Grass farming

So, after a long hiatus, I’ve decided to reboot this blog. When doing so, it’s often hard to know where to start, so I decided to start with the question we get asked most often: Why don’t we mow our grass?

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The short answer to that question is that our “messy” “ugly” yard that makes our “farm look abandoned” is what real sustainable stewardship looks like. Because we’re not mowing our yard, we’re not spending money on grass mowing, not producing the byproducts of grass mowing, and are providing habitat for all sorts of native species.

But, honestly, the answer is more complicated than that. Yes, we are doing all of those things, but it turns out we’re also grass farmers. Our primary occupation at Innisfree is raising animals for food, and it turns out most of our animals eat grass. When I see a yard, I see a pasture, even if it’s one right up next to my house.

In a manner of speaking, we do mow our grass. We just do it sustainably with animals instead of mowers and gas. For us, the results are worth the “mess”.

DLH

On animals and worldviews

I suspect that one of the driving forces of the greatest changes in society over the past 100 years versus the past several millenia has been specific movement of people away from caring for food animals.

One cannot help but learn about the brutal realities of the cycle of life to death to life when one cares for food animals. As a result, one cannot help but see the realities of the same cycle in every other part of life. Such realizations cannot help but make someone more pragmatic at the least, if not even a little fatalistic.

That kind of pragmatism then fueled all sorts of ways of thinking that dominated most of human history. And while, yes, that thinking justified all sorts of things we moderns consider savage and inhuman, it also gave birth to the world we have today and, to a great part, continues to sustain it long after most people have forgotten what it all might mean.

Now, being engaged in that kind of undertaking, I find my own thinking inevitably changed by the reality of what I do. In some ways I am softer. In some ways I am harder than I ever imagined I could ever be. My focus is different–dare I say, more focused–and the change in my view of the realities of life and death could not be more profound.

I understand the impracticality of a general return to agriculture, but I cannot help but wonder if we would not benefit from a return to some parts of the worldview it fostered. We need more pragmatism in a world sometimes blinded by the shining and ofttimes false optimism of modernity.  We could do worse than to revisit history, and I’m certain we can benefit from it.

DLH

Well intended but sometimes wrong

Whenever the weather gets the way it is right now (very cold and snowy), various posts, emails, and even news stories begin to circulate. You know the ones. Those that show something like a snow encrusted dog or other animal sleeping in the snow and exhorting people with the refrain, “If you wouldn’t sleep outside in this weather, your pet shouldn’t either.”

I will grant that, for most urban dwelling pets and people, who don’t regularly stray far from the climate controlled confines of their homes or jobs in any kind of weather, this is sound advice. The fact is that most pets and people are in no way prepared for this kind of weather.

The problem starts when this idea becomes a universal generalization applied by people to all circumstances, many of which they neither know nor understand.

For those of us who care for and live with outside animals every day of our lives, that generalization is wearisome at best. The fact is that we spend nine or ten months of the year preparing our animals, be they cattle or dogs, for exactly this kind of weather by allowing them to develop the very kinds of natural defenses that allow them to live in this kind of weather.

How can I say that? Because I know that most animals, being near relatives of their wild cousins, retain most of the traits that allow wild animals to survive and thrive in this kind of weather without harm. As a result, we make sure they have year around access to sufficient food and water, exposure to the weather when it is good, and plenty of exercise.

How does that help? Because most animals, unlike most people, expend most of their energy doing two things: getting ready to make babies and getting ready for winter. Giving them access to the right food, weather, and exercise lets them put on the right kind of fat and grow the right kinds of coats so that, even when it is sub-zero outside, they are fine.

How could they possibly be fine? Well, the same way you are fine if you are well fed and properly bundled up against the same cold. Outside animals develop multi-layered fur, sometimes as much as four or five layers thick, coated with various oils and structured in such a way that, even in the bitter cold and snow, they are as warm as you are in your coat and mittens.

In fact, for a variety of animals including cattle and working dogs, a crust of snow functions as an additional layer of protection against the cold. That crust forms an insulating barrier against a far more deadly enemy: the wind. If you see furry mammal covered in snow that is not otherwise in distress, the chances are that it is fine. I can say that because, being warm-blooded, an animal in distress in that situation will be covered in melt ice, not snow or frost or surface ice. This usually happens because the animal is sick or has gotten extremely wet. In that case, yes, the animal is in danger and needs aid quickly.

But for the majority of animals that have been properly cared for the rest of the year, being outside in this weather is not as much of a threat as people want to think it is, especially if they have a place to get out of the wind and, if they need to, out of direct exposure to precipitation. Otherwise, I can assure you they are fine.

No, really. They’re fine.

DLH

Planning spaces: working animals into a sustainable permaculture plan

I’ve learned a lot about utilizing the ground for food production over the past few years, and one of the things I have learned is that there is no space, whether it is a garden, a tilled field, or a pasture, that should ever be left for a single use. Nature multitasks everything, and the best farm plans do the same.

While that is true, I am surprised how many sustainable agriculture pundits leave the animals out of their plans. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few who advocate using animals, but for the most part, most of the people out there talking about sustainable agriculture keep their animals mostly seperate from their agriculture.

