Showing posts with label Frugal livestock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frugal livestock. Show all posts

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Living with a House Cow

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

I've written before about our house cow:
House Cow FAQs
House Cow Journey Part One
House Cow Journey Part Two
House Cow Journey Part Three
House Cow Journey Continues

It's been over two years since we first brought Lucy home and we're feeling more confident about raising our own cattle these days.  The timeline of our journey (if you don't want to read everything above) goes like this...

We brought Lucy, a pure Jersey cow of a few years of age, here to our 42 acre farm from a dairy.  She was in calf to a Wagyu (beef breed) and had never been hand milked, halter-led etc before.  We also got Honey, a pure Jersey heifer, from another dairy at the same time, just a couple of weeks old.  Lucy raised that calf (begrudgingly), and after she was weaned she had a break, then delivered her Wagyu-cross bull calf named Wags whom we later steered.  I got another pure Jersey heifer, Poppy, to raise alongside this calf.

They weaned and we had mixed success with milking Lucy that lactation.  Awhile after she was AIed we sent her out into the large paddock for a break.  During this time we cared for (and milked) someone else's cow for a few months.  We also had the butcher in for the steer calf, Wags (at 20 months).  Honey went to live with my friend and had her own heifer on her 2nd birthday (a surprise beef X - neighbour's bull!).

Mimi and Lucy
Between Christmas and New Year, we were blessed to welcome another little heifer calf.  This leaves us with 3 pure Jersey females.  Lucy (the original cow), Poppy (the 2nd foster heifer) and now Mimi (Lucy's own heifer calf).  These three will be our house cows in rotation over the coming years, all going well!

The delivery of Lucy's second calf on our farm went smoothly.  I went out to the shops after lunch one day, and when I drove back in the driveway there was a calf at her feet.  The delivery of the placenta, her feeding the calf, first milkings etc all went very smoothly.  It's hard to tell if that's luck, experience or good management though!

Mimi and Lucy
Again we froze all the colostrum we milked off during the first week.  We keep this in case the calf becomes unwell, but we've not had to bottle-feed any calves to date.
Baby Mimi
Because I'm share-milking with only one calf this time, we get a lot of milk each day.  It's time to get back into making feta, yoghurt, quark, custard, bechamel sauce and all those other recipes to use up milk!  It's probably time for me to learn some more cheesemaking.  I'll be heading over the Little Green Cheese for some inspiration!  While I wasn't milking, I was buying Misty Mountain dairy products.  It's lovely to have a local alternative so similar to our house cow's milk, but of course it's just not the same!

Looking back, the first months with our house cow were the hardest.  It was a huge learning curve and we were having a dry spell so feed was expensive.  Feed doesn't ever cost over $20 per week now, during peak milking/feed times.  I switched to chaff (oaten/lucerne) over bales of hay to reduce waste (stalks flicked onto the floor by Lucy).  I still give a little steam rolled (micronised) barley at milking time only.  We found a bulk source of seaweed meal which makes it much more affordable and so tend to give this valuable supplement more generously.  We use natural sprays for flies, balms for udder etc as per suggestions on The Family Cow forum.  We mix these up ourselves from ingredients bought in bulk.  We use diatomaceous earth (DE) in the feed buckets for about 4 days around the full moon each month as a worming preventative.  We also dust it on for ticks and flies and sprinkle in the bedding area as required.

 I'm always seeking the best way, asking questions, reading books, articles and forums when I have questions no one knows the answer to.  Trying different things with my cattle, and being as present as possible - checking them over daily so that any health problems are immediately recognised.  A lot of what I do is quite different from standard dairying practice in my area.  But when you're working with a very small herd, you can afford the time and resources to do things differently.

Timing of holidays is really tricky with a house cow.  Recently we had a two month break of no milking, and I really should have taken advantage of that more.  It still took some effort to arrange for people to look after our pets and other farm animals, but it's really tricky to get someone in to milk a cow!  When thinking about weaning a calf, drying off a cow, timing of AI, etc - we try to time this to best suit family commitments.  And these things don't happen overnight, so spontaneity can go out the window somewhat!

