First, a word on grass
Our most distant ancestors were grass farmers. Following migratory herds and harvesting meat was the earliest permaculture, the original intensive rotational grazing; grass, or forage, still harvests the vast majority of sunlight falling on land today, making pasture, steppe or prairie the primary source of food energy for land-dwelling species. And properly managed grazing returns over 90% of that energy to the earth where it was harvested, building soil and soil microbes, fertilizing myriad plant and fungus species, and storing carbon deep below the surface, as well as increasing permeability and drought- and flood-resistance. So, turning grass into people food is the most effective way of growing something to eat while growing soil and improving the sources of our food. Discovering ways to extend the grass harvest to benefit the whole farm is arguably the goal of ecological farming. Learning how milk provides all the necessary high-quality proteins for pigs and poultry as well as calves and humans allows the farmer or homesteader to declare independence from the cost and questionable ingredients of commercial animal feeds.
‘Pastured’ has joined ‘organic’ as a catchword of value. Its real meaning is often unclear, but attached to the name of a food animal the word is often accepted without reflection as a guarantee of quality. ‘Pastured pork’, ‘pastured poultry’, ‘grass-fed beef’ (lamb, goat), and ‘all-grass’ dairy products are hailed as health foods and command a high price in the market. So far as we know there is not yet a universal definition for the term, which means in practice that a chicken which had access to a small outdoor area may be labeled ‘free-range’ – whether or not the bird ever actually ventured outside.
So, what does ‘pastured’ mean? Is it a reference to what an animal eats, or where it lives? or both? or neither? In order to determine its value, it is worthwhile to reflect on the nature of the various farm animals we label with this term.
Cows, goats and sheep, the most common farm ruminants, are ‘pastured’ when they live in an outdoor enclosure and eat primarily or exclusively of the plants growing there. The pasture may be a big field where they wander at will, and where, when there is a deficit of green growing things, they are fed supplemental foods, especially dried harvested grass, or hay; or it may be a large area of grass, legumes and forbs (what grassfarmers call ‘forage’), native or naturalized, broken into smaller areas with temporary fence where the animals are moved over successive areas, and previously grazed areas are left for a time to rest and regrow. In the latter case, the animals are not only ‘pastured’, but ‘intensively’ or ‘rotationally’ grazed. An animal may be ‘grass-fed’, even ‘all grass-fed’, without being pastured, if it is exclusively fed harvested, usually dried or fermented forage plants, but it will not receive the benefits of moving over a constantly renewed, parasite-free pasture. In varying degrees, though, these are all reasonable practices so far as animal nutrition goes, since ruminants are herbivores and in nature would eat plant leaves almost exclusively.
Ruminants are key players on the independent farm. They are our primary grass converters, producing hundreds of pounds of meat, cheese and butter over the course of a year, and gallons of drinking milk a day. Where there is a dairy ruminant and some sort of forage, humans need not starve; and where such is carefully managed, such management will increase, not decrease, the land’s ability to feed its people. This harvest will be most efficient when the farmer makes use of the animals’ ability and preference for using its own legs and jaws, rather than mechanical, petroleum-driven means, to get its dinner; the catch is that the farmer must take responsibility for preserving and increasing fertility in the land by careful observation and timing of grazing periods. We call this discipline intensive rotational grazing.
Farm birds, however, are a different matter.
‘Pastured poultry’ when applied to chickens is more a reference to where a chicken lives than to what it eats. Although a chicken allowed access to growing plants will certainly eat lots of leaves (and bugs, worms and rocks), these can supply only a limited amount of the bird’s necessary daily nutrients. Chickens are omnivores and will eat almost anything, and while they need some green stuff for health, they require lots of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. These are usually supplied by grain-based feeds consisting primarily of corn and soybeans, things which don’t grow in every pasture and in any case are not available year-round in most climates. Ducks are similar. Turkeys seem to eat more grass than chickens do. Geese are the only farm birds we know which can and do live on a diet made up primarily of leaves.