What I have come to realize is that the best way to utilize space is to have animals as part of every stage. For instance, we use goats to keep grass areas trimmed and chickens to keep the goat manure broken down. Chickens tend our gardens during the winter months, eating weed seeds and grubs we could never control otherwise. Cows, and eventually goats and chickens, patrol our pastures and keep them healthy through carefully managed grazing.

This year, I plan to experiment with using chickens to tend the aisles of our gardens using tunnels to keep them off the plants. Chickens are death on weeds and insect pests.

All of these ideas, and some yet to come, require some degree of consideration as part of planning our operations. I’ve found that we have to think differently about how we design our growing areas to accommodate animals as well as plants. The more we accommodate, the better things seem to work.

As far as I can tell, there is no foolproof method for such accommodation–that is, I have not identified one yet–but there is a question we should ask whenever we are planning a new space: how will I use animals here?

I think that including animals in an overall sustainable agriculture plan will make the plan that much better for us, our plants, and our animals.

DLH

Good rules for rounding up wayward animals

If you grow livestock, it is almost inevitable that eventually some of them will get out of the place you keep them. This problem could result from a poorly latched gate or from an animal’s desire to see if the grass is really greener on the other side of that fence. Either way, at that point, you’re now in the wayward animal chasing business, so here’s some advise for getting them back where they belong.

  • Always wear your boots: It is amazing the places animals will get themselves into when they’re out, and if you’re not wearing boots while you’re getting them back where they belong, you’re probably going to wish you had. As I mentioned in my “The farm uniform” post, a good pair of steel-toed boots are indispensable for farm work and doubly so when chasing animals.
  • Always carry the right stick for the right job: There’s a reason herdsmen have carried sticks for thousands of years: they work. The most basic stick is a simple walking stick (I use mine often), but you can use a shepherds crook for smaller livestock or a poultry catcher for birds.
  • Most animals will run the opposite direction you approach them from: This is an almost absolute rule. Granted, you have to approach the animal from some direction, but as much as possible, do so from opposite the direction you’re trying to get them to go. Most animals will also run for home when startled, so use that fact to your advantage.
  • Fence lines are a good way to stop forward progress: Fences stop animals from running in a particular direction and can act as a “second person” when trying to round up an animal. Use your fences to your advantage.
  • The more people you have the better: Granted, this is not always possible, but get as many people, equipped with boots and sticks, as possible to help round your animals up, especially if they are bigger animals like cattle. Consider calling neighbors if you need to.
  • Stay a leg’s length away unless you want to get kicked: Unless you want to get kicked, stay away from the kicking bits, especially with larger animals.
  • A caught animal will bite, kick, and flail to get away: If you have to catch smaller animals, be assured that it will fight back when caught.

Also, while animals getting out is almost inevitable, here are a few things you can do to make your roundup easier.

  • Interact with your animals when they are calm: As you interact with your animals more, they will get used to your presence and will not be as flighty when you need to work with them when they are stressed. This interaction is especially important for large livestock that cannot be caught and manhandled.
  • Consider a perimeter fence: One of the best ways to keep escaped animals contained is to limit how far they can run. Having a perimeter fence will help with that task.
  • Also, walk your fences regularly: Animals will find the weak points in a fence and get through them. Walk your fences regularly to make sure they are in good repair.
  • While you’re at it, use stronger fence: A lot of people use line fence because it’s cheap(er) than other kinds of fencing, but it’s not always the best option. If you have places where animals work the fence or keep getting through, consider other kinds of fence like cattle panel.
  • Have enough gates: Escaped animals are rarely cooperative, so trying to herd them toward the one gate in your fence can be a difficult task. Consider having gates at each corner of a fence and in the middle for especially long runs.

Granted, these ideas won’t keep your animals from getting out, but they will help you get them back in once they are out. Good luck and happy herding.

DLH

Life and death and farming

I can’t think of many other places where the drama of life and death unfold with such breathtaking regularity as they do on the farm .

Today, I had to help a cow give birth to a calf that was too big for her and got hung up on her hip bones as it was being born. We lost the calf but saved the cow; lost a new life but ensured new lives in the process.

No matter what kind of farming someone decides to pursue, some element of this cycle of life and death will be present. With animals, especially big ones, this cycle can be traumatic and dramatic, but even with plants the cycle is just as evident.

I think that constant exposure to life and death is why farmers, especially traditional ones, tend to be far more realistic and spiritual than most other people. In the life and death I experienced just a little while ago, I saw the tale of my own life and of the lives that depend on me. I saw the evidence of how fleeting life is and how important it is to make every second count.

From that view, I see how farming, like the rest of a life well lived, is not for the weak of heart or the weak of soul. Yet, even seeing life and death acted out before me, I am not discouraged or afraid but instead that much more dedicated to the idea of making every moment I have matter.

It is because of that sense of dedication that I think society has lost something as it has moved away from the farm. Because most people are not exposed to the ever-present reality of life and death that farmers see, they have lost sight of the fact that their own lives are part of the same cycle.

I think that restoring that sense of reality is as important as feeding ourselves in my encouragement of people to grow their own food. Farming is life, not just a job, and doing it reminds us how little time any of us really have and how we should make the most of what we do have.

DLH