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farming with animals

From the Chilcotin Wildfire Front: A Rotational Grazer’s Story

in 2018/Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Summer 2018/Tools & Techniques
Wildfires scour the landscape around Riparian Ranch

Shanti Heywood

This story first appeared on the Young Agrarians website.

Protecting my home was just something I had to do. People keep commenting on how brave I was—but I like to think everyone has some grit inside of them somewhere to fight when they have to. My heart goes out to those who have lost their homes and those who are still fighting to save homes.

We bought 256 acres of cleared but poor quality (and consequently, affordable) land out in the middle of nowhere. My husband wanted to live off the grid and I grew up off grid, so it wasn’t a huge stretch buying this place. With technology these days we have a lot more creature comforts available off grid than I did as a kid in the ‘90s.

The only catch was my hubby has a company down in Burnaby so I’m up here by myself 90% of the time learning to do a lot of things I never dreamed I’d be doing. Since the land needed improving and was not fenced we bought some solar powered fencers and step in posts and got to work. With affordable solar fencers, the voltage isn’t that much, so you really have to work with the psychology of the animals. If they’re not satisfied they will just leave. Solar fencers definitely let you know if your animals are happy in a hurry.

I moved them last year every 24 to 48 hours, and I saw a good deal of improvement. This year we dedicated a lot of time to fencing. I would only move them once per week but it still did what it was supposed to do.

The forage stayed green a lot longer than the ungrazed areas despite extreme drought conditions. Once the fire started I kind of knew we were in a good spot. Some of my friends, bless their hearts, were heavily involved in helping people evacuate livestock. They were quite insistent that I should get my animals out of there, but I refused. They’re as much my coworkers as they are livestock and they had as much of a job to do during the fire prep as I did.

I put my cows and horses in the hay field (the only area that had not yet been grazed…lots of fuel growing in peat soil) and started to move the step in posts closer to the forest every time they had finished a section. The fire danced around me for a month and finally made a pretty decisive b-line for me. Once the fire started to come I moved the posts back to the grazed area so they wouldn’t burn and set up a second water source in case the first source had fire near it. I moved the animals’ loose mineral tub back to where I thought was safest so they knew that was the best area to hang out, and that was that.

Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire
Intensively grazed pasture stopped the spread of fire

We watched the fire come in on all sides in one wild night. There’s no way I can describe the power of this fire so I’ll just give a rundown of what happened. August 11—I kind of knew it was the day the fire would come. Five weeks of waiting, watching, and preparing. That morning I got my chores done early and headed inside for a nap. I woke up in the afternoon to roaring fire on three sides and hot—I mean HOT—wind.

My neighbours Becca and Darrel showed up not long after. Darrel was worried about a cabin in the woods, Mikey’s cabin, and wanted to go check that the pump was still running. He went one way and Becca and I went the other way to break a dam upstream to let more water in to the creek for Mikey’s pump. There we are, two girls sitting in the mud listening to the roar of the fire behind us. Once we started heading back we quickly realized the fire was already almost at my property and became pretty worried about Darrel. He never made it to Mikey’s pump because the fire was already in the surrounding forest. We all figured the cabin was a pile of ash.

Another neighbour, Robert, showed up at that point, as did the one and only guy we had ever seen from Quesnel (who is supposed to be managing this fire). He quickly left. There wasn’t much we could do. We stood and watched the flames come in on all sides, completely surrounding us and cutting off all exits.

Once the fire had come in close I turned the waterfowl and billy goat loose and went in to the field that the goats and dogs were in. I called them all out of their huts as I was worried the roofs might catch a spark and led them to the sprinklers. They seemed to understand what I was showing them, as they never walked back in to their huts that night. I was not concerned about the cows and horses out in the hay field. We do managed intensive grazing, which proved very effective at stopping the fire in its tracks. I was pretty confident they were completely safe.

Then the smoke came down on us and for most of the evening we were choking on smoke and couldn’t see a thing. We had a couple little hot spots in paddocks and pastures throughout the night but they either burnt themselves out or were put out.

