We were blessed to receive a reply from Mary Cuff, author of an article in Modern Age entitled ‘Is it time for the Robert Penn Warren Option?’, of which we made mention in the March 31, 2019 post ‘chicken economics in round numbers’.  As part of our conversation, we found ourselves articulating our principles in new words:

IMG_8806I’m not sure what would qualify as a ‘fully self-sustaining lifestyle’ by anyone’s definition, especially in the here and now. Cavemen with stone tools and skins for clothing were pretty self-sufficient folks; in the 21st century we would be hard put to it to find anything comparable. But I don’t suppose either of us visualizes that sort of self-sufficiency as being necessary or even, perhaps, desirable, today.
The real question begging urgently to be explored, we think, has less to do with an integrity characterized by a complete, or, more likely, imaginary, geographical unity of source, but much to do with another integrity, which I think I would like to call Respect; the Church, I think, calls it Purity, that is, the right use of things. Please don’t think I’m redirecting your practical question to something simply philosophical or theoretical, because what I am trying to describe is exercised by every one of us, concretely, many times a day.
At its most basic, life is sustained by food, by eating. Agriculture, therefore — in which we all participate very directly, even if we cultivate by proxy — involves us in the most primary of vital moral issues.  Right use — of our food and of the sources of our food:  plant, animal, fungus, soil — is the question.  If our food originates in processes that honor the sources of that food — soil, plant, animal, human agent, and so on — then our eating can be consistent with Respect, with Purity.  Thus knowing what processes do, in fact, honor those sources, becomes necessary if we are not going to reject the moral responsibility inherent in living.

I think over the past twenty years or so my family has come to know something about those processes and those sources that does, in fact, allow us to grow and eat food with a certain integrity. Let me tell you some of the most basic points.

Stuff, as we have stated somewhere in this blog, matters. All the created world counts, that is, has worth, inherently and completely. Dishonor to the least bit of it is dishonor to the whole, and to the Creator. This can be restated in innumerable ways, and formulated into endless tenets. ‘There is no such thing as waste’ (Farm Rule Sixth and Last). ‘All things should be used according to their natures’ (summary of the Principles of Permaculture) — another way of saying what Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and a host of others have urged upon us, that is, the necessity of modeling our agriculture on nature’s own ecosystems.  ‘Do unto others’, in fact, even when those others are soil biota.

The application of this rule is directed by location.  Here in Appalachia, our weeping hills maintain their integrity best under grass and grazing ruminants, in a cycle of grazing-and-recovery that replenishes soil and perennial groundcovers. Through these processes the greatest possible proportion of contemporary sunlight is harvested over the greatest possible extent of the year, in the most materially productive manner, and converted into leaves. These are then harvested and converted again, this time into manure — thus giving back what the soil has given, with additions from the atmosphere and precipitation — as well as into flesh, both as living animal and as food. Good and proper use has been observed.

But — when that sunlight is also converted into milk, suddenly it is made available, repeatedly, in real time, in the most nutritious possible forms, not only to the ruminant’s offspring, but, by the generosity of its quantities, to all of the other farm animals, to the humans, and to the soil.
This is at once overwhelming and merely commonplace.  Milk was for millennia the mainstay of the human food system (we were, you remember, pastoral before we were agricultural). The provision of ruminant milk in quantities beyond what are needed for reproduction allows human beings to take sustenance from nature and yet leave it more abundant than it was before. Two minus one equals three.  The origin of those lovely, beguiling fairy tales wherein widow’s sons receive cloths that, whenever spread, produce a banquet, must surely have been the joy, wonder, and gratitude of the shepherd who understood how his flock’s grazing restored the pastures they grazed while twice daily filling his buckets with sweet, rich milk.

So, on our farm, sunlight-capturing grass is the source of all our calorie.  Passing through the cows, it is converted into milk, meat, and manure.  Also, more ruminants.  Meat certainly plays a role, and not a small one, in our diets, but milk is King — or, I should say, Queen. After all, what other food, in its creation, leaves its source not only undiminished, but enriched? And who but a ruminant, properly managed, can, in the act of eating, renew and expand the source of her food? Our meat, of course, also starts out as milk. Calves are raised by their mothers on milk, the pigs grow on milk, the chickens fill our their foraging with clabber. Our gardens receive their fertility from manure from ruminants, or that of milk-fed pigs and chickens, as well as from drenches and foliar feeds made from milk or whey.
Yes, we do raise most of what we eat — and we could, if we decided it should be so, eliminate those things we buy in. I suppose that might be called ‘self-sustaining’, if the term ‘self’  is expanded to include all the life on the farm. But on that note, it is at least as significant to our sufficiency that the plants and animals from which we take our food, also eat from the farm, not from bags of solar energy harvested somewhere else. They eat from here, and they take part in the regeneration of here, as do we. Our life comes from the sunlight that falls on these few acres, and from the grass that absorbs the sunlight, and from the soil that nourishes and the rain that hydrates the grass, and from the cows that eat the grass and give us their milk and their meat and the fertility that keeps it all going forward with no calculable necessary cessation.