When others ask me about having a house cow, I strongly suggest that unless they are really passionate about it, and willing to spend a lot of time with their cow, don't bother.  Even though these past couple of years of raising our own cattle have been so very rewarding for me, I know it's not for everyone, especially in today's fast-paced society.

cow - adult female bovine who has had a calf, generally over 2 years of age
bull - adult male bovine who has not been castrated
steer - male bovine who has been castrated
heifer - young female bovine, who hasn't calved
AI - artificial insemination - how to get a calf when you don't own a bull
colostrum - first milk

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Home Butchering

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

I hope by sharing this I don't upset anyone.  I am not up for debate of the ethics of meat-eating.  In fact I'm possibly the least likely to know about anything to do with butchering...  I haven't eaten much meat at all during my adult life...  Some locally-caught fish, homegrown roosters, and very little else. Sometimes for years at a time I ate no meat (or even no animal products) at all.

But now I keep a house cow.  To produce milk, a cow has a calf.  Lucy's first calf when she came here was a Wagyu-cross male.  Unneccessary as a lawn mower and so deemed for the freezer.  And so, at 20 months old this week, his time was up.

 Wags as a new calf

Since we'd known all along that he was to be eaten, for most of our family it was no big deal to call the butcher out.  Some were in fact eager to watch the whole process, learn bovine anatomy and really find out how a walking beast became a packet of protein.  I didn't watch the WHOLE process, but surprisingly I watched quite a lot of it and was amazed at how peaceful and non-gory it was.  Everything was done humanely, quickly, cleanly.

Basically for us the process so far:
1. obtain a beef-cross calf (via Lucy, but there are other ways of obtaining cattle)
2. late weaning apparently promotes tastier beef, as does early castration
3. allow him access to abundant food (for us, grass) and water from birth
4. treat naturally for flies and ticks using neem oil, other essential oils, mineral supplements etc (diatomaceous earth as a worm preventative)
5. carry fewer stock so there is plenty of feed and less problems with pests and parasites
6. call the butcher, ask a million questions
7. buy a freezer
8. catch the steer in a suitable paddock, away from other stock
9. let the butcher do his thing

Wags had a beautiful life

So now we have a cold room in our front paddock for a week.  After this week of hanging, the beef will be ready to cut, pack, label and freeze...  So I'm researching types of freezer bags and different cuts of beef (I only know how to cook roasts, minced and diced beef so far)...  There are a TON of resources about home butchering on the 'net.

A few of our family members eat beef (local, biodynamic beef), who knows I might try some too?  I never would have imagined that I'd write about turning one of our animals into food, but this is where our farming journey has brought us...

I'll write about stage two of this home butchering process next time!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A Stock Pot in Every Kitchen

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I've blogged about making bone broth and stock before but it bears repeating. If you're not making stock already with bones from the meat you're cooking, Thanksgiving is just around the corner and lots of turkey carcasses will be gracing our tables and can be put to good use instead of being tossed.

I make stock every week because:

1) Of the health benefits.

2) It makes food taste better.

3) I don't like to waste anything.

This is what's left of one of our home raised chickens by the time I get done with it.

That handful of bone pieces is about the size of the chick when it arrives at the farmstead.

Rather than thinking of just filling the freezer for our needs, we concentrate on intensively pasturing our poultry after the brooding stage. By doing this, we are fertilizing our pasture at the same time we are growing our meat chickens.

Providing fresh pasture daily helps grow a healthy bird, and ensures a healthy nutrition profile for the meat and broth.

To make sure I use the broth in my cooking, I like to have it on hand, either in the refrigerator or in the stockpot that seems to be always simmering on the back of the stove. We consume roughly one chicken per week. We raise them ourselves, but they are still an expensive item for the pantry. To stretch those dollars, I squeeze the most out of each bird.

One chicken per week feeds our family of three plus two dogs in the following ways:

1) One breast butterflied and sauteed for my husbands lunches.

2) One breast cubed for fajitas.

3) Breastless carcass wet roasted in 3 - 4 quarts of water to yield 3 - 4 quarts of semi-gelatinous broth, and cooked chicken. (I roast my chicken in a covered roaster at about 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 4 hours.)

4) Remaining cooked meat makes at least 2 more meals of chicken salad, enchiladas or whatever you wish to use cooked chicken for.

5) After all that I take the carcass and make at least two more quarts of stock, since the bird has been roasted already, this stock needs no skimming and stays clear. I cook this for 12 - 24 hours with a glug of vinegar to help release the minerals and gelatin in the bones and gristle. Note: since the dogs will be getting the spoils I do not add onions to the stock. If you're not feeding dogs, onions are a good addition, as well as any other vegetable odds and ends in your kitchen. Carrot ends, celery trimmings etc.

