By LEAH SMITH
When many people envision a homestead, they have included animals somewhere in the picture. Ducks, goats, geese, or honey bees. Beef cattle, horses, chickens… There are many intriguing options, and though it may seem challenging and intimidating at times, it would be beneficial if every homestead considered some variety of animals. What can be even more exciting than deciding what animals you wish to have on your homestead is how you are going to use them. Odd statement? Let’s see.
First Things First
The primary attraction of any animal, from hog to turkey, is the basic product it will provide you with. Meat, eggs, milk, honey, your first interest in an animal is the product you want. Is it to be goat milk or cow milk, chicken egg or duck egg, beef or pork? Another question — duck eggs, duck meat, or both? Yet another — a lot of cream with your cow milk (Jersey) or do you simply want milk and are not as concerned with cream (Milking Shorthorn)? The amount of space you are dealing with will come into play, with larger animals naturally requiring more space. Breed selection is important here as well as the type of animal. There are many miniature breeds of cows and goats, for example, that have product to offer and require less food and space to produce it than their standard-sized brethren.
For homesteaders, maintaining both a garden and animals will have reciprocal benefits. Think of chickens. Many of our customers have asserted that our eggs are especially good. Our chickens have a lot of garden scraps as a part of their diets. Trimmings from preparing produce for sale as well as damaged and unsold product, when fed to chickens or hogs or cattle, etc., leads to a superior product. Having animals can give you ready access to resources that you might otherwise not have in such quantity or would have to pay for. Many people use crushed egg shells to provide calcium to their tomato plants. Advice from Eliot Coleman tells us that “trash” eggs (overly small, misshapen, cracked or broken during processing) used as an amendment for your homegrown celery gives you exceptional texture and taste in the crop, and I can verify that assertion.
Next, the Perks
When selecting animal breeds, you will also see that they offer secondary benefits that you should be able to take advantage of. Of course, honey bees will provide you with pollination in addition to honey and pollen; this is a well know example. And all animals are happy to supply you with manure in addition to their principal products. But there are other traits of animals, many breed-specific, that will make them a further help on your homestead. = For example, some goose breeds (such as African and Chinese) are very effective foragers and therefore weeders, via removing young, tender weeds and also weed seeds off older plants. Ducks have their preferences for diets of weed seed (Ancona, Cayuga) or insects (Indian Runner, Khaki Campbell) as well. And there are cattle that can serve as draft animals in addition to food sources (American Milking Devon, Dexter).
However, there are benefits that can be gotten from animals that aren’t necessarily breed-specific, but rather are dependent on the “human element” and have to do with animal management. In many ways, animals are working components on the farm that are not always fully utilized. Consider chickens. I have read articles written by unsuccessful composters who saved themselves the hassle of trying to manage a compost pile (and actually got quality compost, guaranteed weed seed free) by letting their chickens work the pile. I have seen people have a caged garden/chicken system in which they release their chickens into recently emptied garden beds to remove pests and garden litter and “till” the soil, readying it for the next planting.
I have plenty of personal experience as well. After rhubarb curculio appeared in our rhubarb patch (and began to seriously affect the quality of the entire second half of the harvest year after year), we found that the volunteer efforts of a trio of Buff Orpingtons who daily declared themselves free-range by flying out of the pen essentially eliminated the problem. Every morning they would head to the rhubarb patch and scratch. The mulch they disturbed had to be raked up periodically, but the removal of the insects was well worth the hassle. Are your chickens simply going to provide you with eggs and fertilizer? Can you concentrate their energies to help you battle the plumb curculio in your apple trees?
Animals as cleanup crew has been done for a long time and is often done on quite a large scale. Pastured poultry and cattle are often moved into vegetable plots or crop fields whose production has just ended to “clean up.” Additionally, cattle can be used to maintain the quality of the hay fields from which they get bales to eat; after doing some cuttings of hay, the farmer can move their animals to be pastured in the hay field, and they will fertilize and improve it in other ways (see below).
There are further examples. I remember reading a statement from a permaculture practitioner years ago that slugs in her garden is a sure sign that she has a duck shortage; when she ran the ducks in, they “ran” the slugs out! A neighbor of mine decided to keep goats as a way of relieving him of the tricky job of mowing around his ponds, and a different neighbor got goats because he wanted to clear some forest of his of shrubs and open it up a for easier walking without having to mow it. The Spanish is a particularly low-maintenance breed of goat and can provide you with meat and clear ground for you without the need of much supplemental food stuffs at all.