All of our farm efforts flow from our attempts rightly to direct those energies, so that they stay on the farm as life and living things.IMG_8551 (1)

This comment on our  post on chicken feed is too interesting to miss.  Eddy and Gosia live in Poland.


Gosia’s family still feed the chickens on boiled potatoes. They collect all the too small and damaged potatoes at harvest and that’s the feed for the year. Add a bit of wheat that they grow collectively with the extended family of aunts and uncles and the bulk of the diet is taken care of. The flour mills in the area also give you the husk of anything that you happen to mill and the scraps from the table and garden are ready fodder and fill any gaps in the diet and of course all chickens are free range here, which I’m reminded of every morning as I take the kids to school and pass house after house with chickens scratching around at the side of the road.
Cost to feed, zero, just a little time. And they look after a flock of about twenty, which provides eggs for three families, including ours.
From a numbers point of view:  8-week old birds cost $3 and eggs can be sold for around 25c and chicken soup is the national dish, served every Sunday before lunch 🙂

Thank you, Eddy and Gosia!

We recently encountered the opinion of someone named Mary Cuff, in a periodical called Modern Age, dismissing the family smallholding in these words:  “Only the most privileged people can afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.”  We do not know how many people ‘living off the land’ Ms. Cuff is acquainted with, but relative to opinions like this one, we would like to share some numbers:

A chicken is supposed to eat one-quarter pound of feed per day.  I’m not sure whose chicken that would be, or what would be its breed, age, size, and position in life, but we’ll take it as a general rule that a laying hen eats something in the neighborhood of 4 oz. of something every day.  Ours do.  Generously, that means we need a few pounds short of 100 lb. of feed per bird per year — not a small amount.

Our own birds eat fermented or sprouted wheat, in addition to grass, bugs, and a bit of meat or milk for protein.   The grass, bugs, meat and milk are all free products of our land, things we have in abundance and need to feed to something. The wheat we buy, at $5/bu. (roughly 60 lb.).  That’s just over $.08/lb., so we may spend as much as $8/bird/year on feed.

Now, our birds lay at a rate of something like 50%, averaged over the year, or about 180 eggs/bird/year.  180 eggs is 15 dozen eggs — from a bird we pay about $8/year to feed.

That’s 15dozen pastured, cage-free, soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free eggs for just over $.50 per dozen.

The cost of buying the chick and raising it to laying age — about $7 — can be discounted, because when the hen gets too old to lay we’re going to make chicken pie, and feed the bones to the hogs.

Glory be to God for chickens and privileges.

This from a question about calculating protein in a homemade ration:

Standard laying mash is around 16 – 18% protein; that’s what they make for commercial producers and backyard chicken keepers aiming at a very high rate of lay.

This is at least in part because modern hens have been selected for maximum performance in the short run, not longevity or duration of lay.  It takes a lot of dietary protein to make an egg.  Today, the commercial goal is to get at least 300 – 330 eggs per hen in her first year of lay, then sell her to Campbells; in the typical backyard flock, same genetics, you might keep her around for a second year if you don’t mind much reduced performance.  After that, the soup pot.

In contrast, eighty years ago a hen was considered a good layer if she gave 200 eggs per year, and she was expected to lay for several years.

If what you want is an accelerated rate of lay, you’ll need to supply a lot of protein. But if you’re going to pasture or free-range — which is what it sounds like you intend to do — then you’re probably electing to go for a more natural rate of lay, which leaves more latitude in the matter of how much protein supplement you provide.

Now, if you were really setting out to determine precisely how much protein you needed to reach 18% of the birds’ diet, you’d have your work cut out for you. First, you won’t know what the birds are picking up as they forage, so you can’t know its food value. Secondly, the percent protein of those bulk foods (like corn, wheat, oats) with which you make up the majority of their ration can vary a great deal from batch to batch, depending on a lot of variables, so you’d actually have to test each batch of grain you purchased or grew to determine its composition. Only if you know all of the variables can you calculate with accuracy the amount of milk or other protein you need to raise your total ration to the 16 – 18% rate.

img_9916Fortunately, it’s not really that hard to get a satisfactory ration without all of the numbers.