6) Strain the stock for the kitchen and break down the skins and bones for the pups. Most bones will be soft enough for dogs, except the weight bearing bones of the bird. On these I squeeze the bone and marrow until I get to the hard part of the bone. Feeding cooked bones to dogs is not a good idea unless the bones are soft. They are very sharp (unlike uncooked bones) and may potentially puncture your dogs digestive tract. I personally inspect each bone and piece of chicken before my dogs get any of it. This go round yields about two quarts of chicken skin, leftover bits of meat and soft bones for the dogs. They love it!

What hasn't softened in the cooking process goes into our woodstove and is cooked into ash that goes to the garden. I suppose if you were so inclined you could pressure cook the hard bones and make them entirely soft, however for me, it's just one more step that isn't needed. My garden can always use some ash, and it is an amendment that I don't need to buy if I can make my own.

For more reading on the health benefits of bone broths and stock check out the Weston Price organization here:

The interconnectedness of farm and kitchen is an amazing and satisfying feeling. Stock warms your belly and your heart.

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Many Uses of a Hoophouse

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Justifying the purchase of a hoophouse can be hard to do if we think of this useful structure as just a place to grow warm weather crops.

That's a good use for sure, and in our cool, maritime climate, a hoophouse is insurance of a pepper and tomato crop. But building a hoophouse isn't cheap. Our 20' x 20' hoophouses came in at about $500.00 not including labor to build. That price included metal legs and bows, hardware, and greenhouse plastic. We used scrap lumber for end wall and door framing and if you had access to cheap lumber you could also build a frame from lumber instead of the metal bow system we used.

Actually we built hoophouses this size specifically for brooding chicks for our egg business. And I have to say a light and airy chick brooder is the way to go. Natural light encourages the chicks activity in the early days. We provide heat lamps but most days the lights are off only being used at night. Not using the lights so much is a cost savings, and a huge improvement over our earliest efforts at brooding chicks in a dark area with the only light being provided by heat lamps.

What is good for the chick - a light, warm draft-free environment is also a good place to start plants. To utilize more of our space we have our plant starts above the chicks suspended on temporary shelves. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that is true in this case. Once mice discovered how cozy the hoophouse was with a ready made larder, (chick food) they moved in as well, and discovered a liking for pepper and spinach seeds :(

It's hard to pin down the single best use of our hoophouse, all are important in our food raising plans. The more ways we can utilize this space throughout the year, the faster we get to the payoff of the original expense.

Time line for our small hoophouse:

January - nighttime sheep housing during inclement weather.

February - ditto.

March - begin starting plants with supplemental heat and covering as needed.

April - continue plant starts, and prepare for chicks.

May - finish brooding chicks on deep bedding, continue succession seeding.

June - move chicks outside to pasture, remove deep bedding, prepare for planting warm weather crops inside.

July - warm weather crops.

August - ditto.

September - harvest crops.

October - remove plants and rest space.

November - rest.

December - nighttime sheep housing in inclement weather.

Of course each situation will be different, and more uses could be found:

1) Such as winter time housing for rabbits, chickens, sheep or goats on a deep bedding system. In spring when animals are moved to pasture the bedding material could be removed and utilized for garden areas, still leaving enough residual to grow a summer crop of ??? Larger hoophouses make excellent winter time housing for hogs in high rainfall or cold areas.

2) A place for rapid growing succession crops such as mesclun or braising greens.

3) A place to raise broiler chickens off-season if you have a year-round market for your birds.

4) Hen house, provides natural light during the winter, and with shade cloth provides summer time housing.

Keeping all this in mind, planning a gap of at least 90 days from fresh manure to harvest of any vegetables to avoid any possible contamination of edibles, the possibilities are almost endless, with just our "ideas" to hold us back. Hoophouses can marry the idea of livestock and vegetables on a farm in a way our ancestors wouldn't have thought possible.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Preparedness in the barnyard

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Most conversations about preparedness center around the household. All well and good. But in our modern homesteading world many times we stock our pantries very well, but the barn cupboard may be a little bare. It's pretty easy to run to the feedstore and pick up a bale or two, a bag of scratch or alfalfa pellets. We are an on-demand society of consumers, but to be more self-reliant we need to scale back our on-demand ways a little in regards to our livestock that help us produce food, fiber etc., for our table.

