One of our founding farm principles is the constant movement of livestock to fresh ground. Often referred to as rotational grazing, we use an approach called Holistic Planned Grazing. This method helps to manage the complexities of animal, plant, and wildlife needs on pasture by planning every move in advance on paper. This is especially important for maintaining the balance between ruminants and grass and constant movement is essential for ruminant health. A ruminant is a mammal that obtains its nutrients from plant matter through microbial fermentation in their rumen a.k.a stomach. Common ruminants are sheep, cattle, goats, deer, bison, and elk.
Grassland ecosystems the world over have partnered with ruminants to create symbiotic relationships in order to grow and maintain plant life-cycles and diversity. The harmony between animals and plants isn’t always apparent but it is there nonetheless. For example, ruminants in drier ecosystems where the soil biology slows down or stops due to lack of water facilitate mineral cycles by breaking down vegetable matter inside their rumen, freeing the minerals and nutrients contained within. The minerals and nutrients are then returned to the grass ecosystem in a form that the plants can use, and the cycle begins anew. Grass feeds animals feeds grass.
Cycles like this hinge upon constant movement. In nature the constant threat of predators forces the ruminants to group together, trampling the standing grasses and turning over the soil. This heavy impact on the land makes the trampled grass unpalatable to the ruminants and this is compounded by the fouling of the ground with manure as they graze. This in turn attracts irritating insects like flies forcing the grazing animals to move onto fresh ground.
Regrowth happens almost immediately after the ruminants move away to fresh grass. The many hooves have broken up the sod and pressed grass seeds into the topsoil, helping to establish new plants that are genetically unique and better able to adapt to challenges. Short cropped and trampled grasses now cover the soil maintaining moisture by reducing evaporation and creating opportunities for other plant species like clover or plantain to begin growing, adding diversity to the grassland.
To recreate this type of grazing system on our farm we need a few key elements. First in order to control the animal movement on the pasture and to bunch them up we have replaced predators with electric netting. This netting is light, easily moved and when electrified it keeps the livestock in place and keeps coyotes and bears out. The other important element is planning on paper. Knowing in advance where and when each paddock move is made creates a map that encompasses our farm physically and over time. When we plan in this manner we ensure that our animals are in the right place at the right time.
As noted previously in the post titled “Broilers”, traditionally chickens were separated into different classes defined by age. Youngest to oldest the classes are: broiler, fryer, and stewing hen. Here we will focus primarily on the fryer.
Traditionally fryers tended to come from farms that specialized in egg production. In advance of industrial hatcheries (where one can order just female chickens) eggs were incubated and hatched on farm, leaving the farmer with an excess of males to do something with. And herein lies the rub; it’s likely that fifty percent of the eggs hatched will be male chickens. Sure, the farmer keeps a few of the best for breeding purposes, but the rest are fattened and sold, helping to make the farm become a little more sustainable. The farmer has had to find a niche market or create one.
An egg-centric farm’s production of chicken for meat just couldn’t compete with farms focused primarily on producing broiler chickens. With a larger size, heavier weight, and rapid growth, the broiler type breeds quickly outpaced the egg-oriented chicken’s marketability for eating. Egg-focused birds, on the other hand, are small, light-weight, and place their energy into preparing to lay eggs instead of growing flesh. Because of this, in order to reach the the 4 pound market weight fryers need more time to grow. At a couple weeks older than the broiler, fryers are in the 14-20 week age range. They have had more exercise in the extra weeks needed to mature and have become more flavorful but are a little less tender.
With a firmer texture to their meat, grilling is no longer an optimum cooking method. Grilling is high heat and tends to dry out food. When applied to a fryer, this is a recipe for inedibility. Because of this they need a different cooking method to be rendered into a quality meal. Frying is the best method because the breading keeps the moisture in the meat. But there are many other delicious recipes. For instance, chicken cacciatore is also a wonderful way to utilize fryer chickens; seared in hot olive oil and then cooked in tomato sauce with olives and onions until tender and served over pasta. In this method the chicken cooked slowly in liquid helps the meat to soften and most importantly provides the opportunity for the flavors to marry. Fryers prepared in this way are hard to beat. Below is another possibility and is one of our favorite recipes.
Casserole-Roasted Chicken with Vegetables
This is a one pot dish and is a wonderful way to prepare a fryer chicken. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Estimated baking time: 1 hour and 15 minutes for a 3 pound bird.