About midnight the fire calmed down on the Northern side and much to our surprise we heard the buzz of Mikey’s pump in the distance—the cabin had survived. The water from the dam had finally made its way down to us so we used it to put out a few fires and wet certain areas down. At the end of the night we all stood in awe of what had happened and what was still going on. Robert cut his way through my driveway to get home and we headed to bed. Darrel stayed up to keep watch.

The next day my husband finally was able to make it home and the fire ripped through two of our neighbour’s properties (they both made it). We weren’t able to be there for either of them but we cut our way through and went to help as soon as we could. Later that evening Robert’s wife Mamie said, “Who’s even going to believe this? Two people in their mid ‘60s running around with hoses fighting a wildfire.”

The fire burnt right up to where they had grazed and stopped. It was very hot and burnt pretty much anything in its path including green marshes and willow bushes. In one spot where I had just grazed but didn’t move the posts back to the grazed area the fire actually burnt the hot tape but not the posts because the cows had reached under and grazed around them.

Peat soil is quite notorious for burning underground for months…even through the winter…but for whatever reason the field appears to be just fine. My poor neighbour who owns another part of this field about two km away is still battling underground hot spots in his peat soil and he had the fire pass through one day after me. We’ve been over a few times to help him put out spots and move hay.

We have major wolf problems in the winter so fencing and LGDs (livestock guard dogs) are actually more important than this fire ever was. I shocked the heck out of the structure protection crew when I told them my puppies in training were more important than their hoses and I would NOT move them out of their field. Never a dull moment around here.

Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!
Horse and cows happy to be safe and sound!

None of us are able to get fire insurance due to our remote off the grid locations, so of course we all stayed to fight. We have been spending every day since checking on the properties and putting out little hot spots. It won’t be something I will ever forget, nor will this area ever look the same within my lifetime.

In the end, we didn’t lose anything to the fire. There’s no damage other than a few singed fence posts and of course my canoe I forgot about until we had gone to break the beaver dam when the fire was here. All the prep I did made it a fairly easy experience and the people that stayed with me of course helped immensely. I was never very good at studying for tests in school but this one I feel like I did my homework and was pretty well prepared for.

The fire is still blazing to the East of me. I can see plumes of smoke rising as I type this but for the most part we are safe. It’s never a dull moment here but I think it is safe to say this was one of the most exciting.

facebook.com/riparianranch


Shanti Heywood manages Riparian Ranch, an off grid ranch in the Chilcotin working towards providing humanely raised meat and livestock in the most natural and peaceful setting possible.

All photos: Riparian Ranch/Shanti Heywood

Animal Behaviour and Stockmanship

in 2018/Livestock/Spring 2018

Or: How to Never Have to Chase Sheep in Circles Around a Paddock Ever Again!

Sara Sutherland

Many people believe that sheep are stupid. Even people who have never worked with sheep tend to think that sheep are stupid. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of things that sheep do that make people think they are stupid. Firstly, sheep mob together, follow each other, follow the bellwether up the steps to the slaughterhouse, and generally show a lack of independent thought. Secondly, sheep scatter, run the wrong way, get out of fences, and when you get almost all the sheep into the pen and close the gate one will inevitably spin around and run out just before you get the gate closed. (If you think about it, this isn’t fair—dumb if you do and dumb if you don’t!)

When you work closely with sheep, you begin to realize that they also show signs of intelligence. Sheep will watch when you fix a hole in the fence, then go and check if it’s really fixed. Sheep will teach each other to get into a feeder that is supposed to only let lambs eat. A researcher in the UK, Keith Kendrick, studied facial recognition in sheep. Sheep would push the button beside the photograph of a sheep they knew, a flockmate, instead of a sheep they didn’t know. They could recognize over 30 individuals, and remember for at least three years after the last time they had seen the animal in the photograph!

So if sheep are so intelligent, if they have this capacity for recognition and learning and memory, why do they do stupid things?