While a pig can live and grow on a diet of plants exclusively, it won’t if it has a choice about it. Pigs are omnivores, and in nature they eat both plants and animals, grazing, rooting, and eating small animals and carrion. On the farm, they are the converters par excellence of practically any kind of surplus or waste nutrients, from any source, into pork: grains, yes, and pasture plants whether self-harvested or not, but also fruits and vegetables, roots, surplus or waste dairy products, and butchering offal. Most ‘pastured’ pigs are actually grain-fed pigs that live outside: their living quarters may be a grassy field, in which case they will also do a certain amount of grazing on plant leaves and rooting in the soil, or it may be a dirt lot without a scrap of plant life. If they’ve been in one place for very long, it may have started out as the former and ended up as the latter.
The value of ‘pasture’, then, varies with the species of animals; it may even vary within species.
Pasturing on the ecological farm
For growing food, and feed, for the whole farm, while building fertility to increase the farm’s ability to feed itself in the future, the grass-harvest is essential.
The independent farmstead is going to have chickens in a lot of places on the farm, using to advantage their instinct to scratch and forage. Seasonally our birds may be found free-ranging the home pasture, where they spread manure and eat insects and insect larvae, parasites and fruit falls, as well as a ration of fermented grain, with fermented milk as a protein and calcium supplement. They might also be held in a smaller grass enclosure with electric net fencing when we want to apply their skills to a specific area. Usually we do both; while some of our laying birds roam the barnyard and home pasture, others live in a portable ‘coupe’ surrounded by polynetting, which may follow the cows in a more distant pasture or move over harvested garden beds or beds of mature green manures.
Meat birds, on the other hand, live in ‘tractors’, small sliding pens with open bottoms that we move twice daily onto fresh grass. This fertilizes select areas of our pasture and gives the birds a clean, healthy environment and some cleansing chlorophyll-rich food but actually supplies only a small part of their nutritional needs. Meat birds will receive grain or grain-based feeds and sometimes a dairy or meat protein supplement. In winter we put hens in garden tunnels after the winter vegs have been harvested to clean up crop residues and lay down some fertility for the spring. Interestingly, we find that our tunnel-kept birds make our best winter layers as well.
Ducks need water for mating and for happiness, so ours stay near the pasture pond, where they shed feathers, eat slugs and snails, bill through cow pies when there are any, graze a little, and get a small ration of fermented grain twice daily. We keep ducks as egg-producers and meat birds.
Geese get most of their calories eating grass and fruit falls. We gentle them with small offerings of grain. Our geese are Pilgrims, an American heritage breed, and we haven’t had them long enough to tell you whether we’ll eat their eggs, or just harvest surplus birds for roasting. Since geese are truly a grazing bird, they seem a logical fit for a grass-based farmstead.
Pigs are a joy! Whether confined in one place and brought excess farm byproducts, or travelling the farm applying their tilling and self-harvesting skills in the garden, pasture or woodlot, pigs are key players in the non-electric storage of surplus farm nutrients. They will even self-multiply while they are doing it!
We include here insight into our own farm’s ongoing lessons in grass harvest:
Chickens tend to be the first livestock of the small farm. This is funny, because they are, in a way, the least cost-effective member of the crew, requiring more supplementation than the farm-fed pig, and of course ranking way behind ruminants, who can make their own living. This disparity is easy to see in the cost of chicken and eggs in the first half of the last century, before the government got into the subsidy business, when a stewing hen was roughly equivalent in price to a pound of good beef sirloin. Keep chickens by all means, but know why you are keeping in order to get the most out of their many talents.
Chickens are a farm’s mobile clean-up crew. Before chicken dinners, before eggs Benedict, the importance of scratching birds on the independent farmstead is as insect and parasite control and manure dispersal, and if they never laid an egg, a small poultry flock would still be earning its keep. Given access to the pasture, they’ll spread cow pies and eat fly larvae, aerate the soil, and keep the grasshopper population within reason.
That said, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t earn their keep in other ways, and those ways should be consistent with the overall goals of the farm: the improvement of the soil, increase of plant and animal species living there, and the capture and storage of the sunlight and rain that fall on that plot of ground.
This means feeding natural feeds, not shipped-in, petroleum derived goodness-knows-what’s-in-it crumbles; it means balancing your flock size with your available space and nutrients; and it means developing rearing practices that make the most of natural chicken behaviors, like running chickens behind grazing animals, rearing broilers in moveable tractors, putting chickens in the garden as clean-up crew in the fall, wintering in low tunnels for warmth and garden fertilization.
Looking for alternates to factory-made chicken feeds is an ongoing research project on the Sow’s Ear; chickens are omnivores who enjoy all kinds of different foods, including many things people eat, and a whole lot of things we’d rather not even look at, let alone put in our mouths. Raw milk and raw milk clabber are great chicken feed, eagerly devoured; a quart of milk per day is said to contain all the high-quality protein needed for a dozen laying hens. Meat scraps are wonderful chicken food, so we grind scraps and unwanted organs from our large-animal butchering, freeze it in baking pans, then cut it into manageable chunks and put it back in the freezer. Defrosted one at a time, these are our chickens’ favorite dietary supplement.
Their mainstay, though, is our sprouted/fermented seed/grain mix, presently consisting of whole black oil sunflower seeds, whole millet, and whole or cracked/crimped/rolled wheat, barley and oats. This is sometimes fed dry, as scratch, but more often we soak it for several days in water before we feed it, which means that the whole grains or seed will be sprouted while the broken or rolled grains ferment, and it is in this form that the birds find it irresistible. Our attention was drawn to the greater palatability of fermented feeds when we began reading farming manuals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and our experience has confirmed this. As well as increasing the food’s appeal, fermentation and sprouting increase available nutrients and probiotics.
What this mix contains can be flexible as long as the chickens are getting adequate amounts of protein for egg and feather production. In the summer birds on good pasture may be able to pick this up themselves, in the form of bugs, worms and so forth, but our experience is that if you are looking for five eggs a week from spring through fall, they are going to need some help. Where only a few birds are kept – like, one per household member – the scraps from the human table may very well be adequate, but in a larger flock protein supplementation can mean dairy– buttermilk, skim, kefir, whey, yogurt and so on – or meat scraps. We grind and freeze butchering waste and feed it out a handful at a time. Nevertheless, our yearly egg production more nearly matches the 160-180 eggs per bird per year that was the farmer’s goal as recently as the mid-1900’s than it does the whopping 300-330 eggs per year that the industry wants to squeeze out of its one-year-and-you’re-soup birds today. That’s okay with us; we prefer hardy birds that can spread a cow pie and survive in a meadow where the hawk and fox prowl, and lay for several years, than the egg-factory super-bird that needs jet-fuel and climate control to lay a single year.
It is a fact of life that chicks come from an incubator. Yes, I know the Good Lord told all the animals to produce offspring after their own kind, but the Industrial Establishment has since ordered them to the convenience of mass production, and the result is that broodiness has been bred out of most of our common breeds — just look at the details of your hatchery catalogue descriptions — and our chickens, although they lay plenty of eggs , don’t really know what to do with them after that, unless they get cannibalsistic (not an uncommon occurrence), and then they eat them. The mothering instinct has been bred out of them.
Your one-cow revolutionary has an advantage over his cow-less kin in the raising of chicks. Baby chickens are apt to get an intestinal bug called coccidiosis, to which many little birds succumb; the usual defense among organic farmers is to put some cider vinegar in their water. Maybe it helps, but not, in our experience, as much as you might like it to. One of the signs of coccidiosis is blood in the chicks’ droppings, and the addition of cider vinegar to our birds’ water hasn’t had a noteable effect on that symptom.
The remedy par excellence is raw milk. The lactobaccili in raw milk seem to be just what the babies’ little systems need to combat the coccidio-bacteria. Since we began feeding raw milk to our baby birds several years ago, we have had no trouble with coccidiosis; not, we admit, a scientific survey complete with control, but evidence sufficient for the farmer to go on as he is going.