A 3lb fryer or roaster chicken
2 Tb. butter or olive oil
1/4 Tsp. salt
10-15 small fingerling potatoes
3 large carrots, cut an inch and a half thick
5-7 cloves of garlic
3 to 4 tarragon sprigs
Put chicken out at room temperature so that it can warm up before roasting, about 1 to 1 ½ hours is best. Place a casserole pan on the stove top and melt the butter. Season the chicken with salt and stuff the tarragon into the cavity. Once the butter is hot, place the chicken into the pan and sear on all sides. This could take 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the pan from heat. Remove the chicken from the pan. Add potatoes and vegetables, then place chicken back into pan on top of the vegetables. Place the casserole pan into a preheated oven and bake until the chicken reaches 160 degrees. Pull the pot from oven and let the chicken rest for 10 minutes. Serve and enjoy.
Any sheep, goat, or cattle operation needs to provide feed for their animals through the cold winter months when the grass is growing slowly or isn’t growing at all. That’s where having a big, dry barn comes in. Traditionally this problem is overcome by cutting grass in the spring and summer months, drying it, and putting the now “hay” in the barn to store it until winter. This is often referred to as “putting up hay”, most likely because the hay is kept on the second story of the barn.
Modern hay farms use two essential resources to grow hay in our area; water and petroleum. Pastures are heavily irrigated to maximize numerous cuttings, similar to alfalfa in production. The grass is mowed using heavy equipment (typically tractors) and baled to bring in the harvest. A very efficient system.
Since hay can be expensive, we try to buy as little as possible. We figure the less reliance on off-farm inputs, the better. This may be a drop in the bucket, but the less demand we have for hay the less demand is placed upon the resources named above. But most importantly, ruminants by their very nature are grass-harvesting machines and will do the job without using any of those valuable and costly resources.
By dividing our pasture into smaller paddocks and planning the amount of grass the sheep self-harvest, we have shifted our attention away from micro-management of our livestock to the holistic management of our pastures. This method contributes to healthier animals and grasslands because our sheep spend little time in any one place. Through better land management this season, we didn’t have to feed hay until the 1st of December.
Time spent with family can be one of the most enjoyable things we do. The dynamic relationships between siblings, parents, and grandparents are essential, bonding us together.
Over time I have come to realize that these relationships are equally as impactful on the lives of our livestock. Bonds between livestock aren’t always the most apparent and can easily be overlooked.
Current agricultural practices compartmentalize livestock, sacrificing these bonds for the sake of production. Typically, males are kept in small paddocks alone or with other males with little to no contact with the rest of the herd until breeding time. Females are then left to live in groups to raise the young until the juveniles are artificially weened, as young as two weeks of age. The juveniles are kept in groups of like-age after being castrated, dehorned, and in the case of sheep having their tails docked. This method of separating livestock is used whether it’s sheep, goats, cows, chickens or pigs. These production systems are based on the assumption that we know best how to care for each individual group of animals at any given age. But this attitude doesn’t account for the desire and ability of the animals to care for themselves.
On our farm, we have found that if provided the opportunity our sheep will fill their roles in the herd. Ewes happily manage all of the lambs’ needs, including naturally weening them, teaching the lambs what is good to eat and what is not, and what the lamb’s overall place is in the hierarchy of the herd. Learning herd manners is deepened though interactions with our ram because as the boss he keeps the male lambs in check (they can get really rowdy). The ram also provides protection from predators for the whole herd and teaches the next generation what to watch out for. These are bonds and dynamic relationships that we just can’t teach.
By keeping all of our animals together all the time we hope to strengthen the herd through family values.
As you can see from reading through our earlier posts, most of our attention is focused on the chicken. But equally important is our small, cloven-hoofed, sunlight-harvesters raised in conjunction with our poultry; also know as sheep.
The breed we raise is called Katahdin. They function as the grass mowers, water conservationists, worm habitat enhancers, and mineral recyclers, as well as being just all around fun in our fields. Focusing our management on our grassland eco system instead of on the sheep helps us to achieve these things. We mob them up (keep them in closer together with electric nets) and keep them moving (restrict the amount of time they have access to a given paddock).
Referred to as a hair sheep, Katahdin shed their wool coats naturally every summer and are a nice fit for our Mediterranean-like climate.
Because this type of sheep sheds it wool, they have less lanolin wax (a water-proofing substance that wooly sheep create to protect themselves in wetter climates). Less lanolin makes for mild, delicious meat.