Sheep don’t have a lot of natural defences. They don’t have sharp teeth, they don’t have long fangs, they don’t shoot lasers from their eyes (fortunately). Because they are prey animals, they are highly motivated to avoid being eaten. The most dominant sheep in a flock is not the leader, the most dominant sheep is in the middle where it is safest. When there is a group of animals of similar size running past each other, it is very difficult for the predator to focus on one individual. If you have ever tried to catch an individual sheep out of a flock, you know that you really need to stay focused on one individual in order to be successful. Statistically, a sheep in a flock of twelve is less likely to be eaten than a sheep in a flock of three. So sticking together, circling, and following each other are not caused by stupidity. In fact, they show a sophisticated understanding of statistics!

What about when sheep scatter and run the wrong way? Every animal has a “personal space bubble” or “flight zone”. When you step into their flight zone, they move away. The size of the flight zone varies. The biggest factor affecting the size of the flight zone is habituation—how used to you the animals are. To reduce the size of the flight zone, habituate your sheep to your presence. They are intelligent enough that if you walk through their paddock regularly they will recognize you and become gradually less wary of you. If you step into their flight zone behind their shoulder, they will move forwards, in front of their shoulder they will stop or turn around. Always be aware of where you are in relation to the animal. Why does one sheep spin around and run away from the flock when you go to shut the gate? She is motivated to be close to the other sheep until you step into her flight zone, then she is highly motivated to gap it. So take your time, let them all move into the pen, then watch the outside sheep and move into her flight zone behind her shoulder as you slowly shut the gate.

There are between breed and within breed variations in the size of the flight zone. There are no naturally “bad” breeds though—animals of any breed will habituate with regular calm handling. Animals that are stressed or in pain will have a larger flight zone. You should keep this in mind and not expect them to react the same way they normally do when something is wrong. Sheep in a smaller group will be more reactive than sheep in a larger group. They type of stimulus will also affect the size of the flight zone. The most effective stimulus for getting sheep to move is something that is novel—something that they haven’t been exposed to before. It doesn’t need to be especially loud or annoying, even a plastic bag on the end of a stick works well until they get used to it.

If animals get really stressed, it takes them a period of time to go back to behaving normally. Think about the last time you had a near miss in traffic, and how long it took for your heart rate to go back to normal! So if things really turn to custard, walk away and let them relax and come back 20-30 minutes later (providing it is safe to do so).

Unlike dogs, sheep predominantly use vision to experience their environment. Sheep do see differently than we do. They see things moving on the horizon better than we do, but large things close-up not as well. They see greens and yellows better than we do, but reds and blues not as well (so don’t use them to help you chose your wallpaper). They see vertical bars on a gate better than horizontal ones—if your sheep keep banging into the gate maybe they don’t see it well.

You can tell it’s a Perendale because of the short little ears and because it’s on the wrong side of the fence

When you are designing handling facilities for sheep and cattle, whether it is a set of pens and races or just a couple of gates in the corner of the paddock, use these principles to make it easy for the animals to do what you want them to do. Set it up so that they can circle and stay close together. Make sure they can see where they are going; for example, make sure that you are not running a race into a blank wall. When you are moving animals, use their flight zone and balance point. Don’t chase them around in circles—you will only make them stressed. Habituate them to a handling facility by running them into it a couple of times before you do anything stressful or painful to them in there. Look through a race from the sheep or cow’s eye level to try and spot anything likely to make them baulk as they run through. Sudden changes from light to dark, shadows, reflections, and hanging flappy things are common issues that we might not notice that make sheep or cattle not want to run.

Why is this important? Firstly, if you are set up to use the animal’s natural behaviours instead of working against them you will get the job done more quickly. Secondly, you will get the job done more safely. People can get injured by sheep and cattle, and if you are stressed because you aren’t well set up to handle animals you are more likely to do something dangerous like roll the motorbike or tell your partner you don’t like their cooking. Thirdly, stress makes animals more likely to get diseases. So if you are set up to work with the animal’s natural behaviour instead of against it, you will find your animals are healthier, you are safer, the work is done more quickly and more easily, and you might find that actually sheep aren’t as stupid as you thought!


Sara Sutherland is a large animal vet in the North Island of New Zealand, specializing in sheep. She’s from a large family farm in Quebec with meat and dairy sheep, and currently not only provides vet services for farms from 20-2,000 head of sheep but also conducts research and hosts workshops on management for farms in the region.

Photos: Sara Sutherland

Horse Power

in Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2017

Naomi Martz

Sometimes the best tool for a job isn’t a tool at all

Despite what some may think, farming with horses is not always about wanting to go back to the “good old days”. For me, it comes from a pretty extensive list of things that are important to me as a young person starting a farm business: less time spent fixing engines and running power tools, more time listening, less fossil fuel use, more conscious fine-tuning of the work/play/sleep/love/grow balance that sounds great in theory. With all that in mind, choosing to start farming with live horsepower has very much been a decision based in the present.

At this point, I would consider myself to be “barely a beginner” at draft horse work, so if you are looking here for expert advice I strongly suggest seeking out experienced teamsters who are willing to share their craft. Publications by Lynn Miller, Stephen Leslie, and the Small Farmer’s Journal can also provide a jumping off point for further resources. But I can share what adding two 2,000 lb coworkers brought to my first year running a farm.

Having completed an apprenticeship with Ice Cap Organics where the Zayacs gave me the inspiration and confidence to start my own vegetable-growing endeavour, I spent the 2015 season at Orchard Hill Farm, a horse-powered CSA farm in south-western Ontario in the hopes of putting to rest my curiosity for draft animal power. While there, somehow the Laings managed to instil me with enough confidence to return home to BC, find some land to lease, and buy a pair of draft horses the following spring.

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This season, Four Beat Farm grew produce for a 20 week, 30-member vegetable CSA as well the local farmers’ market. I rent a small house and 10 acres of farmable land as part of a larger property, with 4 acres in cultivation at the moment (1.5 in vegetables, 2.5 in cover crop to expand next year’s vegetable production), and the remaining 6 acres are used for horse pasture with intentions of haying and diversifying in the future. Currently theoperation is in transition to organic and biodynamic practices are employed as well. There are countless neighbours, family members, and friends who provide infinite moral and practical support, but on paper and in the field Four Beat Farm is currently a one-person, two-horse operation, with a dog who works bear patrol.

Tom and Judy, two Belgian drafts in their mid-teens, were purchased based on their kind demeanour, having done farm work and wagon rides before, and their ability to stand still. If the latter seems silly, imagine being a work crew of one with a tractor that cannot reliably be taken out of gear or turned off when something needs to be tweaked or loaded in the field. Other than the initial ploughing that was hired out in the spring around the time the horses were purchased (ploughing is heavy work and can easily lead to soreness for out of shape horses and a frustrated novice teamster), the vegetable farming has been horse-powered this year.

This has included lots of discing and harrowing to prepare for vegetables and manage cover crop, using a straddle single-row cultivator for weed control (all crops except salad beds and one row of hot crops are direct seeded or transplanted in single rows with 3’ between to allow space for the horses to walk), planting and hilling potatoes, spreading compost, and hauling in crates of produce as well as moving other heavy objects, such as bags of soil amendments, around the farm.

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While a task like hilling an eighth of an acre of potatoes is not unreasonable to do by hand, establishing horse-powered systems that can be scaled up in the future, not to mention improving my own teamster abilities, was a key priority for this season. Taking the eight minutes to harness and hook up the team rather than doing a repetitive task by hand whenever feasible meant not just a lot of time savings overall, but also that this autumn I felt physically better than ever after a season of farming. This seems like a key component of sustainable agriculture that us youthful small-scale farmers prefer to overlook when handling heavy storage crops in the cold rain.

There are many articles written and discussions to be had about the role of draft horse power on a working, profitable farm. Horses can eat from, work on, and fertilize the fields. Horses are light on the land, and they can be worked in single- or multi-horse hitches depending on the task at hand. With the right knowledge and equipment, horses can also grow and harvest their own hay and grain, and breeding can lead to new engines being born and trained on the farm as the older ones slow down.

