“The Integrated Homestead”
Appropriate Resource Use
When we look at almost any natural ecology, anywhere in the world, we see that it is a complex, interrelated community of plants and animals. If we wish to imitate natural systems, we should welcome one or more species of livestock into the homestead if at all possible.
Domestication of animals is sometimes seen as a harsh exploitation of fellow species in the service of man, but in truth it is as natural an alliance between species for mutual benefit as we will see anywhere in the natural world. When humans first started practicing agriculture, they opened up new ecological niches, into which certain opportunistic species such as sheep and cattle moved. A period of accommodation settled into patterns of inter-dependent alliances. We are true to the spirit of those mutually beneficial alliances when we treat the animals in our care with respect, best nurture, and gratitude.
While eating meat is often denigrated as “wasteful” of agricultural resources, it certainly does not have to be. Frances Moore Lappé pointed out (Diet for a Small Planet) that “it takes ten pounds of grain to make a pound of flesh” (with the implication “better that humans eat the grains directly instead”). But such profligate resource waste is primarily in what has become the “conventional” approach to meat production: the CAFO (confined animal feeding operation). If we think of the traditional homestead or small farm as a resource base, we obviously achieve fuller and more productive use if we introduce animal species able to utilize resources that we cannot—chickens to eat insects, geese to eat grass, pigs and turkeys to eat acorns in the woods—and turn them into food resources otherwise not available—eggs, meat, and milk. Goats can browse areas of underbrush, hedgerow, etc. not usable for crop space. Sloped fields that would erode disastrously if plowed (to grow grains and soybeans to feed people) are well used by planting to fruit trees and grazing with sheep. We may feel as passionately as Lappé about the abuse of agricultural lands and resources; but Lappé was not a farmer, and lacked a farmer’s vision for fitting appropriate food production to the land (as opposed to the reverse).
If our available space is more limited than our desire to raise as many livestock types as possible, we should remember the concept of “stacking” species. Say we have a piece of pasture that will support a cow and her calf only—adding any more cattle would lead to overgrazing and abuse of the pasture. We have maximized the usage of the pasture—for cattle. But it is still possible to introduce a flock of chickens to share that pasture as a resource. The chickens will eat some of the green forage, to be sure, but not so much as to seriously compete with the cow and her calf. They will also reap a large harvest of live animal foods such as earthworms, slugs, and insects, which the cattle can’t utilize at all.
Other examples of stacking: Include a flock of sheep and a flock of geese in the same pasture rotation. The geese and the sheep are both grazers, but will tend to graze different pasture species by preference. Raise rabbits or pigeons over deep litter in the poultry house. No additional floor space is needed for the added species (and increased production), since their housing is suspended above floor level, and the chickens provide the service of dispersing the droppings from the pigeons or rabbits into the litter.
Responsible Manure Management
In industrial livestock operations, what comes out of the far end of domesticated animals has become a curse: There is just so much of it in one place—inevitably it becomes a source of serious pollution of groundwater and streams. On the homestead, wise use makes animal manures instead a blessing, as we recapture their potential fertility and prevent its loss to natural water systems, where it functions more as toxin than nutrient.
The key to responsible manure management is encapsulated in something I’ve heard my friend Joel Salatin say many times: “If you’re around any livestock operation, regardless of species, and you smell manure—you are smelling mismanagement!” What a surprising statement: We have come to accept that any livestock husbandry has to be stinky. What a relief to know that we can keep useful domestic animals, without enduring the reek of raw manure. (We will consider specific strategies below.)
The key to wholesome feeding of livestock is first of all to feed each species as they evolved to eat, in contrast to current practice. Industrial beef operations, for example, “supercharge” ruminants—who would naturally eat a mostly grass diet—with grain, corn, and soy feeds, at great cost to the health of the cattle and, incidentally, with an inherent tendency to encourage natural and harmless types of E. coli to mutate into strains pathogenic for humans.
On the homestead, the heart of our feeding program should be maximizing our animals’ access to live, natural foods. We homesteaders should learn from practices of previous generations, in lieu of the assumption that animal feed is always something to buy premixed (by somebody, somewhere, using who knows what ingredients and processing methods) in a bag. For example, rather than going to the additional labor of harvesting and storing a field of corn, a farmer of an earlier era might turn his pigs in to “hog it down,” getting a big boost in growth and fat content before fall slaughter. Farmers would also plant whole fields of turnips or mangels (a fodder beet) or rape (a relative of kale), and turn cattle or pigs in to feast on this cold hardy banquet in winter, when there were no other sources of fresh green forage available. Flocks of free ranging chickens largely fed themselves by foraging insects and other nutrient-dense foods of a quality and nutrient density greater than anything the farmer could have purchased. Their assistance with insect control in the orchard was a major reason that our grandparents could grow fruits like apples without toxic sprays—before Monsanto, Cargill, et al. tried to convince us that simply can’t be done.