I would like to think that we get a little smarter season to season, and in this case it’s actually true. Check out ”Learning to Roost”, one of our earlier posts, to see how we used to do it. We often have to introduce chickens of different ages together and this can be a little challenging. The adult birds could and would hurt or kill small, young chickens. So the goal here is prevention. The chicks are also on a more expensive, higher-protein feed that the larger foul don’t need to be consuming. But of course they think they have to have some.
With all that in mind, the best way we have come up with (well, we didn’t technically come up with it, but you know) is called a creep. This is an idea that is often used with larger livestock. We simply adapted this method to smaller livestock.
As you can see, we’re not getting any points on our quality of workmanship, but it allows the chicks to mix with the larger birds as they feel more comfortable with their place in the flock. Keeping the bigger chickens out, we can feed the little ones a different feed freely. Its a win-win.
When the chicks are too big to get into the creep, they have no choice but to mingle with the adults. Once the two flocks are integrated, we remove the creep.
Check out this TED talk (if you have already seen this I commend you). This is the system/philosophy that we apply to our farm. Considering that the Rogue Valley is short on rain every year in the summer season, it’s extremely important to manage our grasslands appropriately.
When I first gained access to the couple of acres of pasture that I currently farm, my eyes would casually skim over the poly-culture of plants and grass-life, unable to differentiate one from another due to the vastness of the fields. I only gained insight into the nuances of the pasture once I started to rotationally graze my livestock. When using this method a farmer becomes intimately familiar with the many paddocks that are formed through the process, creating a magnifying lens focused on the different plant families. Rotating back to a paddock that the animals haven’t had access to in a month or two feels similar to visiting an old friend. Then things you haven’t noticed before start to take center stage.
Onto this stage stepped Purple Vetch (better known as Crown Vetch), a legume that’s used in agriculture nationwide as a cover crop because it fixes nitrogen in the soil. But the USDA recognizes it as an invasive species, growing unchecked throughout Oregon (it is what creates the large purple patches on the hills in the Rogue Valley during the spring and early summer). At the time I was excited to find it in abundance, happily fixing nitrogen on my land and providing quality forage for my livestock. I didn’t know that this plant was invasive until a friend brought it to my attention.
But over the next couple of years there seemed to be less and less of the vetch in every rotation. This plant that had grown throughout the region had started to disappear to my and my sheep’s dismay (the sheep loved to eat it). Pressure from the sheep’s grazing and chickens following behind cleaning up the seeds seemed to have created an environment that was in uninhabitable to vetch.Instead of changing the paddock system around to save what was left, I decided to allow events to play out. As I move in to my fourth season, there is no vetch anywhere on my pasture land. It only grows where the sheep cannot reach, on the neighbor’s side of the fence line. I have effectively (and unintentionally) eradicated purple vetch.
This season, I built what I thought was a really deluxe turkey house; place for the birds to relax that’s shady, dry, with a roost so they can sleep out of the reach of predators.
But one day, a turkey decided that this snug little house just wasn’t good enough. He felt that sleeping on top of the house was superior to sleeping in the house. The next night this turkey felt a little lonely, so he invited a friend to enjoy this new, higher perch. Then this turkey’s friend invited his friend, and then his friend invited a friend. In ever-growing numbers, in a short time they wrecked their warm, dry, shady house.
Some turkeys, however, couldn’t come to terms with the destruction.
I should have realized in hindsight that given a turkey’s nature, they would disregard a charitable act and do as they wish. Who am I to stop them?
As some of you know, last season we had an issue with skunk predation on our poultry. We lost a number of chickens but it was the turkeys that suffered the most. This season, we have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen again.
The first thing we did was to change the pen from a low, flat Joel Salatin-style house where the birds were on the ground, to a taller hoop-style house. Once we did that it only seemed logical to capitalize on the turkeys’ natural instincts to protect themselves by roosting high off the ground, so we installed lateral boards as roosts three feet off the ground. It’s amazing how effective this small change has been, made easier by the fact that once we showed the turkeys how to roost they have done it on their own ever since (maybe some of our chickens can learn
a thing or two).
The second change is that we got a portable electric net that we place all the way around the turkeys’ house and electrify it. This has had the great unforeseen benefit that we have been able to create a larger secure area, which allows the turkeys to free-range and also gives them access to more bugs and grasses each day.