Greater Management, Less Work
It is already apparent, even if the story were to end here, that animals are a valuable resource on a homestead. They do take work, though. Cleaning out the chicken coop, cleaning out the cattle shed, these are not small tasks. Perhaps the fact that farming is work is why opportunities are occasionally overlooked to make even greater use of your animals and reduce the need to perform these sorts of chores. The idea of doing less work and getting more out of it seems counterintuitive, but it works. This concept was alluded to earlier. Having ducks and geese doing your weeding and de-bugging is not going to happen by having them penned in an area and simply waiting for food to be tossed to them. They must be in the areas that require attention and be allowed to work. They must also be contained in these areas, not just given access to them, and be moved to new ground when they have accomplished their (your) objective.
For those who pasture the more typical grazing animals, management has always been important and has taken many forms, each of which has its own advantages. Short-term, intense grazing is a practice advocated as animals will be less selective due to the competition to eat. Multi- or mixed-species grazing contributes well to achieving the same thing, as different animals have different dietary preferences. This is often done with a flerd (flock + herd) of sheep and cattle. Additionally, the differing compositions of their manures and the diversity provided for the marketing portion of the farm equation contributes to soil and financial resilience. I previously mentioned running cattle into crop space on a rotational basis with said crops to improve production. Alternatively, they could be bale grazed on poor pasture, thereby attracting animals with the promise of readily available hay to poor pasture land, which they improve with their manure, urine, and hooves. And furthermore, moving cattle through a green manure prior to incorporating it will speed up nutrient cycling, making it less subject to the weather as the cattle contribute to the breakdown of plant material and don’t leave all of the work to the weather-dependent soil biology.
Did I say hooves? Yes, grazing by hooved animals stimulates both root growth and root exudation due to the tug of their grazing on plants. The exudates feed and foster soil biology, biology that mineralizes nutrients in the soil and makes them bioavailable to the plants. Both the root growth and the exudation/nutrient availability trigger leafy growth in the plants, improving your crop. So though you can still reap the benefits of manure by transporting it to your desired location, the improvements initiated by the animal hooves will be lost to you; and, to a great extent, so will the urine they supply. Not to mention the fact that manure handling can take many hours, is wear and tear on tractors, and consumes fossil fuel.
We know that having living roots in the soil all year is the best way to maintain soil quality. And studies are beginning to show that grasslands can, in fact, act as more reliable carbon sinks than trees, and thereby mitigate climate change. But only when properly managed. Animals help with this enormously. In fact, nothing is better for the soil than to have animals on it. Because root exudation from plants triggers shoot growth (which means more photosynthesis), animals lead to more photosynthesis. They benefit the soil in other ways as well. As they fertilize with manure and urine, they also clear away older foliage and create plant litter on the soil surface with their activities, which will compost in place to the benefit of nutrient density/cycling. In other words, livestock do not destroy soil; when properly managed they enhance it.
Now, instead of in terms of energy, let’s think of this same chain of activities in terms of water. Hoof trampling means greater germination of plants (no soil crusting), but it also means greater penetration by water. All of this organic matter improvement will mean better moisture retention. The plant litter on the soil, as well as the thriving plants themselves, shelter and protect the soil and keep the soil temperature down to the benefit of the soil moisture, all making it more resilient to drought. So it appears that it is not only keeping living roots in the soil all of the year, but also keeping live animals on the soil part of the year that leads to the best soil quality.
Plant and Animals in All of Their Functions
This sort of integrated thinking is key to many of the eco-farming systems that are increasing in popularity. Or are they simply gaining recognition? There is permaculture, for one. Permaculture is all about whole systems thinking and using ecosystem designs from the natural world. Its agricultural principles include producing no waste, to integrate rather than segregate, and to use and value diversity. Holistic management, called by some permaculture for rangeland, focuses on the management of water and mineral cycles, energy flow, and ecosystem relationships; and the mutualistic relationship between animals and the land.
Both systems recognize the interrelatedness between animals and land, and therefore the negative outcomes that result when one is removed from the other. Understanding all of the ramifications when agriculture, striving to mimic natural systems, becomes unbalanced means having to recognize the value of plants and animals in all of their functions. Observation and management is needed, rather than laboring to try to correct a symptom of this unbalancing without recognizing the root cause.
Animals are not a single-product proposition. As permaculture and holistic management observes, no agricultural entity should be considered a single-product system. Because animals and land are (naturally) interrelated, they should be managed as a whole. When animals are removed from the land, important cycles develop gaps and it is necessary for humans to step in and attempt to close the gaps, often at the cost of time, money, efficiency, and physical condition. Select animals for your homestead based on the food product you want and the other serves they will provide. Animals are, in fact, very rewarding land management tools, and even if it takes some time to get everything in place, remember it is a great end result to strive for!
Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter.