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Making the most of it – stacking on our farm

October 11, 2010

Pig turned deep bedding.

In our society, single use is the name of the consumerism game.  Gadgets abound, and specialization is the key.  Granted, I like some gadgets here and there, and I can’t argue that my handy dandy New Zealand fence energizer can weed my garden or make pesto.  But if you look around you can probably find places, things, or buildings that can be used more than once throughout the year to make or save you  money, by making the spaces more productive.  In permaculture this is called stacking – in other words it just makes sense.

I went back through some old posts and have put together a time-line of some of our spaces here.

Early spring the chick brooder/greenhouse (20′ x 20′) serves as a warm place to start vegetables.  Lots of light, warmth and a great place to make a mess with all that potting soil.  I am always talking about rest when it comes to pasture, but it is equally important to give livestock housing a rest too.  With natural sunlight and rest and maybe a different use in this building, the parasite cycle is broken, making this a sanitary (without chemicals) place to raise chicks each year.

About the time the plants are ready for planting out, we get ready for chicks.  The deep bedding process starts in here now.   Growing annuals (vegetables) takes a lot of organic matter.  In case you’re a new reader, I am not a fan of free-range.  I want to gather and tie down as many nutrients as possible.

Chick arrival day.  It’s blustery outside, but they have lots of natural light here in the brooder/greenhouse and we provide heat lamps for warmth.  Much nicer than an old dark garage or barn,  where the lights have to do double duty as lights and heat for many weeks.  Losing this inexpensive building if there is an electrical fire would be much easier to take than burning down a frame structure like a barn or house.

Right away, with lots of light around and natural warmth from even a cloud break, the chicks venture out.

After a few weeks, the chicks are moved out, we clean out the bedding, which was added as needed, almost daily by the time the chicks were able to move out to their field pens.  The soil is still fertile even with the bedding pack removed, so we plant some type of heat loving plants in the space.  This year it was peppers.  No rest needed between different uses.

The peppers did very well, we ate fresh peppers from mid-July to now, and Saturday I did the final harvest of 82 pounds.  Peppers keep well on our cool porch, and I will freeze a bunch.  The greenhouse is 20′ x 20′ but we only use 15′ x 20′ for chicks and growing.  The front 5′ is for feed storage and serves as a place for more plants, or curing vegetables like onions and soon, squash.

Now that peppers are harvested.   I turned the geriatric sheep (lawn maintenance crew) in to eat all the plant residue, and to give them shelter from the rain storm this weekend.

They loved it.

Today, you can see how well they did.  I will leave this fallow from all uses for several months now until it is time to start vegetables and begin the cycle again.

On a larger scale, when we run out of stockpiled grazing, the cows are moved to the feeding shed.  They eat their hay in a feeder and we deep bed them.  We used to feed the cows outside on the ground which is very common.  We fed in a different place each day, to avoid the common blown out mudholes that happen when cattle have access to the same ground day after day.  Think of those round bale feeders that are so convenient, but very hard on the ground in the long run. (We don’t have those, but I am sure you have all seen them and damage that is done.)  When we fed outside, we used more hay, some was wasted from getting wet, the cows ate more to stay warm, and we had to haul the hay to the cows, and we were wasting all that manure at a time during the year when the soil could not use it.  Soil microbes necessary to metabolize the manure are hibernating, and/or dormant during the cold season.  Not capturing any manure and urine that comes your way even in a small homestead setting is a money waster for sure, and causes pollution since the plants and soil  are not able to utilize the nutrients during the dormant season.

I am so not a fan of free-range.  I believe the health benefits of any free-ranging eggs you may eat, or barn cleaning chores you can avoid in this manner are offset by the continual mining of nutrients from the soil in a free-ranging type scenario.  The pasture plants are weakened by continual access by the animals, making the plants even less able to handle nutrients that come their way.  As much as we would like to, we cannot go back to simpler times, times are not simple.  And the notion that by getting a few chickens, and a milk cow or goat or two to wander around on the back 5 will not make it so.   Wasteful is wasteful, whether it is buying too much packaged food or wasting a resource right under our noses.  Namely any livestock manure that comes your way.  Especially if you’re expecting to grow many annual vegetables.  Growing annuals be it vegetables or grains takes lots of inputs – period.  Anyone that tells you different is woofing you.  That’s why I think touting free-range and growing annuals shows a lack of understanding on the touter’s part, unless of course they have unlimited funds.  Then I guess I can see where this mind-set comes from.

This is no free-range lunch, it sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t pencil out.  But bedding and cleaning out barn areas is not near as glamorous as the notion of animals wandering hither and yon, finding what they need and coming home to roost after a hard day of foraging.  And really who doesn’t need keeping livestock to pencil out these days.  Ok, sorry about that little rant – back to business… .

As the bedding pack deepens under the cows, it does start to heat a little providing a warm place for the cows to hang out in the winter.

After the cows go back to pasture in the spring.  You can bring pigs into be housed in the same area.  I first saw this method used by horse farmers, Anne and Eric Nordell, now Joel Salatin has made this popular.  We are more in the Nordell’s size range using a couple a pigs, instead of the dozens used by Salatin at Polyface.  The pigs root through the bedding pack and aerate it, turning it into a loose, friable compost perfect for spreading.  We did not put any corn in the bedding this year – since we weren’t absolutely sure if we were going to get pigs or not.  They still turned the bedding.  They didn’t do all of it of course, we would have needed about 30 pigs to entirely do the job in a building our size but nonetheless, they did a pretty good job.

Good pig!

I try to start each day thinking of how I can keep more of what we have here, and you should too whether you have a small urban flock of three hens, or even one milk cow – it really does add up.

33 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2010 7:35 am

    THIS is your pièce de résistance — I’m bookmarking it!

  2. Jennifer Krieger permalink
    October 11, 2010 7:54 am

    You are my mentor, nice to meet you! I love to read your pieces.
    Deep bedding – how deep, approximately?

    • October 11, 2010 11:13 am

      Jennifer, thanks! There is no real answer about bedding depth, I have heard that 1′ deep is minimum to get the full benefits of such a system, but that is hard to do with short duration livestock like the Cornish. With our cows depending on how long the winter is, it may be only 18″ deep or it has been up to 4′ deep. The key is to continually add to the top, to tie down your nutrients in the manure. If you smell the manure, add bedding (carbon.) Your bedding pack should not be offensive to visitors. So I would say any depth at all would be better than none. Picture the proverbial mud chicken yard, or crap encrusted hen house and you know what you want to avoid.

  3. October 11, 2010 7:56 am

    Wow, what a great post!! Very imformative! I am bookmarking too! My husband and I are just beginners on our farm and I feel we have no clue about anything 🙂

    • October 11, 2010 11:15 am

      Allison, nothing wrong with being clueless as long as you’re willing to try something different than the same old extension recommendations. Thanks!

  4. October 11, 2010 7:58 am

    Brilliant! You are amazing!

  5. October 11, 2010 8:23 am

    I’m so glad you put all these together in one post!

    • October 11, 2010 11:16 am

      Chris, it kinda morphed – I was just going to post about the sheep cleaning up the pepper residue and it turned into this, which is much more fleshed out.

  6. finding pam permalink
    October 11, 2010 8:33 am

    You are a wealth of knowledge and I really enjoyed this post. I would like to get chickens again after reading about all of the antibiotics and arsnic they are fed. I like how you waste nothing.

    • October 11, 2010 11:18 am

      Finding Pam, you won’t regret your decision to get some chickens – the eggs and/or meat taste so much better, and aren’t full of all the nasties!

  7. qaplan permalink
    October 11, 2010 9:48 am

    Thank you!

    Can you feature more “stacks” in different places? In the garden / orchard / greenhouse / forrest?


    • October 11, 2010 11:22 am

      qaplan, we aren’t’ doing much more than this now – but the possibilities are endless. Greenhouses for winter housing of stock, manure gathering for summer vegetable growing in the same space are my favorites. Or grazing livestock in vineyards/orchards/woodlots is another.

  8. October 11, 2010 10:23 am

    Ok, you may have given me your answer here already, but I gotta’ ask your opinion about this specific plan. Thinking of getting geese for the orchard next spring…. moving them daily or weekly with the poultry electrical netting … and having a house with deep bedding for them to stay in at night. I’ve got lots of grass in the orchard and could use their help with manure. I’m theoretically very short of nitrogen right now – theoretically, because I know that farming organically feels more like alchemy than chemistry. I know I’ll still need to mow, but assume that I’ll rotate that, too, and do a few rows a week, letting the geese follow the mower by a couple of days so they get the short & tender stuff they want. Does this qualify as rotational grazing instead of free range? If it goes well, I’ll add a chicken tractor sized to fit between the rows of red delicious in the small orchard a bit later in the spring… again, my focus is on getting the manure on the ground while treating the birds properly: I’m just as interested in their by-products as I am in roast goose/chicken.

    • October 11, 2010 11:33 am

      Hayden, it sounds like a great plan. And yes, that would be rotational grazing. Any type of management of your manure resource is better than free-range that just throws caution to the wind, or actually nitrogen 😉

      Pointers I would add that you may have already thought of :
      1) Purchase the short lengths of fence, Permafence I believe comes in 50′ lengths. The smaller the area and the more frequent moves will address your nitrogen needs quicker. The big fence is great with large flocks but it hard to be as creative with. I can flesh this out too if anyone is curious. Moving 800 laying hens, their house and feeders every 3rd day was an education. I can do this in my sleep. But hands down is a great way to improve ground FAST!

      2) Save the deep bedding housing part for winter if you’re going to be moving your geese/birds often. The soil/grass can take the fertilizer, and the structure will be easier for you to move. You can always bed them in secure winter housing. And the beauty of bird deep bedding is there is no smell if you have your carbon ratio right (use your nose) and it is so light a child can help clean the chicken house even if it is 18″ deep. (Note: it’s not the same with cow manure which is heavy and packed tightly.)

      3) Don’t rule out turkeys – they are very aggressive grazers (and crappers) especially in a controlled setting, and turkeys can actually manufacture CLA similar to ruminants and are easy to sell come winter. And in case anyone is wondering I only have experience raising the broad breasted whites – they graze like cattle, unlike my experience with chickens heritage breed or not. Mowing machines!

      • October 12, 2010 5:31 am

        wow, thanks for all of that, very helpful. And I deeply appreciate the encouragement.

        My “take” was 20 geese for the 3.5 acres of main orchard, with lots of room to move them if they run out (which they shouldn’t…. but if I have to run them on the outer edges of my excessively large lawn area it would be a boon to the grass there… and the good thing about goose poo is that although it’s messy it breaks down quickly and ‘disappears’.) It also seems important to do guineas next year – the ticks were very bad this summer. I was trying to limit myself to shorten the learning curve – but would love to get some turkeys too. I think I could house/graze them together, right? I like the idea of the midget whites for 2 reasons – size matters in a 1 person household (nice not to freeze EVERYTHING, and a nice size for a small dinner party) and their reputation for flavor. On the other hand, I dearly love goose and love cooking w/ goose fat even more.. was thinking of Toulouse. Trying to steer a path between good for the table and good for the land, leaving me the option to send them all to freezer heaven in the fall if I’m not ready to deal with winter. If you were me, starting out, ignorant but a reasonably quick study, but only one of me to do all of the work – would you go half turkeys and half geese? Or just stick with one or the other?

        As for your fencing comments – invaluable! Two things totally intimidate me about next year. Coming up with appropriate housing, and the fencing. Ignorant about both and would LOVE a post on that if you have time. My situation may be a bit difficult because I want to graze them inside the orchard, so will have to run fencing between tree rows.

        Also love the rep geese have for running off intruders. Seems like it would be handy, even though I don’t yet know what predators I’ll be dealing with.

        • greenhorn permalink
          December 1, 2010 11:06 pm

          I love goose as well and the pilgrim or tufted roman are supposed to be a wonderful, calm, and smaller but plump goose. The Toulouse is a larger noisier goose. My mother in law raised them and they were pretty big and noisy AND they flew off with the wild geese in the area before she could harvest them. Another reason to confine poultry! 🙂

  9. October 11, 2010 12:04 pm

    Another wonderful post, Nita. Well done.

  10. corrine permalink
    October 11, 2010 2:36 pm

    This all sounds good, but can you explain more why you think a free ranging chicken is a bad idea when it seems so much better for the chicken? Confinement seems like the wrong way to head for someone who wants to get away from corporate farming products. I can see why you wouldn’t want cattle free ranging around and damaging everything but chickens hardly seem like they could ever be a problem. I have hens in my backyard, and they seem very glad when I let them out of their coop.

    • October 11, 2010 5:37 pm

      Corrine, I guess I think the focus of free range hens concentrates on the chickens feelings more than actual productivity. Many people who prefer free-range don’t seem to mind hunting for eggs, not getting as many eggs, or where the chicken poop lands. Having both chickens and cattle, I would say that the chickens are much harder on the soil than cattle, but both species can be a detriment for sure. Basically, I want no livestock where I don’t want it, whether it be the porch, garden, hayfield or haystack. I have a friend who sells raw milk, eggs, and pastured poultry and his wife has a soft spot for any injured or crippled chicken, letting the injured chickens have the run of the sales area, front porch and anywhere else the chicken wants to go. When visiting you have to dodge the chicken crap on the porch, in the hay, and near the milk room. As much manure as I see everyday, this still grosses me out. I do not want to stand in chicken manure when I knock on someone’s front door.

      In my situation my chickens are confined – for the reasons above, and also because we have such a problem with predators. If my chickens free-ranged they would be dinner, and I would be out eggs. Of course, they are more work, I have to bed them, bring them greens and other delicacies to make up for them not being able to forage. If I want fresh eggs, this is what I have to do – my hens (I think) look happy and healthy. They lay well, and are not beat-up or stressed looking so I don’t think they are missing too much – but that may just be me. Everyone has a different situation, though.

  11. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    October 11, 2010 4:37 pm

    I so enjoy these posts on compost/soil/animals. I only have chickens but it makes me think about changing some methods after reading your posts. Thanks!

    • October 11, 2010 5:39 pm

      Linda, thanks! Sometimes just seeing it makes all the difference – visualizing something many times makes a concept easier to grasp. I doubt anyone can argue the beauty of that compost that the pigs turned for us during their brief stay. 🙂

  12. October 11, 2010 4:37 pm

    Clapping from here….great post!

  13. October 11, 2010 4:55 pm

    Brilliant post, as usual. My hubby got me a greenhouse for my birthday but I don’t have it set up yet 😦
    Now you’ve given me the idea of using it for chickens part time- if only I could convince him to let me get chickens. Hmmm… any ideas for that one?
    He has bad chicken crap memories from when we moved here last summer- the people here before us let their chickens “free range” – including all over the inside of the pole barn- and it was a mess to clean up.
    I have an additional concern with free range chickens. We have enough large hawks, eagles and owls, not to mention coyotes here that they would be a snack for someone other than us.

    • October 11, 2010 5:46 pm

      Judy, thanks! Congrats on the greenhouse! I’m not surprised it isn’t up yet, you guys are so busy.

      I’m with your hubby, I had bad chicken crap memories and now we have friends that do that – arghhh.

