The One-cow Revolution

a grass-fed homestead


The sustainable smallholding is essentially a cooperative, a planned symbiotic ecosystem of microbe, grass, livestock, and humans.  The management of that system can be better understood if it is broken down into some basic categories:  who and what lives on the farm, what are their requirements, and what goods and services they provide.  Something like this:


cows – require:  grass, water

provide:  milk, calves for beef and for sale, manure

services:  pasture maintenance

steers – require:  grass, water

produce:  beef, manure

services:  pasture maintenance

pigs –    require:  scraps, hay, garden produce, weeds and garden trash; water

produce:  pork,                 piglets, manure

services:  waste disposal, turning compost

chickens –  require:  grass and bugs, scraps, grain, water

produce:  eggs,                 chicks, meat

services:  insect control, salvage of undigested or spilled grain

ducks – require:  grass, water, insects, slugs, nasty things from the bottom of the pond

produce:  ducklings

services:  spreading manure piles, eating pest species

sheep – require:  grass, water

produce:    lambs for sale

services:  grazing forbes, cleaning fence rows

dogs and cats – require:  pet food, scraps, water

services:  vermin control

people – require:  vegs and meat, grain, etc., and water

services:  management and livestock handling

Everything in addition needs its environment in some way adapted to its comfort, some form of shelter or protection.  Knowing who are the players and how they function in the greater whole facilitates the management of the smallholding.  The farmer who views each species as one part of the ecosystem can begin to funnel resources and direct services where they are most timely or most needed, planning the advent of a product for the time when it is most useful, moving all in the direction of a self-sustaining whole, farm as source, not farm as factory.   The first step, of course, is to provide for the basic needs of each species in a way consistent with the goal of independence.  There are:

what livestock eats

cows:  grass managed so that it feeds the cows and steers most of the year; hay for periods when drought or ice prevents them foraging

pigs:  options:  expensive purchased grains and formulated feeds with questionable ingredients; OR, feed produced on the farm


wheat, barley, oats

winter squash, pumpkins

mangel-wurzels, beets, turnips




vegs and plants past useable for people food

milk, whey, buttermilk

chickens:  this is a tough one.  Chickens only earn their keep if they are laying, and they aren’t always laying.  A few hens can be fed largely on the scraps from the kitchen, but will need some grain and access to grass and bugs and manure.  The more chickens you have, the less able your farm is to sustain them all, unless you raise grain to feed them

sheep:  grass again, with hay for periods when they cannot forage

cats and dogs:  commercial pet food, milk, meat, and scraps from the kitchen

people:  it is important to determine what these animals will eat, as there is no use growing things they won’t touch or won’t be satisfied with;


milk products


garden produce, fruit



beer, wine, herbal teas


Getting water to all the animal paddocks and pens is a big job, and can be expensive, even after the water systems are installed.  The more you can rely on natural water sources over pressurized systems, the more economical your operation will be.


You have to have a way to keep the animals in the places where you want them and out of the places where you don’t.  The ‘in’ thing now is high-tensile electric fence; paupers may need to find some other solution.  Step-in posts and polywire on reels let you move animals frequently, even daily; they are pretty much a must for planned rotational grazing.


They all need something different.  Sheep only need shelter when they are lambing; dairy cows seldom need it, but you do, when you are milking them, and in a cold wet winter you want them to be able to lie down somewhere dry and out of the wind.  The steers can manage fine in the pasture.  Pigs need a pig pen, or a round bale to nest in if you are grazing them; hens need somewhere fox-proof for sleeping, and also for laying their eggs in, if you can persuade them to that.


cost analysis:

Cows:  Don’t think about it while you are setting it up or you’ll quit.  A good milk cow is at least twelve hundred dollars; fence for a five acre pasture may be even more.  Pressurized water points all over the pasture are another chunk of change; a barn ditto.  If your milk cow is getting six or seven pounds of grain a day (moderate) she may cost you between twelve and eighteen dollars a week to feed, exclusive of hay.

On the other hand, if you use polywire and fence reels and move her onto fresh pasture daily (a la Alan Savory and Greg Judy and Joel Salatin, to name three) you may dispense with the grain and still get plenty of milk; and if you get creative about water you may be able to get by without a pressurized system (we do).  But you will have to move fence and water frequently, which will cut into your time at the gym.  Of course, if you spend fifteen to thirty minutes a day hiking up and down the pasture setting up fence and hauling water tanks you may be able to cancel your membership at the gym, which if you are like most of us wasn’t getting you anywhere in a hurry anyway.

Pigs:  Feeder pigs are fifty bucks right now and can cost you fifteen dollars a week in commercial feed, more for sows in pig or hogs you are fattening; and it may take you five months to grow a pig from fifty-pound weanling to two-hundred fifty pound market hog, meaning that you can grow your own bacon for about what it would cost you at the store anyway, although of course your product will be superior.

Or, you can find alternate foods and save a lot.  The pig was originally the family garbage disposal/trash recycler, a beast which would eat almost anything but coffee grounds and citrus peel, and was a necessary utility on the farm, like a cart horse or a milk cow.  Where today a person buys a weanling and hopes that the price of corn won’t eat up the savings he hopes to realize on his family’s pork, the family that keeps a sow for piglets can feed it almost every kind of waste the year through, and the cost of feed, when it is necessary, may be offset by the savings of fifty dollars per weanling (for the ones you fatten) and a cash realization of the same amount on the piglets you sell.  If you breed your sow twice a year and get six piglets each time (conservatively), you can fatten two for the table (save a hundred bucks) and sell ten (realize five hundred bucks) which is enough to buy you fifty or so bags of hog feed, which is about a year of feed if you use commercial feed exclusively; but you won’t.

Of course there’s the question of how to breed your single sow.  A pig living alone is a lonely pig, and it will be hard for the likes of us (not pig experts) to know when she is feeling loneliest (and receptive to a boar).  Even if we can figure that part out, the experts tell us it is hard to get a sow to stand for A.I. unless you have boar scent to entice her with.  So, suppose you decide you’ll support a boar, too – it might cost you another five hundred dollars in feed unless you have an alternative source, but after all you’re eating terrific pork all year as part of the bargain.

Or you can study up on what great-grandpa used to feed his pigs, ‘way back in the Dark Ages before the almighty Trinity, Monsanto/Dow/ADM.  You’ll find that pigs love squash and potatoes and root crops as well as they love corn — and these have not yet been genetically modified.  Moreover, you can actually take some of your garden out of dormancy between seasons and grow pig fodder where your people crops have been.  We do this.  When the potatoes come out of the ground in July we resow with fodder beets, turnips, pinto beans, cabbages and short-season corn.  In the fall we fence the garden with polynetting, drop in a water barrel with a pig nipple and submersible stock water heater, and let the pigs harvest their own dinners.

And waste dairy products like buttermilk and whey are considered the most excellent source of high-quality protein for the pigs.

Chickens:  Clabber and scraps provide excellent protein, and the average family could support a small flock with the addition of only a little grain.  We don’t keep a small flock, we keep a big flock, and one of our monthly growls is that the hens are costing more than they are worth.  We are working on strategies to reduce the expense of keeping hens, first by hatching our own chicks (for a savings of about three dollars a chick, for twenty or thirty chicks, every year); and second by feeding whole and cracked grains, cooked swill of human food scraps, waste bread soaked in whey or buttermilk, and sprouted grains, all of which are cheaper alternatives to commercial layer mash and contain few if any questionable ingredients.

Sheep:  We haven’t had the sheep long and rely on our fellows in the sustainable farming movement for the information that multi-species grazing is good for the grass and lambs have sold high the past ten years and more.  Sheep will have to be fed hay during lambing, when we bring them up to the barn.

Dogs and cats:  Our pets eat clabber and scraps, and things that die untimely, but we still spend too much on pet food and per pound it’s the most expensive feed we buy.  We are always looking for alternative food sources for them.  Their job is vermin control – ranch security, according to John R. Erickson – and without them the place would be overrun with rodents, alive with clever-fingered nocturnal predators, nibbled by rabbits and deer, and a whole lot less fun for the children.  The dogs and cats (I write this while Shawn is out of the room and can’t dispute it) are like the people on the farm and do not have to defend their presence; they are part of the team.


The trick is to get all these parts to function as a cooperative whole.  A farm used to be a source, not a factory; a place where food comes into being, not a site where it is assembled from purchased materials.  If the nature of animals and plants is not changed from what it was as little sixty years ago, then it should follow that we can still farm in ways that are self-sustaining; to whit:  the sun shines on grass; the grass grows; cows and other ruminants eat the grass and convert it to flesh and milk.  Thereby cows feed ‘most everybody – people, pigs, chickens, dogs and cats.  Pigs eat almost anything and feed the people; chickens eat bugs and weeds and are good mostly for eggs, but also for chicken soup;  sheep bring in money and keep the weeds down in the pasture and fence rows;  dogs and cats keep the rats under some kind of control, and keep the coons out of the hen house; and people are there to serve everyone and orchestrate the whole.

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