs will be ready to be moved to the next paddock. The day before we move the pigs, we will broadcast seed in the pigs’ paddock. The pigs will trample the seeds into the soft earth. The manure and hay will add a good amount of organic matter to start the soil rebuilding process. The seeds will bring even more biomass and biodiversity to rebuild the soil and pastures.

 

Our pigs have plowed up this paddock and are ready for the next one.

This brings us to the seed.

I have many requirements and desires on pasture species. Therefore my seed list is very diverse.

Here’s the basis of our seed selection:
We desire pasture plants that can feed our animals. We desire plants that produce a lot of biomass (leaves, blades, stems, roots, etc.) to build the soil. We desire plants that can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the soil. We desire plants that can break up our clay soil and subsoil compaction. We desire plants that have deep roots that can withstand drought and pull nutrients from deep in the subsoil. We desire plants that increase soil microorganisms and life in general. We desire plants that yield a steady progression of flowers through the season to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. We desire plants that provide habitat and food sources for beneficial insects.

That is a lot of desires for a seed. No one plant can do all that. There are some species that fulfill many of these requirements, but we also desire to increase the biodiversity of our pastures.

We are going to do this with seeds from two sources, Walnut Creek Seeds and Prairie Moon Nursery.

The bulk of our seeding will be using the Walnut Creek Seed Super Soil Builder Mix. This is a mix of species that will meet the majority of our desires in pasture plants. The seed mix includes:

  1. Field Pea
  2. Cow Pea
  3. Sunn Hemp
  4. Oats
  5. Pearl Millet
  6. Radish
  7. Ethiopian Cabbage
  8. Sunflower

We will also be sprinkling in a small amount of seed from Prairie Moon Nursery every time we seed with the Super Soil Builder. These are seeds from prairie plants native to North America. The majority of these species had original distribution over much of the east, including my home in Tennessee. These plants will fulfill our desire for pollen, nectar, and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. They will also greatly increase the biodiversity in our pastures as there are over 100 species in our mix!

The species from Prairie Moon Nursery include:

  1. Wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia)
  2. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  3. Yellow Giant Hyssop (Agastache neptoides)
  4. Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
  5. Prairie Onion (Allium stellatum)
  6. Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
  7. Pasque Flower (Anemone patens var. wolfgangiana)
  8. Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)
  9. Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate)
  10. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  11. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  12. Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticallata)
  13. Heath Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum ericoides)
  14. Smooth Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum laeve)
  15. Calico Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum lateriflorus)
  16. New England Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
  17. Sky Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis)
  18. Canada Milk Vetch (Astragalus canadensis)
  19. White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba)
  20. Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis)
  21. Decurrent False Aster (Boltonia decurrens)
  22. Pale Indian Plantain (Cacalia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium)
  23. Great Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum reniforme)
  24. Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
  25. Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
  26. Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)
  27. Lance-Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  28. White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida)
  29. Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa)
  30. Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
  31. Illinois Bundle Flower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
  32. Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
  33. Illinois Tick Trefoil (Desmodium illinoensis)
  34. Midland Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
  35. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  36. Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  37. Bush’s Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)
  38. Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
  39. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
  40. Biennial Gaura (Gaura biennis)
  41. Cream Gentian (Gentiana flavida)
  42. Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)
  43. Showy Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)
  44. Early/False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
  45. Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis)
  46. Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
  47. Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota)
  48. False Boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides)
  49. Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)
  50. Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis)
  51. Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
  52. Marsh Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
  53. Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
  54. Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
  55. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  56. Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica)
  57. Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)
  58. Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis)
  59. Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  60. Tube Beardtongue (Penstemon tubaeflorus)
  61. Narrow-Leaved Obedient Plant (Physostegia angustifolia)
  62. Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
  63. Prairie Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta)
  64. Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)
  65. Hairy Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var.pilosum)
  66. Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
  67. Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
  68. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  69. Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)
  70. Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
  71. Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
  72. Late Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
  73. Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)
  74. Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica)
  75. Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)
  76. Rosin Weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  77. Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  78. Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  79. Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  80. Stout Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
  81. Grass-Leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia)
  82. Early Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  83. Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
  84. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  85. Purple Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum)
  86. Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
  87. Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
  88. Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
  89. Yellow Crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides)
  90. Common Ironweed (Veronia fasciculate)
  91. Missouri Ironweed (Veronia missurica)
  92. Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
  93. Heart-Leaf Golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera)
  94. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
  95. Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)
  96. New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  97. Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)
  98. Early Wild Rose (Rosa blanda)
  99. Big Bluestem PLS (Andropogon gerardii)
  100. Side-Oats Grama PLS (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  101. Bebb’s Oval Sedge (Carex bebbii)
  102. Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevior)
  103. Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea)
  104. Canada Wild Rye PLS (Elymus canadensis)
  105. Virginia Wild Rye PLS (Elymus virginicus)
  106. Dudley’s Rush (Juncus dudleyi)
  107. June Grass PLS (Koeleria macrantha)
  108. Switch Grass PLS (Panicum virgatum)
  109. Little Bluestem PLS (Schyzachyrium scoparium)
  110. Indian Grass PLS (Sorghastrum nutans)
  111. Rough Dropseed (Sporobolus asper)
  112. Prairie Dropseed PLS (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Note: There are a few of the species listed here that may be toxic to livestock. Then why would I add them to our fields where our sheep and pigs and other animals may eat them? First, none of the species are extremely toxic. Second, toxicity is almost always dose dependent… meaning, a little bit will not cause trouble. If a whole paddock was filled with a mildly toxic plant, then yes, an animal could be harmed. But we are adding so few of each plant, that I am not concerned about this. Third, these are native prairie plants that have been grazed by herbivores on this continent for thousands and thousands of years before modern humans altered the ecosystem… meaning, grazing animals have and can live in harmony with these plants. Fourth, when animals have a choice, and that is key, they will choose the plants their bodies need. Many of these “toxic” plants are likely medicinal to the animals in small quantities. If herbivores have plenty of options for grazing, they will eat what is needed and desired, and not more. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in light of the other reasons listed above, I believe the benefit from this huge increase in biodiversity is worth the very small risk.

As this system matures, I will add photos!

 

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Patches of Spring Regeneration

It’s not much yet, but I’m still excited to see these bright, Spring green patches of grass coming up in a pasture that was recently covered with Eastern Red Cedar seedlings (Juniperus virginiana) and Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus).