In our area that normally doesn't really experience any long-lasting winter storms, when one does hit, it's not unusual to see people unprepared for the cold, and wintry weather, so I won't write about water and feeding systems for areas that always experience months of freezing weather, rather I will dwell on having flexible systems and supplies on hand just in case, for more moderate climes that experience short duration storms. Consider this a drill for a real emergency. Winter is a good time to assess your stock keeping capabilities. Do you have enough storage for feed, adequate water, enough money to keep your stock all winter? Can you get more feed, if needed? Do you have like animals in groups, or pairs so they can keep warm and commiserate? Nothing worse than a lonely pig... . And a huge one - do you have enough time to do extra care taking during the cold weather if need be?

Keeping stock hydrated goes a long way towards helping them cope with cold temperatures. We like these tough, Rubbermaid water troughs. We sometimes have to chop a little ice, but you can save yourself some trouble by only putting out the water the stock actually needs for a day. The 50 gallon trough in this photo is for my daughter's horse. She only puts in what he will drink for the day, and she dumps it at night. Less water, less ice. She places his trough within reach of a hose, and when she is done, she drains the hose and puts it away. Nothing worse than having a frozen hose full of ice.

The cows only drink once a day also in this cold weather. I feed them, they tank up on hay, and then come and drink. When we fed outside all winter, and they went to the canyon for water, they would all trail to water once a day, and according to rank, drink their fill and then trail back to bed down and ruminate. Anthropomorphizing makes us think the animals need all the comforts we have, like running water at all times, and feed all the time. But they really can be comfortable with the basics. Don't go overboard - especially during stressful times during storms. You have to take care of yourself too.

Being prepared by having extra feed on hand can be a life saver. Plus, livestock need to eat more during cold weather in order to stay warm, it's amazing how fast a growing pig will go through feed in a cold snap. One thing that helps is to have a higher protein feed source available for cold snaps. Feed your best hay, bump your chickens up to grower ration, throw a little extra something to the pigs. It all helps.

And there is something to be said for only taking the bare necessities of stock through the winter, and keeping a seasonal schedule. On our farm, we don't want any young stock that couldn't be weaned if a catastrophe arose, and we time breeding for no babies being born this time of year. Sure, it makes for good dramatic blog entries to be risking life and limb to save a piglet or calf from the cold. But in reality, it is kind of cruel to animals and their tenders alike and is just another unintended consequence of our on-demand society. There is no seasonal differences in the grocery store - just one big ol' homogenized food storage area. If you want to grow your own food, grow it, and grow it in season.

Back to the subject of water, these small indestructible tubs are great too, for small stock. We use a gravity flow bell waterer for the chickens, but despite being placed on the south side of the greenhouse for thawing, that assumes we get sun. That doesn't always happen. To keep chickens laying eggs in the winter, it is imperative they have water during the day. Usually a tub like this suffices until the thaw. Just a stop gap measure, but it does work and is easy to clean when it gets soiled. These also work good for pigs for a short spell, it's just that pigs like to play, and inevitably that water tub will end up in the pig toilet area, with smirking pigs looking on while you retrieve it for them. I have yet to see hens do that...

This past cold spell brought a few house fires due to heat lamps being used for urban flocks. Chickens are incredibly hardy when fully feathered. Which is another reason to not have babies during winter. If your chickens have a dry, secure place to bed down at night and have been properly fed and hydrated during the day, they DO NOT need heat lamps or lights to keep them warm, and adding a light at night can throw off the egg laying schedule too.

So, to make things go easier during the inclement weather, stock up as much as finances allow on:
Feed - hay, grain, milk replacers, etc.
Bedding material
Livestock medical supplies
Auxiliary species appropriate watering supplies

And hopefully take some time to enjoy the beauty of a winter storm.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Growing food for Livestock

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

We have 20 acres of grass which supplies most of the food required, year-round, for our 2 horses, house cow and calves. It doesn’t snow here, and frosts are mild only browning off the lowest sections of grass. The grasses grown here are tropical varieties on which cattle do well, but horses do not always do so well. We supplement the horses with minerals and have a mineral lick available for all of the grazing animals to access as they need it. One of our horses is a bit fat, the other has been affected by the high levels of oxalates in local pasture and doesn’t do so well here. With supplements we hope he can improve condition. It is interesting that they metabolise the same feed differently, like humans I guess.