      My hens are in a greenhouse just like the one I showed in the photos. They really put out the bedding, and the eggs. We have the same predator problems here – if I want eggs, my hens have to be confined. They get a shade cloth in the summer and it comes off once the heat is gone – they love the bright light they get in the winter. I do have to bring them spoils from the garden, but they are happy, and look very good. I have a dozen including Russell Crow in 300 sq feet, so that is 25 sq feet per bird, and I have had as many as 25 in that space with no problems whatsoever.

      Keep working on him – he’ll come around hopefully… 🙂

  14. October 12, 2010 7:48 am

    Great post again! I also enjoyed your anwers to all the comments. I sometimes thing YOU should write a book!


  15. November 3, 2010 6:52 pm

    I love reading the nitty-gritty of how you guys do things. It gives me so many ideas! Many (most?) of your techniques don’t apply to me directly, since we live in very different climates and on quite different soils, but the thinking behind them certainly does!

  16. February 25, 2012 11:52 am

    I know this is an old post by now but I just found it so it is new to me. I loved your idea of multiple uses for everything and am busily taking notes, but I do have a question about putting the sheep in the greenhouse at the end of the season. Peppers are part of the nightshade family, yet you showed the pepper plants at the beginning of the weekend and the barren greenhouse by the end of the weekend. So then I thought “well, maybe sheep are immune from the effects of nightshade” but I googled THAT and no, it seems it is in fact quite toxic to sheep.

    Did you have ill-effects to the sheep eating the pepper plants?

    • February 25, 2012 8:38 pm

      Happy Hens, some forms of nightshade are pretty poisonous, bittersweet comes to mind in our area. Your comment caused me to chuckle, because yes the sheep had a near fatal event with nightshades a few years before…My daughter was having a plant sale, and after moving all the plants down to her “booth” in the yard, I left the greenhouse door ajar, and the sheep got out and ate all our personal tomato and pepper starts. I wanted to kill them (the fatal part)but it was my fault so I spared them. But they suffered no other ill effects 🙂

  17. Hayden permalink
    February 27, 2012 7:55 am

    Nita, took your comments on the geese seriously – am now considering Pilgrim; will try them but not do many this year. Meanwhile, I harvested my guineas and learned that there appears to be a solid market for them here – chefs in a nearby town have been very excited that I’ll be offering them. As am I – I’ll eat guinea over chicken any day! I have a processor I like less than a mile from here who is willing to bring his equipment here so I can qualify for the on site small farm exception. So – for now, my focus is guineas in the orchard, and I hope to do about 600 this year. Will rely on them for assistance w/ bug control and manure, and not worry abt. grazing this year. Am scheduling them with the goal of having at least 150 free ranging in the orchard at a time, from the last week of April through the end of Sept. (Keeping them in pens until they’re 6-8 weeks, and harvesting at 12-14 weeks.) Am relieved to have someone else to rely on for processing, although I expect to work along side and build up my skills. For me, it’s enough to focus on learning to raise them well and market them: processing is a whole other world that adds too much complexity right now.

    As for turkeys – they scare me. So many people I’ve talked to have lost up to half their flock in one wack! And I’m told the blackhead virus incubates in pheasants, which are a close cousin to guineas…. I’m also put off by the delicacy of the poults, and the fact that their immune systems take so long to kick in. I’ll keep my guineas penned for 8 weeks, but they’re hardy at 2 weeks – the pen is to drive home the desire to return there to roost, and to protect them from hawks etc. So many details to think about!

    When you had turkeys, did you have to keep them carefully separate from the chickens? Or is that a problem typical of confinement operations and less pertinent to birds on pasture?

    (Finally – I’ve really learned to love my dozen hens, and they’re cranking out 10 eggs a day. I see a dramatic difference in the amount they eat when there’s snow on the ground (today) and when there isn’t and they’re out and about (last week.)

    Thanks for all of your encouragement and advice!

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