the smallholding

There is a scale at which all the operations of a farm go synchronously.

A single person who is used to the work can milk two cows, including walking to the barn, walking up again, straining the milk, and washing the buckets, in an hour – an hour and a half when the cows are freshening.

Two cows produce an amount of manure which can be managed with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow in about fifteen minutes a day; and this is only necessary during those times of the year when conditions confine the cows to the barn.

Two milk cows under rotational grazing can make efficient use of the grass from five poor acres of soil for at least eight months of the year, using it to provide anywhere from three to twelve gallons of milk a day.  We are doing this.  With twenty more acres of mediocre grass you can pasture two steers and make your animals’ winter hay, although for most people it would be more practical to buy winter hay than to make it, unless you have plenty of man-power, in which case four people can cut, rake, and barn two cuttings from ten acres with less than ten full days’ labor.

Rather than feeding steers over the winter, it is both economical and reasonable in the case of a scarcity of farm help to buy inexpensive baby bulls from a dairy operation in the spring, start them for ten weeks on skim milk, pasture them with the cows until the weather turns reliably cold, then butcher them as with the bacon pigs.  Animals butchered in this way are considerably smaller than the two-year-olds more usually raised for beef, but this can be an advantage to the farmer with a small family, a small freezer, or both.  It also has the decided advantage that one has invested only the cost of the baby bull – we usually pay a premium for ours and get them for twenty bucks apiece – with perhaps a few cents in disbudding paste and elastrator bands.  No money or labor has been invested in winter feed for such animals.  It is also much easier to butcher a two- to three-hundred pound animal than an eight-hundred pound one.

A sow and a boar can derive all their protein needs from two gallons of milk a day (easily met by the excess from a single cow), meeting their requirements for carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals with kitchen scraps, hay of reasonably good quality, and waste vegetables, with little or no supplement in the form of purchased grains or feeds.  In the spring, summer and fall four weanlings may be fattened on pasture, dairy excess from two cows, whey from the cheese making, weeds, garden trash and excess vegs, and kitchen scraps, with a minimum of off-farm produced grain.  We are not yet experienced enough in this area to say absolutely that no grain will be required, but there are people out there raising swine on pasture and whey, where the whey is available in unlimited quantities.

A family may very easily raise all the vegetables it can use for an entire year on less than half an acre of land, usually much less.  For our family we aim to produce at least one half ton of potatoes – potatoes are a staple in our family and we usually eat them twice a day,– two hundred pounds of onions, four hundred pounds of tomatoes, seventy or eighty quarts of green beans for canning, and several hundred pounds of winter squash, garlic, cabbage, fruits and berries, in addition to all the fresh seasonal vegetables we can eat.  On top of this we keep winter vegetables under simple plastic tunnels, so spinach, lettuce, and carrots are available to us fresh all winter long.  No special tools are absolutely necessary for this level of production, but because we have one, we do use a rototiller to turn the soil between crops.

The family garden, managed on such a scale as to produce all or most of the family’s vegetable needs for the year, may be planted off-season to produce a quantity of forage, in the form of beets, turnips, swedes, kale, cabbage, and beans, that may provide much of the dietary needs of a breeding pair of swine.  Last year almost half of our twenty-thousand square foot garden at the monastery was sown in August to table beets, sugar beets, turnips and Kentucky Wonders; in November five young pigs were turned onto that garden and fed there until Christmas with only skim milk and a small amount of corn as supplement.  Of course, a breeding pair on maintenance rations consume feed at a much slower rate and would make more economical use of what the garden could provide.  Obviously it makes more sense to fatten pigs for the freezer during the summer and fall, butchering when the weather turns consistently cold so that the carcasses may be hung overnight to firm up for cutting.

A dozen free-range chickens may provide six eggs a day on three pounds of corn, or on half that and an allowance of skim milk and kitchen scraps or pig swill.  Careful poultry management should improve this level of production.  Chickens are not the most economical of farm animals – for us, meat chickens are by far and away our most expensive animals, and layers come in second.  Our research into Nineteenth-century farming practices may help us find the key to keeping a productive farm flock without purchased grains.

3 thoughts on “the smallholding

  1. On chickens for meat: we have gamecocks and game hens. They find all their own food and run free. The sleep in trees except when setting, so predators are not a problem most of the time. The hens set and raise 2-3 clutches a year. We started with one rooster and one hen a few years ago. Last year we put a couple dozen roosters in the freezer and sold 20 hens. We try to limit the flock to 1-2 roosters and 8 or so hens. The only hard thing is catching them!

    Jim

    1. I also use to raise game chickens. They kept our yard and surrounding acreage free from ticks, bugs, and anything that couldn’t run away. The hens were the best layers and mothers. They hatched 2 batches of chicks a summer. The mothers would cluck and the chicks would dive under the leaves until mother hen would cluck once again. The only predator that almost destroyed my flock was a couple of stray dogs. In the winter I kept them in my garden to eat the bugs, turn the soil, and fertilize. I had the best garden in the area and I think the chickens were a great asset. I always had eggs year round and a new flock every year hatched for the next years eggs. They were good for eating because they were mostly bone but I love these chickens. I also gave my neighbors lots of chickens to have their own flocks. Game chickens have survival skills lost in many modern chicks.

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