Other Integrative Livestock Practices
Joel Salatin feeds his breeder cattle over winter in a large loafing shed, where they eat hay harvested from the Salatin fields. As the winter progresses, the cattle manure, mixed with waste hay, builds up in a “pack” four feet deep. From time to time, Joel scatters whole kernel corn, which gets buried in the deepening manure pack. By spring, the pack is a treasure trove eager to expend its fertility onto the fields. First, however, it has to be aerated to become a finished compost readily assimilated by the pasture sod. Does Joel drive in a big growling tractor with a frontend loader for the task? Why, no, he turns in his “pigerators”—300-pound pigs who go after the fermenting corn kernels in a feeding frenzy, in the process turning over every cubic foot of material, speeding its decomposition and readiness for application. Labor-saving bacon—now that’s using your head!
In a smarter but less energy-intensive era, another labor-saving use of pigs was to fell trees. The farmer used a long auger to bore numerous holes into the root zone all around the tree to be brought down. After filling the holes with corn, he turned in the ever-hungry pigs. The trees didn’t have a chance.
In the summer, Joel follows his beef cattle—managed through intensive rotational grazing—with a big flock of laying chickens. The chickens scatter the cowpies, picking out the fly maggots in them as high-protein feed; and in the process disperse the fertility in the droppings over the entire sward, and break parasite and pathogen cycles by exposing them to nature’s sanitizers: air and sunshine.
Goats are more browsers than grazers, going after honeysuckle and poison ivy and “weedy” tree saplings like Ailanthus and black locust in preference to grasses. Thus it is possible to use goats to clear areas of tangled brush or undergrowth, or to prevent a pasture area from continuing in its natural succession to shrubland and forest.
The usefulness of lactating animals like goats and cows (and even sheep) does not need to be stressed. Keep in mind, though, that excess milk—or skimmed milk and whey from butter and cheese making—can be offered as high-quality supplemental feed to most other livestock species. Indeed, the lactating dairy animal could be seen as the “foster mother” of the whole homestead.
Homesteaders striving for greater food self-sufficiency may find themselves hampered by widespread prejudices, sometimes written into local law, against the raising of livestock. You may be pleasantly surprised at the possibilities available to you, however. My daughter Heather wanted to keep chickens, despite the fact she was living on a minuscule city lot in the middle of Greenville, North Carolina. When she checked with City Hall, however, she found that she was permitted to keep a maximum of four fowl within the city limits. We set her up with a large suspended cage something like a rabbit hutch, with room and nest boxes for four bantam hens. Those little hens kept Heather and her mother supplied with eggs for several years.
In some cases, whatever the zoning codes, in actual practice the most critical aspect is the tolerance of close neighbors of our practices. If we are careful first of all to manage animal manures in a way that will not generate offensive odors, our neighbors are more likely to be accepting of their presence. Noise is sometimes an irritant as well, so the choice of quieter species is well advised. A small flock of laying hens might pass muster with the local Noise Police, where the self-important bragging of a cock would find zero tolerance. (An often misunderstood fact is that hens do not need the “attentions” of a rooster to lay eggs.)
Rabbits are an easy, super-quiet choice whose care can be low-profile and inoffensive. Pigeons might be a good choice for those unable to keep the larger domesticated fowl. In some cities of the world, guinea pigs are raised as a low-maintenance source of meat for the family table.
A final thought about livestock husbandry: In previous era, people established “living fences” to confine and protect livestock. In the case of “pleaching,” suitable trees were planted in a line, then woven into a dense hedge by tying branches together in crossing positions. In the species preferred for pleaching—such as linden, hornbeam, and hawthorn—the points where the branches cross abrade and actually grow together, in a sort of natural graft. Another approach is to plant suitable trees or shrubs tightly spaced and prune them hard, to shape a stout, impenetrable hedge. If the plants in the hedge have thorns (hawthorn, Osage orange, Rugosa rose), so much the better. Though such a hedge can pose a barrier even to cats and other climbing predators, it will also serve double duty as a windbreak, and provide food and habitat for insects and birds. Some species might also provide fodder for livestock, or vitamin-rich foods for our own needs (hawthorn, Rugosa rose).
Contrast the living fence with its energy-intensive, expensive alternatives, which do not confer the additional ecological benefits enumerated above.