This is the result after only a single rotational grazing period with our sheep followed immediately with my small riding mower to knock down the clumps of Broomsedge.

We did no reseeding, liming, or calcium application… all of which would be helpful and would speed up the recovery/regeneration process.

It’s these little encouragements that confirm we are on the right track.

 

 

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Dealing with Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus)

Andropogon virginicus, also known as Broomsedge Bluestem (or just Broom Sedge), Yellowsedge Bluestem, and Whiskey Grass is a clumping grass that is native to the southeastern United States, and this includes where our farm is located in East Tennessee.

In the photo above, you can see how thick it has grown in the pastures on our farm.

When we first moved to our farm almost 2 years ago, I knew this plant was going to be a great indicator species for me to monitor the health and regeneration of our pastures.

Broomsedge in a pasture tells me that the pastures have been overgrazed or neglected or both. While grazing animals will eat it in Spring and early Summer, it is not preferred. It has less nutrition than other pasture plants, and once it dries out in late Summer and early Autumn, grazing animals will mostly ignore it.

A fun photo of our kids right after we bought the farm… but look at all that broom sedge and red cedar taking over the pastures!

Why is it an indicator of overgrazing?

Well, as many graziers like to say, “herbivores eat dessert first”. They will choose the pasture grasses and plants that have high levels of sugar and/or protein and/or mineral content first. Examples of these plants include clovers, bluegrass, rye, timothy, etc. Ideally, our pastures will have high proportions of these plants.

Herbivores will eat their favorite “dessert” plant first, then wander over and eat another “dessert” plant, and then wander some more and eat yet another “dessert” plant. All the while, they are ignoring the less desirable species of grass or pasture plant.

When the animal eats the leaves of one of these plants, the photosynthetic ability of that plant is suddenly and significantly reduced. The plant now has to rely on the energy reserves in its roots to stay alive. It will use these energy reserves to grow new leaves, or as I like to say, new photosynthetic energy generators. Depending on the season and plant species, this new growth (regrowth) will start in 4-10 days.

If the pasture is small or there is a high stocking density (i.e. a high number of animals per given area of land), the animals may east the less desired plants only after they have eaten all the highly desired “dessert” plants first.

If we leave the animals on the pasture too long during the active growing season then, by the time the animals make their way around the pasture, there has been sufficient time for the “dessert” plants to start to put on new growth.

Now, the only plant an herbivore likes more than a “dessert” plant is a “dessert” plant with tender regrowth!

So the “dessert” plants will be eaten again, just as they are trying to regrow. They have used up a significant amount of their energy reserve in their roots to put out new leaves, and these leaves are now gone again. So the plant has to pull even more stored energy from the roots to try and regrow even more leaves. A plant can only do this so many times before it has no energy reserve left, and then the plant will die.

All the while, the less desirable plant continues to grow. It matures. It develops and drops its seed right next to the “dessert” plant that has been grazed, literally, to death. Now that less desirable plant can move in to the space previously occupied by the “dessert” plant.

This is how, over time, a pasture can become full of less desirable species of grasses and plants.

This is exactly what has happened on my farm. The previous owner let a neighbor open graze his cattle (that means let the cattle have free access to all pastures) for well over 10 years, maybe more.

Fortunately, not all “dessert” species were lost. But the less desirable species, especially the Broomsedge Bluestem, were given an unfair advantage for a long time. Now my pastures are covered with it.

We are rotationally grazing our sheep as one method to improve our pastures.

So what am I going to do about it?

First, we are going to manage our pastures with intensive rotational grazing techniques. This is going to make the biggest long-term impact on the health and improvement of our pastures. I have written about it multiple times in the past on my site:

  1. Sheep paddock rotational grazing
  2. Mob grazing with sheep
  3. More evidence of our farm’s regeneration
  4. Rotational grazing Azores style

Second, since this plant is a native to my area, I am not overly worried about it. But it is not an ideal plant. I would rather have more of the “dessert” species in my pastures. The rotational grazing methods we are using will work to regenerate our pastures. But I think we can speed the regenerative process up a bit.

Third, we will speed the regenerative process up by thinking a bit about how the less desirable species grows (in this case it is Broomsedge Bluestem). It is a clumping grass. It is eaten by our sheep in the Spring and early Summer. By late Summer and early Autumn, it will dry out and form fairly thick standing clumps. These clumps will stay standing all Winter long and well into the next year. By staying standing, it will shade out the growth of other pasture species, thereby maintaining its position in the pasture.

On the left of this photo is the field I am actively mowing… cutting the Broomsedge. A swale is holding water almost a week after the last rain. This moisture has helped “green up” the landscape downhill, but that area was also mowed a few months earlier, and so that pasture was not shaded out by the tall, dense Broomsedge clumps.

Forth, I use this information to develop management plans to encourage other plants’ growth. Specifically, I let the animals eat the Broomsedge in the Spring and early Summer. Then, especially in Winter when we will not interfere with the active growth of other plants, I knock down the dried standing clumps of Broomsedge. I do this by cutting it with my riding mower. Yes, I am sure I get some strange looks by my neighbors when I am riding my small mower in the middle of our pastures. But there is a method to my madness. By cutting those standing clumps in Winter, I am preventing the Broomsedge Bluestem from shading out the other plants come Spring. I am trying to give the unfair advantage back to the desired species.

About a week after mowing the area uphill of the swale, there is already new green growth. This is mostly fescue, a cool-season grass that is getting a jump start due to the recent warmer weather AND my letting in more sunlight by cutting the Broomsedge.

There are a number of other techniques that could be used. We could add seed of desirable plants. We do this a bit right now. I broadcast clover seed in Winter (this is known as frost seeding). Other people my use a tractor and seeder to drill (i.e. plant) seed in the pastures. Some people may plow up a field and reseed, and other people may use chemicals to kill all the grass in a pasture and then reseed with the plants they desire. We do not have a tractor, and I am pretty adamant about avoiding all synthetic chemicals on our property. This is how we came up with the methods we are now using.

 

All photos in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.

