rotational high density grazing – small scale

2016/11/21 deej 0

I’ve ruminated at length about the pros and cons of goats (adorable miniature milk goats, and there are even Nigerian Dwarf goats in Australia now!) and sheep (ah the possibilities of non-tree-eating ruminants). I’ve talked about getting a house cow (still in the long term plan) and considered the cost versus difficulty versus milk quality and quantity of various breeds of all these animals. I’ve considered alpacas (beautiful silky suri fleece to spin) but decided that in the short term they’re too expensive for the returns they offer, and not friendly enough to get one just as a pet.

 

As an aside, my (extensive) spreadsheet indicates that, for me, the best of these would be goats, for milk and meat production: Anglo-Nubians (or mini Anglo-Nubians), Nigerian Dwarf goats, or even Boer goats. A highland or Dexter house cow is also quite plausible, even including the cost of buying feed, and Dorper cross sheep are plausible too. Alpacas cost more to keep than the value of their products per year.

 

But cattle, goats & sheep aren’t small scale livestock. You could keep a pet sheep or goat in the back yard, if you have a reasonably large back yard and a sympathetic local council, but you really couldn’t graze said pet using only said back yard. You’d need to buy in feed in the form of hay, grain, and pellets or other commercially produced food, and probably supplement with weeds and prunings as well. Rotational grazing on a small scale requires small livestock. Guinea pigs or rabbits are a good choice, and their poo is very good for gardens and lawns (low nitrogen so it can be used without being composted first). My choice for small scale rotational grazing, however, is geese. (Although I am planning on getting some guinea pigs as well, as soon as we’ve built a guinea pig tractor to keep them safe from predators).

 

My adorable goslings (affectionately called “gooselings”, and named Tarragon, Cersei, and Jamie) are starting to get their adult feathers now. They still have baby-fluff, and they still make cute little baby-goose begging noises to encourage me to bring them food, but they’re getting big. Each one is easily 2 kg now, and they’re growing every day. We rotated them (i.e. moved their run) yesterday for the first time, and the spot where they were is grazed and trampled and covered in goose poop. So – success so far.

 

The three geese are enclosed in a 4 x 4 m run, originally sold as a dog run. It’s 1.8 m in height, fenced all the way around with chainlink fence, and has a heavy duty bird net as and add-on roof to keep aerial (and climbing) predators out. The floor is open, so at night the geese are locked into a goose kennel to keep them safe form digging predators like foxes. They currently have a 10 L bucket of water, but we have a small pond for them which will go in soon. They get to graze all day, plus they get an armload of weeds and fresh grass and kitchen greens every morning, and a small allocation of chicken scratch mix. They seem to be pretty happy. Geese, like other grazing animals, tend to spend most of their time grazing and digesting. Geese can actually digest at least some cellulose, although it seems to be by mechanical means as they don’t appear to have commensal bacteria like the rumen species of ruminants. Ducks are similar, although ducks make more of a mess with their water, dabbling and playing in it until they create mud muddles.

 

For the back yard grazier (person who keeps grazing animals), geese are a pretty good choice. Unlike chickens, they won’t scratch up the grass or destroy a garden bed (although they will eat vegetables if they can get to them,. and may strip bark from young trees if they’re bored or hungry), and they don’t create messy mud patches like ducks. They also don’t destroy trees the way goats and sheep can – geese can strip bark off young trees but are very unlikely to kill a tree, and can’t reach to eat the growing tips of the branches. They can be noisy, and aggressive if they feel threatened, but they’re reasonably smart and can be trained to be quiet on command. There are also Muscovy “ducks” (actually they’re more closely related to geese, and also eat grass and do not create mud puddles), which don’t make any noise louder than a quiet sort of hissing sound or a soft trilling coo like a pigeon. Muscovies not only eat grass, they also eat insects – including flies. So they’re a definite win for the smallholder or backyard farmer. Geese and muscovies lay eggs seasonally rather than all year round like chickens, but the eggs are edible and delicious. If you have males and females (and thus fertilised eggs) you could also let the mother hatch them for some more baby birds. Or hatch some in an incubator, although that’s a little trickier than chicken eggs because the humidity needs to be just right.