Choko leaves are a favourite food of our muscovy ducks

When I’m keeping any of the animals in a small paddock, for whatever reason, such as training the horses or keeping a close eye on the house cow or calves, I feed them other plants to prevent over-grazing of that space as well as offer variety. In the larger paddocks there are many shrubs and a wider variety of grasses to choose from.

In addition to the grazing animals we have a few ducks, a few dozen chickens, and several guinea pigs.

Queensland Arrowroot - tubers for us, and leaves and stalks for the livestock

Some of the plants I feed the animals include:

Queensland Arrowroot

Choko Vines and Fruit

Sweet Potato Vines

Ceylon Spinach

Banana Leaves

Pigeon Pea branches - leaves and pods

And ‘trimmings’ from the garden. I normally remove the outer leaves from celery, comfrey, spinaches, cabbages and lettuces. I feed them corn stalks once I’ve taken the cobs for us (and feed them the outer husks of cobs), I throw in any excess herbs – parsley is a favourite, and add some land cress, nasturtium, dandelion and other suitable 'weeds', and kang kong as well. We call this a “salad” and mix it up in big buckets for the animals – choosing what is best for each one. They search through, tasting everything and eating their favourite foods first (just like children) and nibbling on new flavours or discarding bits they dislike after that. Sometimes we will harvest different grasses as well, which grow only in certain areas but I know are okay for stock.

Nasturtiums are pretty and make a nice addition to a salad for humans and animals alike

We also feed kitchen scraps to the chickens, ducks and guinea pigs – each has their own bucket as they prefer and tolerate different foods.

I would like to grow more grains, and harvest more hay, as these are feed items I buy in for the animals, especially the chickens.

I wish we could provide more homegrown food for our cats. They eat mice who dare to venture in or near the house, but otherwise rely on bought food. We don’t eat very much meat ourselves, but I imagine if we were eating more chickens, ducks and beef there would be leftovers for the cats to eat.

Are your animals eating homegrown food? Tell me more…

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Bedding Alternatives for Livestock

 By Abby of Love Made The Radish Grow
Since we started keeping animals out here at the homestead, I have tried to keep on top of the different options for bedding. We started out using ground corn cobs, which I've got to say I was not impressed with. They ended up making it terribly difficult to clean out the chicken coop on a regular basis. From there we went with the traditional hay and straw. That was getting really expensive. Later a company opened not too far from us selling recycled paper bedding. They had a couple different options, and their price was similar to the price of straw. Their two options were a diced phone book paper and a chopped corrugated box paper. We tried both for a while and found that neither held up as well to the animal waste, and neither created a nest my birds would use.
Not long after trying this company, we added larger animals-goats, llamas and sheep-to our farm. They *really* didn't work well with that sort of paper bedding. To be honest I was not happy with the paper dust that came along with it. We try to be green, but at the same time the happiness and health of my animals is more important, so back to hay and straw we went. They were the best multipurpose. I was able to barter for a lot of hay to use as both as feed and bedding this winter-or at least that was the plan. I soon found my hay "disappearing" from the goat barn. Hmmm. I later saw that is was the sheep, who never stop eating. The goats and llamas eschewed eating something they had slept on. The sheep-aw, heck why not? And they would go through a lot of hay that way. Straw is way too expensive to be putting down all the time, so I was searching again for something else to use. That is when I found the old paper shredder from my husband's grandparents. I just happened to have boxes upon boxes of their old documents that needed safely disposed of, and thus our use of paper bedding was born. This was shreds-which do work for nest better, and all the animals seem to tolerate well. I shred every paper that comes in the house anymore. Later, I also found that businesses will often give you their shred so long as they know it is going somewhere safe (for privacy purposes). I get bags from a local school for disabled children. Shredding paper is one of their on the site job training situations. I use a combination of a base of straw, then add paper every other day or so, and deep bed the animals-meaning I don't clean the barns out until it gets warm again. Once we are maintaining weather above 50 degrees F we will start cleaning out regularly to avoid ammonia. I am happy with our findings. Ah, and we tried sawdust, too, which worked well enough, but caked up quite a bit. Cost-wise it is far more frugal for us to buy one expensive bale of straw as a base on occasion and add free paper shreds regularly to extend its life. I also feel good in knowing that the shredded paper that often gets burned or thrown away will be aiding in fertilizing our farm projects, and is getting very nicely broken down with the rest of the bedding.
Our sheeps' figures thank us, as well :)

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Nine Meals From Anarchy?

zombie-gallery_28_blog by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin.