You say you would like to switch to ‘grass and natural feed’ for your flock. Let’s assume that means you’re going to free-range or pasture the birds, while providing some kind of grain ration. Corn and most of the cereal grains average well below the minimum recommended percentage protein, but they’re good for some protein and for plenty of carbs. With dry grain rations, it’s generally considered that a hen of average size needs about one-quarter pound of feed per day, and somewhere around that’s not a bad place to start.  18% of 4 oz. is 0.72 oz. protein, and they’ll get more than half of that from their grain and whatever they pick up foraging, so if you offer a high-protein supplement like curds or waste meat, which are about 25% protein, an ounce of one of these per day gets your birds’ ration up in the high-protein range.  For visual reference, that’s a lump about the size of a hulled walnut, or rather smaller, per bird.

IMG_0118All that said, in the summer a free-range bird with plenty of pasture (not bare soil) to range about in is going to pick up a lot of bugs and worms, and might do very well without protein added to her grain allotment.  And since she’s free-range, she may also hide all her lovely eggs where you can’t find them.

The practice of farming has more in common with dancing than with science:  if you want it to be beautiful and enjoyable, you pay attention to your partner and respond to changes in the rhythm.


We’re pretty happy with how our cows thrive on stockpiled forage, and these pictures show why.  Thick coats, well-padded hip bones, calm, contented demeanor — these are happy cows.  Note that these animals have spent the entire winter out in the pasture, with no supplementation except minerals, eating standing forage saved since last July/August, the only exception being a few days when there was so much ice on the snow that we fed square bales in the pasture.

People often email us with specific questions; sometimes the answers might be helpful to other folks, too.  This gentleman has seen our video series with Living Web Farms, and asked about the multi-wire reel we exhibited at that event.
Hi, Carl!  We’re glad the video is useful.
The multi-wire reel (that one actually has three wires) is a DIY dodge authored by Tony McQuail, an Ontario farmer and author, who uses it to pasture his draft horses.  It’s a plain plastic extension cord reel, like what you would buy at the home improvement store.  He loads it with three strands of turbo-wire (heavy-duty braided twine), and ties the three strands off to a single step-in post that stays with the reel.  We only put a maximum of about two hundred feet of twine (each strand) on a single reel, because, as you guessed, if you get them tangled you’re going to have a mess.
We use it the same way he does, as a cross-fence across a fenced pasture; that is, from one side to the other of a pasture with a permanent electric perimeter fence.  On one side of the pasture we set the single tied-in step-in post, attaching it to the perimeter fence with a short contact wire (about 18 inches of insulated wire with aligator clips on each end).  Then, carrying the reel, and with the three strands of twine separated by our fingers so they’ll run out without tangling, we step out the fence, setting additional posts every ten steps or so, until we reach the opposite side of the pasture/opposite fence, and set a last post.  Then to keep the tension even on the three strands of polytwine, we pull another three feet or so of twine off the reel and tie it in a hank around one of the perimeter fence wires.  Those plastic reels are light enough that they hang pretty easily from a fence post; or, if the weather is dry, I think Tony just puts it on the ground.
I wish I could draw it; I know verbal instruction can be confusing!
Picture it this way:  say you cut three strands of braid, all the same length, and tie them in to an extension cord reel.  Then wind them all onto the reel — they won’t load at exactly the same rate, so by the time you reach the ends they’ll be a little uneven, but not too much — and then tie off the ends at graduated heights on a step-in-post.  This is the basic apparatus.  Shove a contact wire in your pocket, and half-a-dozen extra posts under your arm, and you’re ready to start.
Say you’ve got a pasture with decent perimeter fences that will contain whatever species you’re planning to graze — if sheep, say your perimeter is five strands of high-tensile, or maybe some hog wire — and all you need is a way to break that pasture up into smaller pieces, you can cut out one end with a three-wire reel and graze that on day one.  The next day, take a second three-wire reel and cut out another section next to the first, pull back the first cross-fence at one end and let the animals through, move their water up, and let them graze this second section.  Day three, take down the first (original) cross-fence and jump it over the second one and let them through again, and so on down the line.
I dont’ know where you are, but we’ll be doing a full-day workshop on farming, with about half the day devoted to fence, the second weekend in April, here at our home farm, if you are interested.   We’ll also be doing a half-day grazing workshop in Asheville at the Mother Earth News Fair at the end of April, and a full-day workshop in Front Royal, VA, in October.  It’s a lot easier to demonstrate fence than to make it clear in words!