 

Basically, grazing poultry are a pretty good choice for people with relatively small areas to keep them – especially if you have trees to fertilise. They don’t produce milk or wool, but they do produce eggs in spring (and up to 3 times per year for muscovies), and of course they produce fertiliser in the form of goose poop, building up the soil and recycling carbon. If keeping animals for meat is your thing then that’s also an option. Both geese and muscovies are very well regarded as meat animals, producing a flavourful, dark meat. If you do decide to kill one of your birds, obviously do it humanely using either controlled atmosphere killing (with nitrogen, not carbon dioxide – carbon dioxide will cause the sensation of suffocation, whereas nitrogen is undetectable and the bird just falls gently asleep and doesn’t wake up) or another humane method (such as beheading with a very sharp axe).

the great livestock debate

2016/05/23 deej 0

As may have become clear by now, I adore animals. Fur, feathers, scales – they are all awesome in their own special ways. Even guinea fowl (noisy, dumb as bricks, but pretty and useful and lovely) and rabbits (destructive, tree-ringbarking wild versions are annoyingly hardy, while the tame meat-breed ones die far too easily) are pretty cool. My problem is deciding which animals to keep.

 

I mean, I obviously can’t have them all. That would take more space than we have, and feeding them and taking care of them would take more time and $$$ than we have available.

 

Gypsy CobA pony, for example, is totally right out. They’re far too expensive to keep, and the vet bills are killer. No matter how lovely it would be to have a horse to ride, and love, and brush, and feed apples and carrots to. No matter how much my inner 9-year-old self cries out at the injustice of finally living somewhere that I could plausibly have a horse and not having one. No matter how many wistful sighs I direct at pictures of Gypsy Cobs and Shire Horses. (Yes, my favourite ponies are the gentle giants of the species, with their emo hair and big, brown eyes, and silky smooth gaits).

 

Small ruminants to turn pasture (the pasture seed is starting to sprout! We may in fact have pasture by next winter) into soil-improving manure, milk, and meat for the household are definitely in the plan. I was all set on goats a couple’ve Anglo-Nubian or Nubian / Boer cross goats, but now I’m not so sure.

 

Anglo-Nubians are one of the largest breeds of goat, as well as producing milk with the second-highest butterfat content of any of the dairy goat breeds (the highest butterfat content goes to Nigerian Dwarf goats). A full size goat, not even as large as a big Nubian doe, can reach 3m if she stands on her hind legs and stretches up – and goats eat trees. They will ringbark them if they can, and eat any foliage or branches that are witbrowsing goatshin reach. This means that (a) all trees in the pasture area need to have goat-proof (read: expensive, heavy-duty) cages around them up to the maximum reach height of a goat, and (b) I can’t effectively have the trees branch at < 3m, so any fruiting trees in the pastures would be very difficult to harvest.

 

Even Nigerian Dwarf goats (and there are some in Australia now, courtesy of First Fleet goat stud, which imported a number of frozen embryos, and Stoney Creek Miniature Goats which is breeding up to grade using a Nigerian Dwarf stud over Miniature Nubian does) can reach up to 2m by standing up on their hind legs and stretching. Which is a thing goats will happily do for a mouthful of fresh greenery or bark. Plus, because they’re still very rare in Australia, Nigerian Dwarf goats are pretty expensive. And since they’re a rare breed, I’d need to keep my own buck, which I’m not that keen to do. Buck goats pong something awful, and you can’t keep them with the does even if you don’t mind the smell or the continuous breeding cycle, because the buck pheromones taint the milk and make it taste “bucky”.

 

Dexter heiferA cow is on the long term plan, but cattle lean on trees and scratch on them, so the baby trees would need to be either a lot bigger or very well protected before that could work.