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More Evidence of Our Farm’s Regeneration

We are in the middle of a drought at the end of October here in East Tennessee. It is classified as moderate to severe, depending on the source. Those in the drylands of the world would laugh at our complaints, but we are truly in a drought for our area. We are not in the desert. We are not in the drylands. We are in a continental temperate climate, and our average rainfall is between 36-44 inches (91-111 cm) per year, and this is one of the reasons we chose this area to live. Unfortunately, our rainfall is significantly below average. In fact, we are currently in the fourth driest month on record here in East Tennessee.

What does that mean to us and to our neighbors? Well, it means things are really dry. The soil. The pastures. Our ponds. And our neighbors are concerned about having enough hay for the Winter.

While it is not a cure-all by any means, but our application of Holistic Management is keeping our animals, and our land, in pretty good condition despite the drought. For those unfamiliar with the term, Holistic Management is a system of land and pasture management geared at improving the soil and the environment while still making a living using livestock. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a brief explanation.

A fun photo of our kids... but look at all those red cedars and that broom sedge!

A fun photo of our kids… but look at all those red cedars and that broomsedge!

Above and below are a couple photos of our land when we first moved to the farm. It was a bit dry then as well in the first photo, although nothing like right now. You can see a few issues relatively quickly if you know what to look for. First, there are a lot of young Eastern Red Cedar trees/saplings (Juniperus virginiana) across the pastures. These pioneering plants will try to turn a pasture/field back into forest. Second, there is a lot of Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus). This is a native clumping grass that often indicates, and rightly so in our case, that the land has been overgrazed. I love native plants, no kidding, but some are better than others. Herbivores will eat Broomsedge Bluestem in the Spring and early Summer, but the nutritional quality of this plant greatly drops as the plants mature. Animals generally avoid it at this point. Then, to make matters worse, this clumping plant stays standing and blocks sunlight to other more desirable plants.

Another photo of our land right when we moved in.

Another photo of our land right when we moved in.

We were extremely blessed to have a youth group volunteer almost a week to clear the Eastern Red Cedar saplings from our fields. This saved untold hours of work on our part. And it was the first step in pasture regeneration.

Eastern Red Cedar removal!

Eastern Red Cedar removal… we only had a piles of cut cedars left!

At this time, we are using sheep as our primary tools to repair our land. We rotate them frequently… as often as every 3-4 days with the drought conditions we have right now. We use portable solar electric fencing and give them just enough space to keep them fed and happy for a few days at at time. The sheep trample a lot of the dried Broomsedge Bluestem. They nibble a little bit of it as well. They graze most of the other plants in the pasture. We give almost no ancillary feed; just a little fermented grains to move them from one paddock to the next. The sheep deposit manure and urine which fertilizes the soil and provides additional organic matter.

We use sheep as our main land regenerators at this time.

We use sheep as our main land regenerators at this time. This was earlier in the year when we had a decent amount of rain… look at that green!

After the sheep are moved off the paddock, I will take our tractor… okay, it is actually just a riding mower, and I take down anything that is left standing in the paddock. Yes, this is more management than I desire to do, but I only plan to mow any given pasture one time, and one time only. As we knock down the Broomsedge Bluestem, we are making room for the other pasture plants to take their spot, to outcompete them. Ideally, I would mow right before the Broomsedge Bluestem is forming a seed head, but that is not always possible. But by knocking it down so that it cannot form a shading clump, we are giving the other plants an “unfair” advantage. This seems to be giving the other plants just the boost they need. Combined with our grazing method as described above, I don’t plan to ever mow an area twice.

Our only "tractor".

Our only “tractor”. I don’t ever plan on owning a “real” tractor.

Here I come to our proof. Our evidence that what we are doing is truly working. The photo at the top of the article (and below as well) shows our personalized rotational grazing method. In general, you can see how brown everything is. This is not normal for this time of year here in East Tennessee. But with our land management, we are still getting green growth… despite the drought!

In the far left is where I have just removed the sheep. Then in the center area is the area I have just mowed. Then to the right you can see the area that has already been grazed and mowed and rested for just over a week. No Broomsedge Bluestem. And lots of new, green growth! This is a mix of pasture grasses and forbs (non-grass herbaceous flowering plant… sheep love these!).

This Permaculture stuff works. Even in drought!

The different stages of our pasture's regeneration.

The different stages of our pasture’s regeneration.

 

Please ask if you would like to use one of my photos!

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Mob Grazing with Sheep

I want to share one photo of our sheep paddocks, before and after. In the foreground is the previous paddock. The background is the current paddock (obviously). We aim to graze or trample at least 70% of the standing pasture plants. It is never perfect, but this grazing paddock was close to our goal. Much of the uneaten plants were trampled to the ground and will now act as a mulch layer. This trampled grass covers bare soil. It decomposes and adds organic matter. It is currently haying time around here, and many of my neighbors would see these trampled plants as wasted hay. I see it as a fantastic resource.

Rotational grazing works with large or small herds of animals. It is all about stocking density and timing of animal paddock rotation.

 

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Spiders Is Good!

BK_Spiderwebs_02

Spiderweb

I don’t quote movies often, but I occasionally will repeat a random quote from a random movie, Fletch Lives. One character, Calculus Entropy (an undercover FBI agent) meets Chevy Chase in a run down house infested with insects. He sagely states, “Spiders is good. They eats the cockroaches.”

I have use that line many times, first because it’s kind of funny, but second because it is so true.

We have been at our farm for just over a year, and I am so excited to see the pastures coming back to life. I went out the other morning, and the pastures looked as if they were decorated with jewels as the sunrise shimmered in the dew on hundreds of spiderwebs.

When we consider the pasture’s food web, we know that there needs to be exponentially more insects (i.e. spider food) than spiders to support these predatory creatures. So when I see hundreds of spiderwebs, I know that there are thousands upon thousands of other insects. This means our pastures are filled with life instead of dead due to chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. And this is a really good thing!

(see my related article: We Have Dung Beetles!)

 

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We Have Dung Beetles!

Yes, I am excited to see Dung Beetles in our pastures.

Yes, I know that many people may think this is an odd thing to get excited about… but it’s because they don’t understand what it means.

To me, this says our pastures are turning a corner from dying to living. From degenerating to regenerating. It means we are moving in the right direction!

Let me briefly explain. Many farms across the world are dead or dying. Farmers, with good intention but poor knowledge, spray synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. This kills the creatures that live in and off the soil. This ultimately kills the soil, and this ultimately kills the farm. Yes, it is that simple, and it is that vital! As we stop killing the biodiversity on our farms, our soils can come back to life. The pastures become more healthy and more resilient… and the farm follows.