Back in the year 2000, a fuel protest bought London, the capital of the United Kingdom, to within three days of running out of food.  The then Blair government commissioned Lord Cameron of the Countryside Agency to investigate, who came back with a chilling report: "The nation is just nine meals from anarchy."

Lets just think about that for a few minutes.  Only 9 meals between order and chaos.  What did Lord Cameron mean by this?  Will there be zombies knocking on our doors? 

I am only exaggerating to make a point, but a pertinent one at that.   Once again friends, it is all about the supply and demand of crude oil and that simple fact that 'Oil = Food'.   Let me explain.  The majority of our food distribution is what is known as "just in time" distribution.  Your local supermarket only has small stock out the back, and most of the stock on the shelves.  It is transported from large distribution centres by trucks to each supermarket, each day.  These transportation systems use oil which is a finite resource.
So when the transportation flow stops, or in other words, the oil supply gets disrupted, so does our food security.  A recent example were last years floods in Far North Queensland.  Within a few days all of the supermarket shelves were bare, partly because of stockpiling by townsfolk, but mainly because there were no food deliveries via rail or truck for over a week.. Other natural disasters have posed a similar threat.  What if there were no food deliveries for two, three or even four weeks in your area? 

Sounds a bit apocalyptic doesn't it?  I am not trying to scare people, just attempting to make people think about where their next meal or few will come from.  

So what can we do about this?  Well, of course the scouts motto comes to mind, "Be prepared".  Here are a few tips that have kept us going in troubled times.  They are just suggestions and may not suit everyone but they are possible on a small suburban block;
Grow your own fruit & vegetables.  By growing your own, you poses the skills to be able to overcome food shortages.  If you can convince your neighbours to grow their own food, then you can swap excess produce.

Get a few chickens.  Chickens are easy to keep, with most councils allowing you to keep a few birds in your back yard.  If you have a large enough backyard, you will also be able to grow feed crops for the hens.  Not only are the eggs a great source of protein, but the manure is just gold for your fruit and vegetables.

Stockpile essentials.  We stockpile essentials, mainly because Kim and I dislike frequent shopping, and feel more secure having a cupboard full of food and personal needs.  Don't forget to practice good stock management, older stuff to the front and newer stuff to the back.  We have had to draw upon the stockpile once so far, when I was laid up for a month in August last year.  We still count our blessings to this day that we thought ahead.  The other good thing about stockpiling is that it gives you room to prepare a backup plan in the event of a prolonged food shortage.  We have about three months of supplies on hand, which would give us ample time to increase our vegetable production.  Don't forget about water either.  Water butts are a handy item to have, and rainwater harvesting will get you out of a pickle if the mains fail.

Preserve excess produce.  If you have more than you need and loath feeding it to the worm farm, learn how to preserve your own food.  I love eating plums in the winter that I have preserved in February.  You can even buy bulk fruit or vegetables from farmers markets and preserve those if you can't grow it yourself.

Menu plan your meals.  During a crisis you are going to have to plan your meals, because the last thing you need is wasted food.  This way you can feel secure in the knowledge that you have the ingredients that you require for the next few weeks.  

Share your skills with others.  As I mentioned above, share your food growing skills with others around you now!  Not only do you help your fellow man (or woman), make good friends, but you build resilience into the community around you.  What is the point of securing your own food supply, when the zombies are knocking at your door trying to get the neighbourhoods only food source?  Share your knowledge in the good times, and you will reap the rewards in the difficult times.  No zombies will visit your neighbourhood because everyone knows how to grow their own!

Read a few good books about all these subjects.  Who knows if the Internet will be available during the crisis you may face, or electricity for that matter.  A good book always beats any other source of information (besides experience) hands down when it comes to crunch time.  Learn now, but keep the information so that you can share with others if the need arises.
As I have said above, this post is not meant to shock you into a stupor of inaction, but just give you food for thought (pardon the pun), and give you some ideas how you can provide your own food security.  I hope I never have to use these skills that I have learned over the last few years, but it is best to be prepared.