 

Alpacas are lovely, graceful, and economically not really viable. They produce beautiful wool, but you can’t milk them, and they breed every 2 years instead of every year, producing one baby per pregnancy, so they’re not really a good meat animal (although they are delicious). On the other hand, they don’t destroy trees.

 

I’m kinda wondering about sheep. I actively dislike sheep; I’ve always found wool sheep to smell bad, not just the musky warm-animal smell that all farm animals have, but a sour, sickly, old-urine-in-wool smell which makes me reluctant to go near. They’re the one animal that I have never considered keeping. Until now.

 

Sheep are grazers rather than browsers, so they tend not to damage trees unless they’re very hungry (so a much less significant tree cage would be sufficient for protection) and they don’t stand up on their hind legs to reach for greenery. They’re less fussy than goats about their food, too. And if you go for a hair-type sheep or one which sheds its wool, then you don’t have the hassle of shearing – and hopefully you wouldn’t have that awful smell either.

 

The typical meat-breed sheep in WA is the Dorper, although there are other breeds available (In the Perth area, it’s mostly Dorpers, Damaras, Wiltshire Horn,crosses and Merinos) and . Or there are miniature ‘Harlequin’ meat sheep, bred from small individuals of the Persian sheep breed crossed with a white Dorper ram. They’re a pretty sheep, and apparently easy to manage. Or I could try milk sheep – the Chequers breed is a cross of the Harlequin mini meat sheep and Finn sheep, with (it appears) all the benefits, plus extra fertility and high milk production.

 

harlequin mini meat sheep

Sheep milk is not low in lactose the way goats milk is (it is actually slightly higher in lactose than cows milk according to the FAO, or about the same as goats milk according to Meredith Dairy *), but it is creamy, high in butterfat, and good for making cheese. Manchego, a traditional Spanish sheeps milk cheese, is one of my favourite cheeses, so I trust that sheeps milk cheese is plausibly something I’d like. And with a bit of planning, the same machine (a Dansha battery- or hand-powered vacuum pump) could be used for milking sheep, goats or cows..

 

Looks like I have some more sheep research to do. I’m currently leaning towards Chequers mini milk sheep as a first choice, Harlequin mini meat sheep as a second choice, and Dorpers or Dorper / WIltshire crosses (mixed flock) as a third choice. We’ll see.

 

* P.S. If you get the opportunity, try the Meredith Dairy marinated goats milk feta cheese. It is absolutely delicious. I wish I knew how they made it so I could duplicate the process.


Images from:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinker_(Pferd)#/media/File:Tinker1.jpg

http://articles.extension.org/pages/19409/goat-pastures-considerations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dexter_cattle#/media/File:Red_Dexter_Heffer.jpg

http://ausminisheep.com.au/mini.htm

 

The local farm shop

2016/03/30 deej 0

Local may be overstating it slightly, but still. We recently visited our closest and most convenient farm shop. Like real grown-up farmers.

 

For those who may not know, a farm shop is a retailer which specialises in equipment and supplies for farms and farmers. It’s a little like the love-child of a Bunnings style hardware store and the rural bakery/deli that inevitably exists in every small town. They carry everything from reticulation pipes & connectors to worming medications for animals to pasture seed. Which is what we were there for.

 

This winter is not the time for goats, or geese. This spring still may not be – there’s an awful lot of infrastructure to get in first. But eventually, goats and geese will happen. I am still dreaming of a house cow too, although my spreadsheets tell me that it’s really not financially worthwhile (the cost of annual insemination is too high to make the beef from an annual steer worth it, and milk is so cheap that I can’t use it to offset the cost of keeping a cow unless I bottom out my feed price estimates completely). But either way, we still need pasture, so I did some research, and I have the first pass of pasture seed.