Chickens were absolutely the first livestock we acquired when we moved to the Sow’s Ear. We kept chickens even when we lived in an apartment in Texas, erecting a small shed on land owned by the university where Shawn was employed, and raising a flock of layers from tiny chicks to fat, happy chickens. These provided us with eggs, and some enterprising and handy local poacher with chicken dinners, until the last hen was gone. Padlocks impeded this nightstalker not at all; he just wrenched the hasps out of the shed door and left the lock hanging. One by one our girls went missing, and the egg-count dropped. Our sense of being robbed was somehow tempered by an admiring respect for whatever denizen of Irving, Texas, was so variously skilled in larceny, butchery, and haute-cuisine as to visit our henhouse night after night for another fresh, fat fowl.
Those hens were necessarily confined, but our Ohio birds have always been free-ranged; that is to say, they can come and go in the henhouse as they please, drink from the creeks and eat in the pasture and the eaves of the woods as seems best to them, hopefully returning to the henhouse to lay their eggs and to sleep. Mostly this works, and it is the odd summer that finds us without surlplus eggs to sell. Last year’s flock of scrawny, scanty, stingy chickens was a new experience for us; with this exception, we have found RI Reds a satisfactory breed.
In the commercial model it is important for the pigs to grow very fast, to make room for another lot of pigs. In the grassfarm model, the goal is to make the most efficient use of the products of the farm: milk waste, kitchen wastes, garden and other wastes. If a pig can grow slowly on free food to the same size as another pig can grow to quickly, for the paysano, who only needs a few pigs a year, so that even if he gets one lot out of the barn quickly he isn’t going to use that space immediately for another lot, it is more economical to raise the slow pig than the fast pig.
Say a $50 pig can be raised in five months on 750# of feed, at $25 a hundredweight, you have $425 in that pig at the very least by the time you butcher. If a second pig can be raised to the same size in eight months on 150# of bought-in feed, plus all the scraps and dairy waste the farm will produce, you have less than $100 in the animal by the time you come to butcher. Processing off-farm will cost you at least another dollar a pound, or between two and three hundred dollars, whereas on-farm processing will cost you maybe fifty bucks in paper and tape, spices, and a new blade for the band saw, but probably not so much. Suffice it to say that if the paysano can raise a pig for $100, and get two hundred pounds of meat in the freezer, his pork costs him $.50/#, as opposed to the two-fifty or three bucks per pound the commercially fed pig will cost.
It helps to remember that for the revolutionary, it is useful to have pigs on the place at all times, because pigs are the most efficient converters of garbage into flesh. If the farmer can raise pigs solely on the products of the farm, they serve a double purpose, as garbage disposals which convert trash into compost and into flesh food.
At the Sow’s Ear we grow some of our pig feed in the garden after the main crops are in. Beets, turnips, and beans are planted in the areas made vacant by the harvesting of potatoes and corn; mangels get a patch of their own, producing hundreds of pounds of red-and-white roots which the pigs love.
A new catch-phrase to join slow food and slow money – slow growth, slow flesh, slow farming, slow husbandry? Meaning it is better to grow a pig slowly than to grow him quickly.
The dairy cow is the central fixture of the Sow’s Ear; she is what makes us what we are, she is our power source, she determines our lifestyle. It is the dairy cow, we feel, that makes the homestead into an independent smallholding. Intensively grazed, a dairy cow turns grass into people food – milk and meat – better than anything else we can imagine, with plenty left over the supplement the rest of the citizens of the smallholding.
After several years’ experience with dairy goats we bought our first Jersey cow, and we have been in love with the breed ever since. Our Jerseys are milked morning and evening and provide us with from two to eight gallons of milk a day, depending on their forage and where they are in their lactations, but they average around three to four gallons a day for most of the year. This amount is sufficient give us more milk, cream and butter than we need, milk for cheese, milk to start several steers a year, and milk, whey, and buttermilk to feed the pigs, chickens, dogs and cats. It is the use of excess dairy products for animal feed that is bringing our off-farm inputs – mostly purchased grain feeds — down to little or nothing. Our goal is to find the equation between livestock and farm produce, especially dairy products, that allows us to eliminate our feed bill altogether.