To finish off the post, I give you two gems of wisdom:

"By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail."
-- Benjamin Franklin

"People only see what they are prepared to see."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, 7 November 2009

An overlooked resource

Just this past week we had a break in the rains long enough I could get the garlic planted. In my garden journal, this signals the beginning of the 2010 gardening season. What usually coincides with the annual garlic planting is that the soil is starting to cool and go dormant. Late fall also is when we start bedding our various types of livestock in order to capture as much manure as we can for next year's compost.

While I am writing this from a farmers point of view, even small holders or urban gardeners with a flock of hens or a few rabbits can gather enough material to ensure sustainability in the garden. While it is easy and convenient to buy organic fertilizers these days, to give your garden a boost, someday the store may not be there, or the economy may be such that those types of materials may not be readily available. And if you are taking into account how many food miles your food has traveled, you have to take into account purchased soil amendments that are often shipped in from faraway places, or the mishandling at CAFO's and slaughter facilities that make that blood, fish, or feather meal possible. Not to mention the drug cocktail present in those materials.

I'll start with laying hens, since many people have taken charge of their egg supply by keeping hens for eggs. In our area, the closest major city allows 3 hens without a permit, or up to 6 with a permit and inspections. The next closest city does not allow chickens, and citizens are pleading with the city council to reconsider. One of the biggest complaints is the smell of chicken manure.
And I have to agree, chicken manure does have it's own particular odor, since it is so high in nitrogen. That smell is the nitrogen dissipating into the air, which is exactly where we don't want it. What is needed is carbon, and the easiest way to capture that escaping nitrogen is to apply carbon in the form of some kind of bedding.

Sometimes we get a notion in our heads, and we run with idea. For most chicken keepers that instinct is that our chickens must free-range or be moved around in portable coops to distribute the nitrogen rich manure, and provide new ground for the scratching hens. But unless you are actively growing grass in a grazing program, many times the chickens just end up fertilizing a lawn, or a grassy area. Which in turn needs cutting, and that takes more fossil fuel and time on your part. Perpetuating the garden instead of the lawn is a much better use of the wonderful output of the hens that is often overlooked or thought of as something that needs to go away. Old timers knew saving manure was saving money.

I have come to the conclusion that even a few spent hens that are beyond their laying career, could provide enough nitrogen rich manure for a family garden of a good size. Of course, you would have to buy a few bales of straw to keep them comfortable all winter and to tie down the nutrients in the manure. But the price of local straw is nominal compared to the price of a bag of fertilizer. Not all crops require this high nitrogen application either, a garden rotation placing this material on the heavy feeders, and following the next year with vegetables that have lower fertility requirements will help you take the most advantage of this home produced fertilizer.

Of course, this does require a different mindset, the thought of cleaning out a huge amount of bedding does turn people off, especially if they have been scarred for life from cleaning out the gross chicken house, that is the typical board or concrete floor type with encrusted manure everywhere. But the deep bedding method is different. The material is light and fluffy, and the action of the hens distributes the manure until it looks and smells composty. After the bedding reaches 12" deep it begins to compost and take on a life of it's own.

We also deep bed our beef cows. By doing this we are able to capture most of their winter manure output for composting, and we are keeping them off the pastures during the wet season and allowing for rest of the land.

As the bedding deepens, it begins to heat and partially compost, giving the stock a warm place to rest and a way to conserve energy in the cold winter months. They are kept a little warmer and therefore do not require as much food to maintain body temperature, which in turn requires less feed to be stored, and less fuel and energy expended by us.

Once the wet season starts anywhere, it is detrimental to the soil and stock to allow them to continue to churn up the green into brown. I know it is common to see swine that are often kept in mud yards, and while it is accepted, it is not proper, or a sign of good husbandry to allow the pigs to express their rooting ways during the rainy season. Wet mud and manure mixed in is a recipe that allows pathogens to flourish, and the soil structure is damaged for years to come, making it hard for the soil to drain properly and accept the manure that is deposited. The same goes for cattle, sheep, and goats whether it is one or many.

If you start looking at your resources at hand in a symbiotic way, ideas form and begin to gel. Here are some ways that may be able to help you make that black gold for yourself and become more independent in your gardening endeavors.

Chickens: Deep bed your hen house for the entire winter. The amount of accumulation will astound you, and cause ideas to sprout in your mind of a larger, more productive garden. Of course, you will have to compost this material, but the results once you start gardening with composted manure will be amazing. It's like waiting for that first paycheck, once you get on a winter bedding/composting schedule you will always compost in the works.

Also a batch of broiler chickens raised in a floor-less pen the size of your garden beds and deep bedded, can be used to jump start new garden areas, or fertilize existing beds. The pen would have to be moved once a week by hand by lifting and leaving the bedding pack in place, but the extra effort would be worth it to have a fully fertilized area for the next season. Have a few friends over with the promise of fresh chicken or veggies, and they will be happy to help you pick up that pen. :) Worms absolutely go bananas in the garden after a treatment like this, and will work their wonders on the straw and chicken manure. While raising broilers outside is a warm weather type of activity, raising broilers in the off-season in a greenhouse is a great way to keep them protected from the weather, and be able to capture their manure. We have found that removing the bedding in the greenhouse and then growing in the soil where the chickens were housed previously, provides ample fertility for a vegetable crop. A system like this works well for both plants and animals, by breaking up parasites and pests of both crops and animals and allowing "rest." The vegetables provide rest from animal impact and the animals replenish the soil and provide rest from crop growing.

Rabbits: Rabbit manure is one of the best for gardens. While you don't see rabbits kept on deep bedding, if you have plans for rabbits, design your facilities in such a way that the rabbit manure is kept from the weather. Perhaps breeding stock in fixed cages inside a well-ventilated lean-to or barn. Place your cages high enough, so cleaning out from underneath them is easily done, and make sure to place straw or sawdust underneath capture the urine also. Chickens in combination with breeding rabbits is a great combination, as seen at Polyface in the Raken house. The chickens sort through the bedding constantly, and keep the strong rabbit manure mixed in the bedding. In this type of system, the manure is almost fully composted by the time the chickens get done working their magic.

Cattle: Whether you have one cow or several, dairy or beef, it makes no matter. Students of Biodynamics know that cow manure has an enlivening influence on soil life. Cow manure is microbially enhanced by the workings of the rumen and should be more revered. For winter feeding, plan your feeding area with the idea of nutrient capture in mind. Meaning not only should the feed be covered and kept from the elements the area at the back of the cow should be kept from the weather too. Not only do we want to get the most out of our hay (collected sunlight) we want to protect the manure and urine output too. To let the manure go to waste from any animal is like throwing money away. Feed that is discarded by the animals, can be used for additional bedding material. Too often for convenience sake, the hay is just thrown out to the stock in a mud or dirt lot, much gets trampled, and soiled and is therefore wasted, and the manure is too, often too much in an area with no vegetation. Bare soil cannot utilize large amounts of manure, some type of vegetation must be present. No green, no gain - meat, milk or pocketbook.

Horses: Horse manure is similar to rabbit, sheep and goat, in that it is dry in nature, and doesn't require the same type and quantity of bedding as cattle. However, the urine needs to be saved to make this a complete fertilizer, so perhaps sawdust in small amounts in the pee area of a horse stall is a good idea. An often overlooked aspect of horse care is day stabling, and night grazing. Keeping a horse in during the day, when the flies are the worst, and allowing for night pasturing, is a way to capture this valuable on farm resource, and keep the horses from being pestered so much by flies. Same for cattle. It also cuts down on potential pesticide usage too.

Neighbors: Got you on this one didn't I? If you don't keep any of the aforementioned animals yourself, maybe your neighbor does. And would be happy to let you supply bedding for his animals if you promise to take the material off of his hands, by cleaning his chicken house occasionally. You provide the straw and some labor, and he provides the manure. A neighbor of ours delivers their stable cleanings to our place free of charge. It is a liability to them, and and an asset to us. Sometimes it is easier to go with the flow, and just utilize what is at hand, than to go against the grain. Our neighbors have seen our composting and the results, but to them, getting rid of all the manure their horses generate is what makes them the happiest. Retraining them is too hard of work.

One final word about facilities, you do not need to build elaborate buildings, simple sheds and well designed feeding and traffic areas are all that is needed. Keeping livestock of any kind requires that the animal's and stockman's needs are met, this post is just highlighting a practice that used to be common in the days that smallholdings, crofts and farms were managed in a more sustainable way.

These are just a few tips, but hopefully I have sparked some ideas. Sometimes the way to save money is not to spend it in the first place.