 

Proper commercial seed, too – it’s kinda exciting. We bought 5 kg each of Irwin Hunters’ Northern Perennial Pasture Mix and SARDI 10 series 2 lucerne. Both are hardy, suited to this locality and climate in a rainfed (non-irrigated) system, and both should be effective in holding down the soil and preventing erosion as well as providing some good fodder for animals. The pasture mix is recommended at 5 – 10 kg per hectare, and the lucerne at 7 – 9 kg per hectare (or 5 – 7 if combined with something else), and as our initial pasture area is about one hectare we thoguth we’d start with that much. I will be adding some other bits & pieces to it as well – marigolds, dandelions, clover, and a bunch of herbs which are supposed to be good for milk flavour and volume in dairy animals. A scattering of flax and sunflowers for variety, and because pastures should have flowers. And because the seeds are good for butterfat content in dairy animals. Maybe radishes or chicory.

 

The plan is to make a batch of seedballs with this lot, to give the pasture plants the best start we can without heavy tillage. It worked in Japan for Masanobu Fukuoka, so it should work here too. So we’ll be pulling out the seedball machine in a week or two.

 

This was only my second ever visit to a farm shop (the first being a few years ago to pick up samples of soil bacteria innoculants). It’s still a challenge to me, with my expectation of everything being online and having at least a PDF catalogue on their website – farm shops in general seem to not really have caught on that a website is more than a glossy advertising page a la the old White Pages. Having to go in person or phone just to see if they carry the things I want is weird for me, but I can do it. I have 10 kg of pasture seed to prove that. 🙂

plant profile: honey locust

2016/03/23 deej 0

I’ve just ordered another selection of wattle seeds, to germinate and plant out. These are all varieties with edible seeds, so they’re a pretty good multi-purpose plant. The idea is to plant about half of them in our Zone 5, along with holm oaks, cork oaks, stone pines, and a variety of other semi-wild food plants and bee forage plant species – the other half will go in the pasture/woodland area as shade trees.

This pasture area is going to include a series of paddocks through which our poultry and the hypothetical future goats (and maybe cow!) will be rotated. There will be fruit trees in the mix, well protected from hungry ruminants, but also a lot of multi-use fodder trees and shrubs like wattles, carob, saltbush, mulberry, and honey locust.

Honey locust is an interesting one. Although it is controversial, there are indications that it’s a non-nodulating nitrogen fixer, and it certainly grows well even in nitrogen-poor soils. So well that in some areas (including agriculktural areas of Australia) it is a major weed, forming thickets that take over in pasture areas. This seems odd to me, because both the pods and the foliage are edible and highly palatable to livestock. The pods, or rather the pulp inside them, is also edible to humans, and the whole pods can be cooked and eaten as a vegetable when green.

The tree is a graceful & attractive deciduous one, often planted as an ornamental. It is 20 – 30 m tall at maturity, with feathery leaves that give dappled shade in summer. It is fast growing, and can live 120 – 150 years. The tree is extremely thorny, with thorns growing 3 – 10 cm long on average (and sometimes as long as 20cm). Apparently the thorns were used as nails in the past. The tree and be coippiced successfully, which is often done when it is grown as a fodder plant, and produces an unusual hardwood timber used for furniture, fence posts, utility lumber, and turned objects. Honey Locust trees tend to have deep taproots and fewer lateral roots, making them well suited to agroforestry systems and alley-cropping (where trees are planted in rows, with rows of crops or pasture between them). It is also a good pioneer plant, for reclaiming damaged landscapes or areas where the soil is degraded.

 

What honey locust needs:

  • Water – Honey Locust trees are tolerant of a wide range of conditions, including extended dry periods. They occur naturally in areas where annual rainfall ranges from 510 to 1520 mm.

 

  • Sunlight – Full sun preferred.

 

  • Soil – Honey Locust trees may (or may not) be nitrogen fixers. Either way, they thrive in poor soils. They grow best on soil with a pH of 6.0 to 8.0.

 

  • Space – For agroforestry plantings, the recommended spacing is to plant each Honey Locust in a 5 – 10 m square.