I agree with all of these and dare to add a few of my own. For one, farming with horses lends itself well to the pursuit of thrift and of mechanical simplicity. My equipment repertoire currently includes some long-forgotten tractor discs and harrows, a roller-packer, a work sled built in an evening from scrap lumber, a small borrowed trailer, a forecart which has a ball hitch attachment to pull the trailer or discs with horses, and a row cultivator. Other than the forecart and cultivator, which worked out to about $1000 and paid for itself in time savings within about six weeks, the rest of the implements ranged from free to one hundred dollars.

When things break or need restoring sometimes I make time to work on them myself; sometimes I drag them to a neighbour’s shop if they can make time to fuss around with my antiques, knowing someone else will do twice the job in half the time and I enjoy visiting with neighbours. Developing the skill set to speak the language of engine repair, not to mention actually repair engines, would not be impossible but would be a big learning curve in comparison. If I were a person who enjoys and excels at running heavy machinery and tinkering with tractors, or if I did not actually like horses, my farm would probably look quite different than it does at the moment.

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As a final note, horses appreciate the importance of a morning routine, of stopping for a midday break in the shade, of that extra ten seconds of grooming before suit- ing up for the day, and this is reflected in their work quality and productivity. I daresay I am similar but am equally prone to working myself into the ground when left to my own devices. Farming can be overwhelming on the quietest of days, but 4,000 lb of friendly, hay-burning accountability helps to keep me physically, emotionally, and financially grounded and present.

It goes without saying that there are unique challenges. Sometimes my horses have had several days off and have lots of energy and need to pull something heavy for a half hour to let off steam before they are ready to carefully cultivate baby beets. Sometimes even when they are doing a spectacular job a bear pops out of the woods and causes a hoof to sidestep, which can mean a few broccoli plants get stepped on. Sometimes I am amazed by how often I need to buy hay or set up a new pasture fence, and I have to remind myself that relying on a renewable fuel source that can be bought from neighbouring farmers and turned into next year’s compost pile is worth more than just the cost of hay on a budget sheet.

So that is a bit of what happened in this first year of horse-powered vegetable farming in southwestern BC. Lucky for me, as the list of things I know I don’t know just continues to grow, there is plenty of work to enjoy for a long while yet.


Originally from Vancouver, Naomi Martz is thrilled to have stumbled across a career that incorporates her love of math, mornings, and good food. She sees farming as an excuse to tromp around in the rain, a means of satisfying her appetite for carrots and community, and a way to live well in a changing world.

Keeping Your Flock Healthy

in 2016/Grow Organic/Livestock/Spring 2016
Small Flock Chickens, Poultry

Caitlin Dorward, Caroline Chiu & Kent Mullinix (Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, Kwantlen Polytechnic University) and Clayton Botkin (BC Ministry of Agriculture)

BC’s Fraser Valley is recognized as a major centre for commercial and supply-managed poultry production including layers, broilers, and turkeys. Also prevalent in this area is a small-scale poultry sector; the BC Ministry of Agriculture estimates that there are as many as 10,000 small flocks in the Fraser Valley alone. Many are “backyard” flocks kept for personal egg production or for direct-market egg sales from the farm gate. Some are kept by poultry fanciers dedicated to breeding and showing. No longer solely a rural pursuit, small backyard flocks are now allowed (subject to bylaw stipulations such as lot size) in many BC municipalities including Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops, Vancouver, City of North Vancouver, Delta, Port Coquitlam, Surrey, and Maple Ridge.

Although the Fraser Valley’s 10,000 small flocks, at an individual level, account for few birds compared to the numbers kept in commercial operations, they play an important role in the local food system – and their small scale does not exempt them from the same poultry health and biosecurity concerns faced by the commercial sector. During the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in December 2014, for example, the disease was detected in two backyard flocks.

Recognizing that small lot poultry producers also benefit from training in biosecurity and health management best practices, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems (Kwantlen Polytechnic University—KPU) recently partnered to host a four-part “Keeping Your Flock Healthy” course at KPU’s Langley campus. This free course held over four two-hour sessions was intended for owners of small flocks looking to learn more about poultry diseases and ways to prevent them. Course instructors included Clayton Botkin (Industry Specialist, Poultry and Regulated Marketing, BC Ministry of Agriculture) and Dr. Victoria Bowes (Avian Pathologist, BC Animal Health Centre, BC Ministry of Agriculture), both North American experts in their fields. Dr. Daniel Schwartz (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) was also a guest presenter.