 

BK_Dung_Beetles_02

I love seeing Dung Beetles on the farm!

The Dung Beetle life cycle is relatively straightforward. They lay eggs into dung (i.e. manure). The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the nutrients found in the manure. The larvae pupate into adult beetles, and the cycle repeats itself. Some Dung Beetles directly bury the manure; this means the adult beetles dig a hole straight through the manure pile into the soil. They take the manure with them into either shallow holes or deep holes depending on the species. We can identify the presence of direct burrowers by seeing manure piles with a bunch of holes in it. Other Dung Beetles are rollers. They make a dung ball and roll it to another location. Once at their desired location, they dig a hole and bury the ball.

Dung Beetles perform multiple beneficial functions on a farm. They bury massive amounts of nutrient rich manure into the soil. This alone make them hugely beneficial. Also, since Dung Beetles can make a manure pile disappear within a few hours to a few days (depending on numbers and size of the pile), this reduces the ability of other insects, like annoying and disease spreading flies, to use the manure for their reproduction cycle. Dispersing the manure also helps break animal pest and parasite cycles. From an aesthetic viewpoint, when manure piles are quickly dispersed, smells are also quickly dispersed. And walking through pastures with large numbers of Dung Beetles, means guests and kids are less likely to get manure all over their shoes.

 

BK_Dung_Beetles_01

Specifically, I think these beetles are Canthon pilularius, known as the “Common Tumblebug”. This is a dung-rolling Dung Beetle in the Scarabaeidae (or Scarab) Family.

Dung Beetles are a fantastic marker of pasture health, and therefore, soil health. They are very sensitive to chemicals sprayed into pastures and used on animals (cattle, sheep, etc.). These chemicals directly kill the adults or indirectly reduce Dung Beetle numbers by destroying eggs and beetle larvae. All the benefits listed above are lost. I can’t tell you how many conventional farms I have been on where there are dried piles of cow manure that have been sitting on the surface of the soil for years. These big, concrete-like frisbees are glaring markers of poor soil health. This is what covered our pastures when we moved to our farm just over a year ago.

Maybe now you can see why I am so excited to see Dung Beetles on our farm!

 

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The First Year at the Bauernhof!

This week marks the one year anniversary of moving to our farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner.

It has been busy. It’s been exciting. We’ve had successes. We’ve had failures. We have had sad times. We have had a lot of fun.

I am going to go through each of the projects we have taken on this year and provide an evaluation of each one.

 

SHEEP

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One of my sons with our flock of Katahdin Hair Sheep.

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This is me with one of our new sheep.

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This is me with our first lambs born at the farm, twin boys!

Overview:
We have a small flock of Katahdin Hair Sheep. We started with 10 ewe lambs. We lost one early on to an unknown injury/illness. We were able to borrow a Katahdin ram from a neighbor, and so far, 7 of our 9 ewes have delivered. We had 3 ewe lambs and 5 ram lambs delivered with no complications and no need for bottle-feeding. There was one set of twins.

Lessons Learned:
Our ewes range from medium to small in size. This is directly due to less-than-ideal genetics. If we would have taken some time to visit a few other flocks, we would have quickly been able to see that these sheep were pretty small compared to breed standard. But these sheep were local and easy to obtain, they have all been great mothers so far, and they have performed well on our poor pastures. So far, this has been a good start for us… but I still wish we had bigger sheep!

Moving Forward:
We have 7 proven ewes. We have 2 that may be pregnant  (the ram visited on two different occasions, so they still have a shot). We have internally increased our flock by 3 ewes. We are also adding 8 more ewe lambs (from larger-sized genetics!) this month, so this will bring our flock up to 20 ewes. Our goal is to have 40-50 ewes on our farm. They seem to be performing well on our land. Things are moving well with our sheep.

 

PIGS

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Our pigs snuggled together on a cool morning.

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Our Guineas jump right in with the pigs during feeding time. All the animals love the fermented grains!

Overview:
We have a small herd of heritage breed pigs. We currently have 5 females. These are 1 American-Guinea Hog mix, 2 Vietnamese Potbelly Pigs, 1 Gloucester Old Spot-Large Black-Mulefoot Hog mix, and 1 Gloucester Old Spot-Large Black-Berkshire Hog mix. We have a young, unproven Gloucester Old Spot boar who should be sexually mature any day now. In addition, we have 2 castrated male American-Guinea Hogs which we will be processing this coming Autumn.

Lessons Learned:
I love pigs! But they can be hard on the land. If the pigs are left too long in an area, then they will make a wallow. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a pig thing. It can be bad if we didn’t want a wallow where they made one. But it can be great if we use their earth-moving tendencies to help us till the land before we use it for something else. With pigs, it is all about timing. If they are in one place for more than a few days, especially if it is wet (rain, lowlands, etc.), then they will start to really till the land. Some people will place rings in the pigs’ nose, but we have not chosen to do this at this point. The pigs have been tilling the area where we will be placing our forest garden and annual garden.

Moving Forward:
Our long term goal is to raise pigs in a savanna-style system… grass in the Spring and Summer and then fatten them on nuts (mast) that fall from our oaks, hickories, and walnuts in our forest in the Autumn. We are also planting many apple and chestnut trees on our property for ourselves and our pigs. We still need to get our fencing systems set up in the forest to implement the full plan.

 

LAYER CHICKENS

We keep a flock of laying hens that produce eggs for us and for sale.

We keep a flock of laying hens that produce eggs for us and for sale.

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.

Our layer chickens are mostly free-ranged.

Our EggMobile!

We do provide a nightly, mobile coop for our layers

Overview:
We have a mixed flock of free-ranging, laying chickens with about 45 hens. We have Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires, Ameraucanas, Buff Orpingtons, and a single Golden-Laced Polish. The birds are moved around the property in a mobile coop. We are averaging 36-40 eggs a day.