Jersey cows are bred for milk, but obviously half the calves born are male. These are not considered worth the raising by beef operators of any scale because, as dairy animals, they do not convert feed to flesh at as rapid a rate, nor do they make as big a carcase. Often these animals die from poor care; those that live are usually sent to the livestock auction, where exposure to cold and to additional pathogens further reduces their chances of survival. Some are sent to veal barns where they are fed milk replacer for a few weeks before being slaughtered. A side of an Angus steer might weigh three hundred pounds or more, while a side from a Jersey steer of the same age might weigh between one hundred twenty-five to two-fifty. The smaller size is not a disadvantage to us; a single steer fits easily in an ordinary deep freeze, and they are so inexpensive to raise that we butcher several a year for our own use, as well as a few extras to sell.
Our Jersey bulls – the ones that aren;t born on the farm — are purchased by us at two or three days old from a Jersey dairy in Carroll County, Ohio, where they start out on two days of colostrum, vitamin shots, and an sometimes antibiotic shot. That is the last doctoring they receive. The antibiotic is standard care in the commercial dairy industry where the confinement of animals means a high pathogen level, and our dairyman friend considers these shots essential for the humane treatment of the animals. He cares for our baby bulls according to the same protocols he uses for his own baby heifer calves, so they are getting his best. We pick them up at two or three days old, usually, and bring them home to a warm stall in our hay barn. Most calves receive two to five feedings of frozen colostrum from one of our Jersey cows and then at least ten weeks of twice-a-day warm fresh milk — no milk replacer. This assures that they get a good healthy start on life. Somewhere between seven and fourteen days old they begin to be let out on our organic pasture for the day, but spend the nights in their warm stalls
At twelve to fourteen weeks they can be weaned, but sometimes we continue giving them milk for weeks or even months if there is extra milk at that time. They spend the rest of the year, and all of their second year, on organic pasture, and are usually ready to butcher in November or December of the second year.
There are a few tricks it may be helpful to know when you are starting out raising your own calves. Commercial, artificial milk replacer as is usually fed to calves which have been taken off their mother’s milk, is a very poor second to fresh raw cow’s milk. The very high mortality rate in young dairy animals is directly related to the use of milk replacer. Our calves receive whole fresh raw milk still warm from the cow, and we credit our good luck with calves principally to this fact. That said, we have had various problems crop up as we learned to keep these little bulls, born into germ-ridden dairy barns and taken almost immediately from their mothers, alive and healthy. Here are some tips we have learned:
House each baby by himself. This may sound contrary to instinct, since cows are naturally herding animals, but it is important. A newborn calf has an almost insatiable instinct to nurse. A baby which remains with its mother can fulfill this instinct in the most natural way; separated from its mother, the calf will suck on anything it can reach: your fingers while you are feeding it, or, if it has nursery mates, their ears, noses, tails, umbilical cords, and so on. Some of the above may be very germy indeed, and in its first days a baby calf is extremely susceptible to germs. Calves kept together pass germs from one to another very, very quickly. By all means, keep the baby calves separate.
Keep them dry and out of drafts. It is nice if they can be kept warm as well, and we buy most of our calves in the summer for this reason, but a calf may be kept reasonably comfortable even in cold weather so long as his feet are dry, he has a dry place to lie down, and he is out of the wind. At one time we kept our baby bulls in the garage – over Shawn’s protests – because there was no hay in the calf barn and it was too drafty.
Scours is diarrhea in calves. We try to prevent it before it occurs first of all by giving the calf several feedings of colostrums, which we save in the freezer when Isabel calves. Secondarily we add a raw egg to the calf’s half-gallon of milk morning and evening; the theory is that the albumin in the egg slows the passage of the milk through the baby’s gut. If despite these efforts the calf still scours, we withdraw milk for one feeding and offer instead water mixed with pectin and electrolytes (the latter can be bought at the feed store). The next feeding will be one quart water/one quart milk; after that we are usually able to put the calf back on milk and raw egg.