Those who attended came from across Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley and were small flock poultry owners who kept chicken as a hobby, for business, or for home consumption. Attendees expressed interest in learning more about disease management, general flock health, required lab tests, application of organic practices, protection against predators, information sources, licensing, scaling up, and industry regulations.

Considerations in Caring for Your Small Flock

Food Safety

From a food safety perspective, the food-borne illness salmonella is one of the biggest concerns for egg producers of all scales. Currently, testing of eggs for direct-market sale is not required, but of course providing safe, healthy eggs is a goal for all small-scale farmers, and testing for Salmonella should be a consideration. As such, small-scale egg producers should be aware of the risks posed by salmonella and how to mitigate them. For example, cracked or soiled eggs including those laid outside of the nesting box should never be sold or consumed. Egg candling and proper egg washing routines should also be implemented.

Chicks & Fertile Eggs

When it comes to small flock health, the source of chicks or fertile eggs is an important starting point. Small lot producers should take time to get to know any hatchery or other source from which their chicks are purchased. Ask questions about the hatchery’s quality control program, salmonella monitoring, vaccinations, health programs and accountability process. Before choosing breeds for your flocks, do some research about what breeds are appropriate for your area’s climate and for the purpose of your operation (e.g., egg production, meat production, etc.).

Small Flock Housing

The session included an introduction to poultry production and small flock housing. Newcomers to small flocks were able to take advantage of an introduction to poultry production and small flock housing. If you have a small flock, it’s important to seek out the regulations pertaining to small flocks and direct marketing of eggs, including the supply management or “quota” system – and learn about keeping your flock, premises, and product healthy.

Poultry housing is also a critical factor for small flock health. As a rule of thumb, remember that proper housing for your birds is just as important to their health as your own home is to yours! A simple checklist that can be used to evaluating the quality of poultry housing for all breeds is: Feed, Litter, Air, Water, Sanitation, and Security (FLAWSS). Use this checklist as a starting point but also familiarize yourself with any specific needs or housing requirements of the breeds in your flock to ensure you can provide them.

Diagnosing Disease

According to Dr. Bowes, a basic understanding of poultry anatomy (parts) and physiology (purpose/ function) can help small and large flock owners diag- nose, or at the very least notice, potential health prob- lems in their flock so that they can be addressed on site or brought to the attention of your veterinarian. The most common poultry diseases can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and include avian in- uenza, E. coli, and mites.

4 Strategies that Prevent Disease

Strategies to limit the spread of disease are another important aspect of small flock management. Small flock owners need to conduct a critical examination of the premises where their flock is kept in order to identify potential points of pathogen entry. Once you have identified these points, you can develop and implement strategies to minimize the chance that disease causing organisms will gain entrance. In general, developing such a biosecurity protocol entails the following steps:

  • Access management: reduce the risk of pathogens being carried into and out of the flock premises
  • Health management: ensure that the flock is in good health, from chick to slaughter
  • Operational management: assure all procedures of your operation enable management of the health and well being of the ock and premise; barn area is always clean
  • Know and understand the procedures: be up to date with any issues and ensure that everyone involved with managing the flock and premise know the procedures for proper management.

The workshop concluded with information about techniques for humane euthanasia and plenty of time for questions from participants to the workshop instructors.

A small poultry flock can be the perfect business model, or a great way to produce your own food. No matter your goal, understanding how to promote the health and wellness of your flock is in your best interest, as well as the birds!

Resources

The “Keeping Your Flock Healthy” course is presented annually by the Ministry of Agriculture. If you are interested in attending a future course, or would like to be added to a contact list for small flock poultry related information and events, contact Clayton Botkin at clayton.botkin@gov.bc.ca.

Copies of the Small Flock Manual distributed to course participants.

General information and resources about poultry in B.C.

Information on Avian influenza outbreaks in Canada, including the December 2014 outbreak in B.C., and advice from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, on how to prevent and detect disease in backyard flocks.


The Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University supports regional food systems through applied research, extension, and community engagement. Reach out for more information about our work or if you are interested in partnering with us on an event or project.

Photo credit: Thomas Buchan

Integrating Livestock into Farm Rotations

in Grow Organic/Land Stewardship/Livestock/Tools & Techniques/Winter 2016
Raising Livestock, Pig

Corine Singfield

A Perspective on Pigs and Chickens

I could not imagine farming without the help of animals again.

As a young urban farming city slicker, I longed to homestead somewhere in the woods far away. I moved to the Great Bear Rainforest to start a new farm. We had no money to buy a tractor. As it turns out, a small rototiller is not a suitable tool to break down a freshly de-stumped and compressed forest floor. In his milestone book The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It, John Seymour writes “experience shows that for bringing grassland into cultivation either the plough, or the pig’s snout, is essential.”

An enthusiastic neighbour with pigs who had jokingly put out a “Hog for Rent” sign on his barn was coaxed into lending us five of his pigs for the task of turning the field into seedable earth. After two months of intensive rotational grazing, the pigs had cleared 1.5 acres and turned it into the basis of our market garden. They pulverized the quack grass and their powerful snouts tore through cottonwood roots.

We learned that it is critical to run some tests as to determine the perfect size of the rotational moving pen and the optimum time between moves. Leave them for too long and they will dig craters; not enough time and they will not have turned enough dirt. If the area is too big they will get picky with where they are rooting so a smaller pen ensures a more uniform job. We ended up splitting the 1.5 acre area into eight zones, moving them every week.

Many things come into play when making that decision: size and number of pigs, palatability of the ground cover, quality of the soil and the quantity of feed that you are giving them. Some farmers insert grains in a deep hole on the side of stumps. Pigs will go to great lengths loosening the soil in an attempt to retrieve the golden sweet oats.

Animals are central to operating a small closed loop farm where nutrients are produced and cycled on site to a level that does not exceed the carrying capacity of soil and thus prevents leaching into water sources. It is a cycle on which all food that we grow depends and it is a system that has fed humans for generations.

When managed properly, livestock can save farmers endless amounts of time by simplifying tasks like weed management, soil preparation, disease control, and post-harvest cleanup while being true portable composting machines.

After our success clearing the land with pigs, it felt like a natural next step to introduce pigs and chickens into our crop rotations. We started using the pigs to clean up after a potato harvest to ensure that there weren’t any volunteers carrying disease or insects for the following year. The pigs fertilize and till the soil making it ready for broadcasting a winter cover crop. A pig rotation can be used to break down and integrate plant biomass into the soil without compaction.

Harnessing the power of the pig’s snout or the scratching of chicken feet reduces the need for using a tractor and helps to preserve the soil’s structure, tilth and food web.

Harnessing the power of the pig’s snout or the scratching of chicken feet reduces the need for using a tractor and helps to preserve the soil’s structure, tilth and food web. Chickens can be used to mow the orchard, doing away with the tedious job of weed whacking around each tree. They can also be sent in right after the pigs to control flies or other insects. Moving your livestock around the farm increases your farm’s total herd carrying capacity.

Planning for Livestock

In order to integrate animals into your crop rotations you will need to move them. Try to imagine pathways for the moves. While chickens can be moved quite easily from one end of the farm to another with the help of a coop on wheels, pigs are much more easily moved on their own hooves. It helps to include your animal rotations right into your farm plan. If you wanted to use your pigs to clean up and prep the soil after harvest you could plan for the crops to ripen in succession from one end to the other of the field and have your pigs follow that direction. Pigs are not compatible with permanent raised bed so if that is your method of choice, you will want to go with chickens or ducks that have a lesser impact.

You also need to allow for enough time between the presence of livestock and harvest. Organic standards call for four months between soil’s contact with raw manure and harvest. If crops that accumulate nitrates are to be grown, the raw manure must be applied at least four months before these crops are planted. Nitrate-accumulators include brassicas, leafy greens, beets, and chard; raw manure must be applied in moderate amounts and the soil must be warm and moist.