 

  • Warmth – This is a very hardy plant, capable of withstanding heavy frosts and also high temperatures. Late spring frosts may damage leaves and flowers.


What honey locust has to offer:

  • Edible seed pods. Alcohol can be brewed from the sugary pulp inside the pods.

 

  • Animal fodder (seed pods and foliage).

 

  • Landscape regeneration, through (possible) nitrogen fixing, shade, and erosion control.

 

  • Hardwood timber.

 

  • Nectar for honeybees. This is not a major nectar plant, but is visited by honeybees, and will flower reliably through the hot, dry, Perth summer.

 

  • New trees, from seed.

 

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:
File:Gleditsia_triacanthos_20050730_738.jpg
File:Gleditsia_triacanthos_20050730_739.jpg
File:Gleditschia-triacanthos-espinas.jpg
File:Gleditsia_triacanthos_in_Donetsk_2.jpg
File:Gleditsia_triacanthos_only_seeds.jpg

Pasture

2015/12/03 deej 1

I’m sure anyone who reads these posts regularly knows that we’re pretty keen to increase our menagerie, but I don’t think I’ve explained clearly why that is. It isn’t just for the milk and meat that we want to get goats and a cow, although they are part of the reason. It’s for the soil.

Soil is the heart and the root of any ecosystem, including farm ecosystems. Healthy soil is absolutely essential if you want to grow healthy plants, and produce any sort of yield from the ground. The modern methods of land management call for huge inputs of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and those methods have really big problems. Most of the industrial chemicals we use on farmland are derived from petroleum products – they’re made from oil. And oil is a finite resource which we are going to run short of, probably in the near future. On top of that, the strength of the chemical fertilisers is damaging to the soil bacteria and other soil life (earthworms, fungi, etc.) which keep the soil alive – this isn’t an anti-chemicals rant (because literally everything bigger than a subatomic particle is made of chemicals), but the types of chemicals we use and the concentrations we use are bad for our soils.

You know what’s good for soil? Poo. Good, old fashioned manure. Just like farmers have been using around the world since the dawn of agriculture. That’s why animals have been so important to crop farmers for so long.

At the moment, we have a composting toilet which receives our own poo and the used kitty litter form our cats. That will compost slowly for a year, then go into a hot compost system to kill off any remaining pathogens, then we can use it on our garden (mainly for the fruit trees, just in case). We have the chickens, and the guinea fowl keets, and their poo is going to be very useful in adding nitrogen to the soil; we’re going to put a mobile chicken coop together in the new year so we can rotate the chooks around the property. The real win, however, is going to be ruminants.

We’ve walked out approximate distances, and we definitely have space for 12 – 20 paddocks. The plan is to put in posts marking the corners of the paddocks (which will be quite small), and get fencing to surround 2 paddocks at any given time. We’ll rotate the ruminants around every 2 weeks or so, which should give the pasture time to recover from intensive grazing. This replicates the natural actions of wild ruminants, which bunch together for protection form predators and move frequently to new grazing areas – and it’ll mean that all the plants are grazed equally. The chooks will be 1 paddock behind the ruminants, so they can eat leftover grain (from the supplemental feed we’ll provide to the ruminants), and spread the poo out by scratching around in it, eating maggots as they go.

Step 1 of this plan is marking out the paddocks, and planting some pasture. Step 1A is deciding on the pasture species. this is not as easy as it might seem – who knew there were so many variations on grass? I’m definitely putting in tagasaste and lucerne, and as many varieties of clover and sub-clover as I can get hold of/afford. If I can get some seeds I’ll put in some Lebeckia ambigua as well – a summer-growing pasture legume which doesn’t need extra water sounds like a brilliant option. But then the grasses. I have, at the moment, no idea what I’ll plant. By march I need to have a plan so I can put in the seed order, and then the seed will go in around May to germinate with the first rains and get established. And then I still have to wait at least 3 – 6 months before putting grazers on it in case they just kill the baby pasture before it gets established.

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