The long view – animals on the farm or The continuing saga of the Cloverwood Chronicles
Most of the time people have a one track mind when it comes to farm animals. They are only good for one thing. We steal their eggs and milk, and eat their meat. We assume they are dumb when they don’t bend to our will. We are superior and smarter, and we know what is best. And what is best is, eggs every day, only steak, and all the milk so we can sell it or try out all those cheese recipes we have been drooling over. It’s impressive you know, to make cheese, and dine well. We deliberately compartmentalize in our minds that we need the best of everything and leave all the other stuff to “someone else.”
We don’t have steak too often here - always on birthdays, or when we feel we need to treat ourselves. It would be disrespectful to this fella and his place on our farm to only eat his steaks. He was pill for sure, and serendipity brought him here, but he did his part and we had to do ours.
The other huge disconnect in agriculture and our culture these days is waste. I don’t mean wasting food, I mean animals’ waste. And most farms waste their waste. Or worse yet, don’t even have farm animals to complete the cycle. The excuses are many: too much work to clean out the barn, coop, whatever. It stinks. We don’t need it, we can buy fertilizer. And organic farms aren’t exempt either, they purchase inputs to beat the band. I purchase inputs too, but they are used by the animals first. Minerals to help them be healthy, and to heal our pastures and gardens. Straw to bed them to keep them warm and dry and to fuel our carbon needs for compost. Which then in turn is spread around to replenish what we have taken.
If we want to be more sustainable we should close the gaps. Buying in fancy amendments from far off places is no different than buying processed food at the store. It’s convenient, and neat and tidy. But those practices are begging for a closer look. How much different is it really to be using purchased inputs that are deemed OK?
This discussion also needs to address the vegan mentality of farming that only allows for green manures to replenish what is taken by cropping. That is all well and good, cover crops have their place, and I use them in my garden too. But, that isn’t how nature works. Cover cropping only, leaves a break in the thread that holds the farm quilt together. It’s not really a quilt until you have all the pieces and layers put together in the whole. Just like adding a hint of yellow to a quilt to make it pop, adding diversity by way of farm animals is a way to make the land come alive.
But the land will probably won’t wake up if we don’t nurture that manure. It sounds funny doesn’t it? Nurture manure. We giggle when the horse farts, or when the cow poops during a farm tour. Bathroom humor, stuck in the 4th grade when bodily functions are thought to be embarrassing or awful. It never ceases to amaze me how fixated people are with poop in such an odd way. It must not be seen or heard, shoo $hit, get outta here! But really we need to start paying more attention and close the gaps in our farming and gardening processes.
Besides using short duration, high density grazing to place the manure where we want it, we use deep bedding during the winter when the soil is dormant. I know it makes people groan thinking of cleaning out a chicken coop anymore than they already do. But by adding carbon, (in our case a little sawdust and lots of straw) the sum of the manure and carbon parts is more than the whole. The bedding takes on a life of its own, starting the age-old process of decomposition and turning into rich soil.
I need to rotate my chicken coops, which are actually small greenhouses. So yes, I will clean it out by hand, but the material is light, doesn’t smell, and everyone needs exercise right? Not the same as my neighbor’s chicken house which is a dank, dark, crap encrusted cute little chicken coop, painted to look like a little barn. I wouldn’t want to clean that out either.
As you can see, from the last three photos, the top layer is straw, and and you dig a little deeper it is rich soil already. I didn’t do anything but bed the chickens as needed. The hens and the microbes did the rest, and hats off to the earthworms too, my coop has dirt floor so the worms have a field day here too.
So connect the dots, confinement can be OK – the key word is management. We manage all our other affairs, why not our livestock manure. Free range is good in theory, but we need to mix and match a little. If my chickens free-ranged, I would be feeding the wildlife, and not gaining any manure or eggs. Less work, but more worry. Same with our cows, I can build a little fence everyday so the cows can graze or I can sweat bullets making more hay or worse yet, work at a desk so I can buy hay from someone else.
What do you think, can agriculture survive without farm animals somewhere in the equation?