Other things to consider are the type of soil, compaction levels, future crop plans, and the nutritional value of the crop. The perfect timing for your soil management plan might not be the same as for the maturity of forage.

Your end goal will determine which forage you will plant for your livestock. If it is to make the soil cultivable, you can choose deep root crops such as turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, or fodder beets. If controlling weeds is a priority then less palatable grasses are best to encourage livestock to go for the weeds instead. To boost fertility, go with a mix that contains legumes.

Livestock Basics: Keeping Your Animals Happy and Healthy

Raising animals presents challenges that multiply the laws of unpredictability in farming by a few fold. They don’t always stay where you want them to stay. They can get sick or get into trouble. An emergency with livestock will always take precedence over a critical task in the veggie garden. They can save you time or cost you a lot. Make sure that you have contingency plans.

Raising animals presents challenges that multiply the laws of unpredictability in farming by a few fold.

Water

Livestock need fresh water at all time. Pigs are especially talented at flipping or destroying their watering apparatus. We like to use a bath tub with reinforced sides but even then you’ll end up finding one pig laying in it enjoying the remaining inch of muddy water from time to time. You’ll need to transport their water with each move.

Feed

Animals that have access to pasture are less prone to diseases and have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their meat, and more vitamin E than animals raised in confinement. They are also happy. A happy animal is one that gets to live according to its true nature: a pig loves rooting in fresh dirt, a chicken loves scratching and pecking.

Feed requirements depend on the animal. In the case of grain eating omnivores – poultry and hogs primarily – they will need unlimited access to a species specific, balanced ration that includes minerals. You can supplement the rations with pasture, crop residues, and weeds while keeping in mind that no one type of pasture will consist of a complete diet. Pigs are monogastric, meaning that they don’t derive protein from eating grass like ruminants. They can’t survive on a diet of grass and greenery and still need to be fed grains even if they are cleaning up the veggie patch after harvest.

Pigs are naturally attracted to higher protein crops such as clover, alfalfa or field peas. Planting a few acres of peas for them allows to cut feeding costs significantly. For every 4 kg of alternative feed (weeds, beets, potatoes, etc.) that you give your pigs, you can reduce their ration by a 1 kg. If you want your pigs and chickens to thoroughly mow or clean up an area that is less palatable you can temporarily reduce their ration to induce a feeding frenzy. We like to mix oats and field peas as forage for the pigs. For a quicker turn around we use a few dense buckwheat plantings in a row and send the animals more often.

Shelter, Fencing

You will become an expert in all things electric fence related. E-fences are extremely simple to use when done properly, but you have to make sure that they are clear of obstructions, such as vegetation that can “ground” the power and weaken your fence. An overlooked detail with an electric fence can cost you a crop at the hands of pigs or an attack by predators. Almost every morning we find new traces of a coyote visit around the chicken pen. The electric fence works very well…when connected correctly.

You will need a few moveable electric mesh fences, a deep cycle battery, a fence charger, and a power source such as a small solar panel. A sense of humor and the willingness to wrangle the odd escapee from time to time can also come in handy.

Light and durable pens must be transported everywhere. A chicken tractor is perfect for hens that return to their roost at night, so they  can be transported to a new location before they awaken the next day. We use a small and simple slanted roof shelter made of recycled materials for the pigs. It can be moved small distances with 2 people or lifted with the tractor. Pigs don’t have sweat glands and cannot cool themselves so they must always have access to moist soil and shade.

Learning and Growing with Livestock

At the Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School where I currently dabble in the joys of farming, we plan on acquiring two flocks of chickens, some ducks, and about 30 pigs next spring. We are very excited to conduct experiments using chickens to mow the orchard, determining stocking rates, suitable feeding regimens, and optimal pen size. Similar experiments will be conducted with the pigs. I look forward to streamlining and simplifying my work as a farmer with the integration of livestock. Tune in next year – I’ll be eager to report on what we have learned!


Corine Singfield is the Farm Manager and Farm School Coordinator of the Tsawwassen First Nation Farm School, a collaboration project with the Institute of Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. The TFN Farm School is a 10 month practical program to learn how to farm and start a farm business. www.kpu.ca/tfnfarm.ca

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