Lessons Learned:
I have read that chickens will take a grassy area down to bare dirt, and so we decided to run our chickens after our pigs to prepare our garden area. Yes, they did take down some of the grass, but not all of it and not very fast. We eventually put up a poultry net around the coop to prevent them from ranging too far. I am sure if I left the chickens in the same spot for a longer time, they would eventually take it down to bare earth. But as we were waiting for this to occur, our egg quality and numbers declined. Our yolks became more pale, and our daily number of eggs (which was really quite good) decreased. We eventually took down the poultry netting and let the chickens go back to free-ranging. We also initially kept our roosters, but they were not really fond of our small children. The roosters never really bothered me. I think they either saw me as alpha or as a non-threat. Unfortunately, they ended up attacking everybody else who visited the coop. We were really not happy to do it, but our goal is a no-stress farm. Roosters randomly attacking people living or visiting the farm is actually pretty high-stress. So the roosters had to go. Finally, a word about chicken poop! We installed a half-inch hardware cloth (wire mesh) on the floor, but it catches everything and prevents it from falling through the mesh. We will need to replace it with a larger mesh in the near future.

Moving Forward:
Our coop can house about 75 birds, so we are going to increase our chicken egg production by adding some additional layers. We just received some Colombian Wynadottes, and we will be adding some Cuckoo Marans and Speckled Sussex in a few weeks. We will continue to run the layer chickens after the pigs and sheep as these animals are rotated around the property.

 

BROILER CHICKENS

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

A view of our farm in Bulls Gap, TN

A view of our farm in Bulls Gap, TN

Overview:
Last year we ran 200 fast-growing, Cornish-Rock Cross broiler chickens in two Joel Salatin-style chicken tractors. We processed the chickens at our farm between 8-9 weeks of age. We sold about half of the chickens and used the rest for ourselves.

Lessons Learned:
This is a fast turnaround farm product. We had no problem selling our pasture-raised, organic-fed chickens. In fact, we had to limit our sales so that we could actually eat some our own chickens! The meat was outstanding. These birds grow fast and grow large. The only way to make any money raising broiler chickens is to process them ourselves. But this is a lot of work. We processed 100 broilers a day on two very long days about 2 months apart. More hands make the work significantly better, but if you need to pay for those hands, your profit drops. I wanted to save the livers and gizzards of as many birds as I could. Personally, I love organ meat, and when it comes from animals raised the way we raise them, I think the organ meat is extremely healthy. But if you want to keep the liver intact, you need to be a lot more careful during the evisceration process. This really slows down the process. I watched many videos of Joel Salatin eviscerating his chickens, and I am amazed at his speed. I work well with my hands, but I probably need a few thousand more birds before I get at fast as Joel.

Moving Forward:
We are increasing our broilers from 200 to 300 this year. This is not a huge increase. But we really want to improve our process. We are implementing Small and Slow Solutions and Applying Self-Regulation and Accepting Feedback. We don’t want to burn out with this great system.

 

DUCKS

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A Rouen male (drake).

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An immature Rouen drake (male) on the left and a hen (female) on the right.

Overview:
We started with 30 Rouen Ducks. We ordered a straight run (meaning they would give us unsexed birds). We ended up with about 10 females and 20 males. We initially ordered the ducks for a few reasons. One of my sons is allergic to chicken eggs, and it appeared that he was not allergic to duck eggs. Unfortunately, his allergy eventually extended to duck eggs as well. Bummer! The second reason was we were considering selling the duck eggs, but we wanted to test the market a bit first. The third reason is that I like duck meat. Finally, we have three ponds on our property, and I thought ducks may be a nice addition.

Lessons Learned:
So the egg-allergy angle failed. The duck meat is really good, but they are really hard to de-feather. We can skin the birds and avoid having to de-feather, but a nice, crispy skin on a duck breast is delicious. But again, ducks are really, really hard to de-feather! We tried the chicken plucker, hot wax dips, hand plucking. None of it works well. I did process (and de-feather!) all but 5 of the males and kept all of the females. But then an unknown predator (hawk? fox? raccoon?) killed 3 of our females. We now only have 7 females remaining. They are laying pretty good now, 3-5 per day. That’s decent for this breed. We now have three nests that indicate our ducks may be getting broody (ready to sit and hatch some ducklings). We have also not had any problem selling our duck eggs. Finally, after doing more research, our ponds are not quite large enough for the number of birds we have. Too many birds on a pond, and the pond will quickly get out of balance. Too much manure dropping into the water will result in algae blooms and fish die-off. Too many ducks on a small pond will quickly kill the pond.

Moving Forward:
We like the ducks a lot. We are hoping they will go broody and raise some ducklings. We will keep the females and process (skin!) the males. We will continue to sell any excess duck eggs we have. We are still trying to see if ducks will work for us in the long run.

 

GEESE

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A young Pilgrim gander (male).

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A mature Toulouse gander.

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The white Pilgrim gander with the Toulouse geese

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Goose eggs are large, and a double-yolked goose egg is enormous!

Overview:
We started with 6 pairs of sexed goslings. We had three male/female pairs of Pilgrim Geese and three male/female pairs of Large Dewlap Toulouse Geese. We lost one due to a leg injury. We lost another to a poultry netting injury. I had to process one due to him being really mean (my kids called him Vader, and they were pretty scared of him). We then lost another four to another unknown predator (fox? raccoon? opossum?). We now have one male Pilgrim and two female Pilgrim Geese and two male Toulouse Geese.

Lessons Learned:
Our goal of having a few pairs of breeding geese has not gone well so far. We made a nice, A-frame nest box for the geese, but the geese ignored it. Both of our female Pilgrims made nests on their own next to the pond. Despite what I just said above about keeping the birds off the pond, we decided to let the geese have access to the water. Geese prefer to breed in water, especially the large breeds like our Large Dewlap Toulouse. The Pilgrim Geese would breed in the water troughs we used in the pastures. But the Toulouse only bred once they got on the pond. So that was a good move on our part. But then we lost our last female Toulouse, so… no more pond for the geese. On top of all this, before the geese started to make nests, we were able to collect a number of eggs. A single goose egg is at least the size of three chicken eggs. They taste great. This was an unexpected bonus for us. Another lesson learned is that my kids are a little scared of the geese. Getting “goosed” is a real thing, and it can be scary for a small child. Again, we don’t want stress on our farm, so this is a bit of a conundrum for us. We all kind of like the geese even though they have not worked out as planned and they can be intimidating.

Moving Forward:
Geese can live a long time. 15-20 years is not out of the question. In fact, there are reports of geese living well over 60 years. I believe that author Harvey Ussery shared a story of a goose living over one hundred years of age in the UK, and was till raising a brood of goslings each Spring, but she unfortunately died from a tractor accident. My point is that a single, first season with the geese is not enough time to make a decision. We plan to keep the geese for now. We are running them with the ducks, and this is working well for now. We will see what the next year holds.

 

GUINEA FOWL

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Our flock of Guinea Fowl

Over 100 eggs were in this Guinea nest found by one of our WOOFERs (Jordan).

Over 100 eggs were in this Guinea nest found by one of our WOOFERs (Jordan).

Overview:
We ordered 23 one-day-old Guinea keets. We now have 22 adults. We lost one, but we have no idea what happened to it. It was just gone one day. We purchased the Guineas to eat ticks as we are in an area with a lot of ticks.

Lessons Learned:
Guineas love ticks! We used to have ticks crawling everywhere on this property, even on the front porch. Within a few weeks of letting the Guineas free range, I don’t think we have had one tick in the 4-5 acres surrounding our house, and we only rarely see them in the pastures. The Guineas range pretty far, covering all 45 acres of our property that are in pasture. They don’t roam much into the woods, and that is where we end up seeing ticks. A bonus is that Guinea eggs taste great. They are a bit smaller than chicken eggs (it takes 3 Guinea eggs to equal 2 chicken eggs). The problem is that Guineas do not lay in nest boxes. They will try to find a secluded location and lay eggs there until caught. None of the hens have gone broody, so occasionally we find a Guinea nest with 50-100 eggs in it! We will eat many of them, but if we are unsure of the freshness, we will boil them and feed the boiled eggs to the pigs. Guineas, just like most birds, enjoy a good dust bath. Unfortunately, they have decided the brick flower beds that line the front of our house are perfect for them. Did it matter the flower beds were filled with flowers? Not to the Guineas. So now we have dirt filled flower beds. The only thing that survived in there were the Rosemary, Lavender, and Mint. So, that is what we are going to fill the beds with. I am not a big fan of these type of flower beds anyway (they get too dried out and require watering too frequently, the soil is not very deep, etc). So the Guineas kind of helped make a decision for us.

Moving Forward:
The Guineas have done their job exceedingly well. Nary a tick to be found unless we venture into the woods. We get eggs as a bonus!

 

DOGS

This is our Scrubs. He travelled the world with us and got us to the farm. We still miss him.

This is our Scrubs. He traveled the world with us and got us to the farm. We still miss him.

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Our male Australian Shepherd, Ritter.

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Our female Australian Shepherd, Arabelle.

Overview:
We had a Dalmatian for about 8 years. We travelled the world together (literally… he lived with us on three continents!). Scrubs made it about 1 year on the farm with us before he died of a presumed liver cancer. That was a really tough time for us. It still is if we think about him too much.

Lessons Learned:
Dogs are an integral part of farm life for us. They offer protection. They offer friendship. We will never have a farm without a dog.

Moving Forward:
Two new Australian Shepherd puppies arrived on the farm within the last month, and they have already become part of the Bauernhof!

 

TREES

We ordered a bunch of trees from Versaland!

We ordered a bunch of trees from Versaland!

Overview:
We have planted about 200 trees so far. These are a mix of Apple, Cherry, Persimmon, Pawpaw, Black Locust, Redbud, and Oak. We still have a number of Chestnuts and Apples to plant, but we are waiting to finish our swales first (see next topic).

Lessons Learned:
Planting takes time. If the soil has not been prepared in any manner, planting takes even longer. We are trying to strike a middle ground between the $100 hole for a $10 tree approach (this means you take a lot of time to perfectly plant a tree) and Mark Shepard’s STUN approach (Simple, Total, Utter, Neglect… plant as many inexpensive trees as possible, as fast as possible, and know that you will lose some). Irrigation is a big deal as well. Fortunately, we have wells and long hoses that can reach each of the trees we planted. If we have not had an inch of rain in the week, we irrigate. This has worked well so far, and we have only had to irrigate twice. But irrigation does take a lot of time.

Moving Forward:
We will continue to plant many, many, many trees!

 

SWALES

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The first swale on the Bauernhof will be just under a half-mile long.

Overview:
We have about 45 acres of pasture with many rolling hills. I have marked out just about one half mile (0.8 km) of an almost continuous contour line cutting across our pastures. I was trying to come up with a way to get some swales built, when I noticed a neighbor had an excavator sitting behind his barn. Our 70+-year-old neighbor, Billy, used to build roads and now has a farm. He has now spent quite a bit of time over at our farm, repairing ponds and building swales for us. What a blessing!

Lessons Learned:
We have a LOT of shale just under the surface of our degraded soils. This takes a lot of time to dig through. Our neighbor Billy has a small, older excavator. Is it perfectly ideal for building swales? No. But does it work? Yes, it does! It just takes a bit more time and finesse, but fortunately, Billy has both. I spent a lot of time thinking about how and where we wanted to put the swales. This is a pretty permanent decision. I almost got stuck in that “analysis paralysis” stage and never made a decision. Finally, I picked a primary reference point and got started. So far, the swales are working well.

Moving Forward:
We still have the other half of the swale to build and plant, but things are going well so far.

 

WOOFERS

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Overview:
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is an organization that connects people interested in learning about and experiencing farm life with host farms. We signed up to be a host farm. My wife does all the screening. Getting quality individuals is really important to us considering we have 4 small children. Our WOOFERs have their own bedroom above our garage.

Lessons Learned:
We have had 4 WOOFERs so far. They have been fantastic! Two have been Americans, one French/Canadian, and one Kiwi from New Zealand. All have been absolutely wonderful. We focus on getting quality people. We are not task-masters on the farm. Yes, there is an understanding that they will provide work for us, and we will provide room and board (food). But we love sharing our farm with young people who are interested in learning more about agriculture, Permaculture, and sustainable/regenerative farming. We want our WOOFERs to feel they have contributed to something good. We want them to find peace here. And our children are continuing to keep their minds opened by meeting people from all over the world (now, they already have a pretty good worldview considering they have lived most of their lives outside of the USA). The WOOFERs mostly take care of the daily animal chores and help with additional projects as needed. This has freed up time for us to move forward on additional projects.

Moving Forward:
The WOOFER addition to our farm has been invaluable. For ourselves, our family, and our WOOFERs, I hope we always have at least one WOOFER on the farm! (If you are interested, check us out!)

 

MISCELLANEOUS OTHER PROJECTS

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We had a Youth Group from Michigan spend 4 days clearing Eastern Red Cedar seedlings and saplings from our pastures!

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Right side: Before our animals. Left side: After our animals.

Soil:
We will continue to work on building the quality of our soil. We are doing this through intensive, rotational grazing of our animals and adding any organic content to the soil that we can find.

Pastures:
Directly tied into the soil topic above is the health of our pastures. We first had to clear the pastures of the encroaching Easter Red Cedars that were attempting to turn the pasture back to forest (see the photo above). The grazing systems we are using will are already improving our pastures. We do occasionally reseed, but not much. I have also mowed certain sections of the pasture a single time with my riding mower after our animals are moved off of it… yes, I am sure some of my neighbors laugh when they see me on my riding mower in the middle of our 45 acres of pasture, but I don’t mind. Our system is working. We had a lot of Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus), well, we still do have a lot, but it is becoming less and less every day. Broomsedge is a native to our area, but it is a less than ideal pasture grass. It is a great marker of poor soil quality. As we are improving our soil quality, the other more desirable species start to take back the space where only the Broomsedge could grow. We are ending up with better pastures every day.

Gardens:
We will finally get started on installing our Forest Garden and Annual Vegetable Garden this Spring. We are getting a later start than I wanted, but that’s okay. Our goal is to continually moving forward. If the timing is not perfect, but we are making progress, then I am happy.

Ponds:
We have three ponds on our property. Our largest pond was almost lost due to cattle having constant access to it before we bought the farm. Fortunately, our neighbor Billy and his excavator came to the rescue. We repaired a very eroded dam wall, reseeded it, and saved it. We have a second pond that is smaller and also has some significant erosion, but is not currently at risk. We also have a very small pond that is severely eroded and almost empty now. Cattle wore down the dam wall, and almost all the water leaked out. I hope to get these ponds repaired this year. I am also planning on adding some irrigation pipes so that we can water our animals from the ponds without letting them have access to the water’s edge.

Forests:
We have over 50 acres of mixed hardwood forests consisting of Oaks, Hickory, Black Walnut, Black Locust, Redbud, Eastern Red Cedar, and other Pine trees mixed in, along with many other species. There are many useful plants in the understory as well. We also have numerous species of edible mushrooms in the forest. Our forests are a significant untapped resource. We are still thinking about ways to appropriately use them.

 

WEBSITE

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TCPermaculture.com

Overview:
It was five years ago, this month, that I started this website. My very first article on the site stated:

In my years of studying about Permaculture, I have often been a bit frustrated with the majority of the authors.  They are all living and writing and designing in the tropics and sub-tropics.  I plan on living in a temperate climate.  While there are a few books, and it seems more every year, on temperate climate Permaculture, many of them are about the general principles of Permaculture.  Few of them get into the weeds, so to speak, of the actual implementation.  I have found bits and pieces of very good information but never a good central clearinghouse for this information.  My goal for this blog is to create as close to a single stop shop for information on temperate climate Permaculture.  It is mainly about putting all the knowledge I have and will find into one spot for me to use in the future. Hopefully it will also be a place others can use and maybe contribute to as well. 

Lessons Learned:
Since I have started my site, I have been pleasantly surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response from readers. Also, since I have started my site, there have been many books published about Permaculture in temperate climates. This is fantastic! Since I finally have a farm of my own, my free time to actually sit down and write has been significantly decreased. That is okay with me. I was never trying to create the most popular website in the world. I just wanted a site useful for me and others. I have done a pretty good job at keeping up to date with my Temperate Climate Permaculture VLOG. I hope to do a bit better with written articles as well.

Moving Forward:
I continue to try and strike a balance between my spiritual life, family life, work life, farm life, social life, personal life, public life, emotional life, etc. It is always something to be introspective about, and I will probably always need to make small corrections here and there. But this site will be here for as long as I can keep it here!

 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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Our Farming Life only works with Family

I am amazed at how much we have accomplished in just a single year, but it would be misleading if I let anyone believe this is all my doing. None of what we have accomplished would be possible without my family. Years ago my wife could never picture herself living on a farm, and now she could never picture herself not living on a farm. She is truly the engine that keeps the farm moving day to day. I come up with all these ideas, but she is truly the one that keeps us on schedule and keeps the house running day after day. She not only helps out in pretty much every project on the farm, but she also raises and homeschools our four children, schedules all of our visitors and WOOFERs, and still finds time to be a writer. Incredible and invaluable is too weak a description. My father and mother are also living on the farm with us, and I have been so happy with how well our multi-generational farmstead has run. My father is a retired carpenter and my mother a lifelong homemaker. They have provided skills, expertise, wisdom, community, and support which has allowed this farm to blossom.

I am sure I am leaving out many projects we have worked on this year, but I need to stop somewhere.

I am so excited about the future of the Bauernhof Kitsteiner. I can hardly wait to see what next year brings!

 

 

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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.

Test

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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Time to start a Forest Garden!

It has begun! We have owned our land for just over a year, and have lived here for almost 9 months. We have experienced all four seasons. We are significantly more tuned in to our land. We are finally ready to start designing our food forest.

A food forest, also known as an edible forest garden, was one of the first unique ideas that introduced me to Permaculture about 15 years ago. While forest gardens are not the sole domain of Permaculture, an affinity exists between the two. And this concept, a small forest containing plants which provide for our needs (the 7 F’s: food, fuel, fodder (feed for our animals), fiber, fertilizer, farmaceuticals (plant derived medicines), fun), was so intriguing to me that I soon became a bit obsessed with Permaculture.

The first goal on our farm was to start producing food for ourselves. We started with animals as they have a fast turn around and could be started on our land as it was. We are finally really getting into a rhythm with their care and maintenance. Any overages (chickens and eggs) are sold for a small profit – well, more of decreasing a small bit of our costs at this point. The next stage is to start our plant production systems. Trees are going to stay put for a long, long time, and so we wanted to make sure we knew the right place to put them. This is why we took a full year before we even started the design process of our food forest. Of course, there are many plant systems other than a food forest, and we plan on incorporating many of these onto our farm.  But we are going to start with the food forest.

We chose a location that was close to our house. It is a southeast facing slope (we are in the northern hemisphere). It is one of our more flat (i.e. less steep!) areas on the farm, so managing it for decades to come will not be as taxing as other locations. There is also an area of lower elevation that holds a lot of water and is just begging to become a wetland/marsh. This will allow us to grow plants that like drier roots up top and water-loving plants down low. Diversity is king… and it’s a whole lot more fun!

A view of the future forest garden.

The site of the future forest garden.

We are currently pulsing our animals through this area. Of course they will be adding a fair amount of manure to the soil, and this is great. Another reason we will be using the animals is to remove the grass in this pasture. The geese and sheep primarily will go after the grass, but the chickens, ducks, and pigs will also eat their share. After this is done, the geese and sheep will be moved off. The pigs will rotate with the chickens and ducks to remove as much of any grass and other plants in this pasture. We will of course be supplementing the feed for these animals at this time. But the goal is to let the animals do the plowing and rototilling for us. I know that there are some folks who do not want to use animals to do this kind of work. I understand. I love to give my animals fresh, green pasture as often as possible. But this is not a permanent set-up. They will get in, do their thing, and we’ll get them out. The pigs will especially enjoy it.

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

The area of the future forest garden as defined by DaftLogic.com

I highly recommend DaftLogic.com when you are working on design plans. This is a free site that allows you to measure area and distances. I use it frequently, and it is very user friendly. As you can see, our future forest garden is right at 2 acres (0.81 hectares). This is not small! It will take a lot of work and many years to “complete”, but we are so excited to get started!

This is a google map's image of the area of interest.

This is a google map’s image of the area of interest.

You can see we’ve already been improving the soil with our sheep and pigs (far left) and our chicken tractors (center). The patchwork appearance is due to the daily, or sometimes twice daily, moves of the tractors. As mentioned above, this rotation will become more intense as we near the time of planting.

The area drawn to scale.

The area drawn to scale.

It’s important to have a basic scale drawing of the land we are designing. This drawing will be used over and over again as the master template that all mock-ups and samples and ideas are based on. This particular drawing is very simple. It took me about 5 minutes to make. It was made by shooting the google map image onto a wall with a projector. I simply traced the important features onto a piece of paper. The only slightly difficult part was zooming in and out until the scale matched a usable distance on my architect scale.

Some major features of this area.

Some major features of this area.

These are the main features on this drawing:

  1. House
  2. Garage
  3. Fence – The entire property has a nice, tight woven fence of about 5-6 feet (152-182 cm). This fence was put up by the original owners to keep coyotes IN. They ran a coyote hunting farm. The bottom of the fence rolls toward the interior of the property (see the photo below). This worked for a hunting property, but causes some trouble when we want to grow something (or clear weeds!) next to the fence line. We are still trying to decide what we want to do about it, but it does work to keep rabbits and other unwanted creatures out of the forest garden area.
  4. Gate
  5. Main road
  6. Bottom of the valley – This is where water collects and flows during the rain. The closer you get to the lower portion of the property border (bottom left), the more water there is and the longer it stays after a rain.
The fence

The fence rolled under at the bottom – like a letter “L”. Lots of plants have grown through, including some trees. This really needs to be dealt with so that we can avoid “weed” problems in the future.

 

Basic topography on this site.

Basic topography on this site.

This is a basic topographic map (not drawn to scale by any means). I made this just to show the general lay of the land. #1 by the house and the #1 on the far upper left represent hills. The land slopes down and then back up at #3 toward the back of the house. If you keep going along that interior road, the land would continue to rise. But that is out of our area of interest for this project. #2 represents the start of the valley floor. A line connecting from #2 to #4 represents the run of this valley. When it rains, there is water in this location running from #2 to #4. After the rains stop, there will be standing water at #4 for 1-2 weeks, sometimes longer.

Soil in this area.

Soil in this area.

  1. The soil around the house is decent. Much of this soil was either placed back after excavation for the house or it was trucked in. All of the area from #1 down the long, steep driveway to #7 is currently planted to lawn. The soil here ranges is depth from a few feet deep before hitting rock around the house, to fairly shallow toward the lower and northeastern (right side) of the drive.
  2. The slope is steep in this area. The soil in this area is poor. It is only about 1/2 – 1 inch deep before hitting a lot of rocks. There is space and soil between the rocks, but not much. This is a difficult area to regenerate, but not impossible.
  3. As the slope is a bit gentler here, and we are a bit further downhill, the soil is deeper. I can dig 6-12 inches before hitting rock. And the rock is spaced farther apart.
  4. Toward the lowest end of the field, the soil is the deepest. I can dig to 24 inches before hitting rock. This area has no standing water after a rain, so the drainage is still good.
  5. This is toward the highest part of the valley floor. This has running water during rains.
  6. This is the lowest part of the valley floor. This has standing water after the rains.
  7. These are areas that were planted to grass (just like #1 above). These areas have fairly deep soils.

The soil on this property is generally poor. It has a very high, reddish-brown clay content. Little organic matter. All areas that are currently pasture have been compacted to some degree by tractors and continuous, open-grazing of cattle. It would be wonderful if the soil was great, but that’s not how it is. We deal with what we have, and fortunately, with good management, there is a lot that can be improved. Our animal rotation is one way we are going to improve the soil. The second is with cover crops. We will take about a year to grow cover crops  with a variety of functions. Here are a few plants we will be using, for example: buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) for biomass; clover (Trifolium species) for biomass and nitrogen fixation; borage (Borago officinalis), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and radish (Raphanus sativus) as deep-rooted/tap-rooted plants to break up the deep layers of the soil. Also, these plants are ones I don’t mind growing in the established forest garden if any of their seeds survive and reseed. We are still toying with the idea of spreading rolls of old/less-than-prime hay over the area to further suffocate/mulch the existing pasture. Of course, these rolls of hay will come with their own seeds, but we will use the chickens to de-seed as much as possible as well. These are just a few of our strategies for improving the soil of our forest garden before ever place a permanent plant.

Next week, we will be taking the next step. We will be collecting soil samples to be sent off to a few labs for analysis. Fun stuff!