Lawns first became fashionable in the Middle Ages. Back then, the only alternative to sending flocks of sheep to graze the lawn was hiring men with scythes. Since that time, lawns and gas-powered lawn mowers have become ubiquitous, while the use of sheep to keep grass neat has become rare. Why is this? Using sheep to keep lawns trim is quiet, requires no fossil fuel, adds fertilizer to your lawn, and has wonderful side benefits — meat and wool — that no mechanical mower can provide.
Sheep aren’t the only livestock that can serve multiple purposes. Each type of livestock has natural habits with potential uses around your homestead. Pigs are nature’s plows. Geese feast on grassy weeds. Ducks eat slugs and bugs.
Though using working animals on your homestead has many benefits, it involves some work, too. Unlike gas-powered equipment, animals can’t be put away in the garage until the next time you need them. They need food, water, shelter, fencing and occasional veterinary care. So, why keep them?
Integrating working animals into your landscape makes your backyard more of a natural ecosystem in which flora and fauna interact. John Hayden, who runs an integrated farm called “The Farm Between” in Jeffersonville, Vt., raises plant crops and livestock. He manages his livestock to reduce the amount of labor and fertilizer he puts into his plant crops. He refers to the technique of using animals for more than one purpose as “stacking functions.”
“We use our animals for their animal purpose — for meat — and we have draft horses we use for work, but we also use them for their manure or to work the ground, control weeds or graze cover crops,” Hayden says.
Matt Elston and Kirk Fackrell own Cascade Meadows Farm, a diversified farm in Sandy, Ore. Their livestock consist of Dexter cattle, pastured poultry, American Guinea hogs, Icelandic sheep and miniature dairy goats. They recently had piglets from their pair of Guinea hogs, and they plan to use this small breed of swine to remove unwanted vegetation. Elston and Fackrell find their miniature dairy goats to be especially effective at blackberry control, and they provide tasty milk, as well. “What we’re trying to do here is bring together a new understanding of old techniques, to have our farm work holistically with as few outside inputs as possible, and get as much as we can out of each individual on the farm,” Elston says.
Sheep Shear Shrubs and More
Though he no longer keeps sheep, Hayden found them useful for controlling vegetation. “We had some stone walls that were overgrown and brushy, and we mobbed sheep on them and let the sheep kill everything there,” he says. “Now we have nice stone walls to look at again.” (“Mob” grazing means confining a group of animals in a small space so they feed on vegetation that may be less desirable to them.)
Sheep will eat both grass and tender weeds, and can be rotationally grazed using movable electric fencing. Movable fencing allows landowners to target livestock grazing activity on whichever vegetation they want to manage, rather than being limited to letting animals graze only large, permanently fenced areas.
Those with a smaller area of land may be interested in using a smaller breed of sheep to manage vegetation. The Olde English Babydoll Southdown breed reaches a maximum height of 24 inches. These sheep have a gentle disposition and don’t girdle trees or shrubs.
Deborah Rendon of Milpas Altas Farm in Chalfont, Pa., raises and sells Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep and says they’re terrific living lawn mowers. Perennials and shrubs in their grazing area should be protected, or the sheep may nibble on the leaves. “They’ll get bored,” Rendon says. “When you first put them out on pasture, they prefer the green grass, but after they’ve been in one area for a period of time, they get interested in other things.” She recommends covering any leafy vegetation you don’t want munched with deer netting, or fencing the sheep out of off-limits areas with movable electric fencing.
Goat Dozers and Pig Plows
Tougher vegetation control involving woody shrubs and brambles requires tougher livestock. Goats fit the bill here. They can control all sorts of noxious and woody plants, including poison ivy, poison oak and kudzu. They are so effective at controlling brush that companies throughout the country rent goats for land clearing. The Boer meat breed is most favored for clearing land. Small-property owners who also want milk from their goats might consider one of the dwarf breeds of dairy goat. In addition to their brush-munching abilities, they are petite, easy to handle and produce a respectable amount of milk for their size. Elston and Fackrell keep Miniature Nubian goats, which are a cross between Nigerian Dwarf goats and standard-sized Nubian goats. Their goats show a marked preference for eating broad-leaved plants rather than grass. Because of this preference, Elston says, “The best grass on our farm now is in our goat pasture.” Each of their small goats will give between 2 and 3 quarts of milk per day.
Pigs will clear land that is too rough even for goats. They will root and dig up stumps if food such as shelled corn or acorns has been put into holes made at the bases of the stumps. They will reportedly even fell trees using this method. Hayden uses his pigs to help compost his horse manure. “The manure pile becomes tightly packed in winter, and we’ll pound an iron bar in there and drop grains of corn into the holes. The pigs turn that manure to get at the corn,” he says. Hayden’s pigs also graze down his cover crops and clear land that will be planted with vegetables. He claims they’re especially helpful in clearing land of quack grass, as pigs like to eat quack grass rhizomes. He cautions that pigs aren’t ideal for land clearing on all soils, though. “If you have heavy soils and it rains, they can compact it and mess up your soil structure, so we’ve only used them on our light, sandier soils.” Hogs don’t dig just the areas that you want them to, of course. If you fence them on a lawn, they’ll “rototill” the entire area, or large chunks of it.
Hard-Working Pastured Poultry
Poultry aren’t experts at clearing land (although they will if many are concentrated long enough in one area), but they work the land as a multifunction labor force. Poultry are scratchers, foragers, insect eaters, and sources of meat, eggs and high-nitrogen fertilizer. Chickens in particular are becoming fashionable backyard livestock, even in suburban areas. The reason for their popularity is obvious: They’re small but productive. Even the smallest backyard can house a couple of hens.
If you keep the coop near your garden, you can easily feed your chickens food scraps, insect pests and weeds, and the chickens will dispose of them for you, turning them into eggs or meat. Chickens can be moved into your garden and fruit orchards in the fall after harvest to clean up insects and fertilize and turn the soil surface. If you have horses, cows or other livestock, chickens will help maintain their pasture. They scratch up and spread pats of dung and eat any parasite larvae they find. One caveat: Refrain from keeping chickens in your garden during the growing season, because they’ll eat your crops as well as insects, and their manure wouldn’t be an appealing addition to your vegetable harvest.
A chicken labor force can be moved around your property using a “chicken tractor,” which is a movable coop that can easily be pulled or pushed to new foraging areas. Chicken tractor designs can vary, but they should be predator-proof. Chickens can also be moved around your property using movable electric poultry netting.
Geese like to eat grass and young weeds more than they like to eat mature, broad-leaved plants. They nip off tender weeds at the soil line and don’t disturb the roots of surrounding plants. This makes them fine weeders of established plants, such as tomatoes and strawberries. Hayden used them to weed his strawberries one year. “After the strawberries were transplanted that first spring, we would let them run in.” Hayden says, “We would use electro-mesh fence. We put their food and water on different ends of the plot, so they wouldn’t just hang around in one area.” The Chinese and Cotton Patch breeds of geese are considered some of the best for weeding because they’re lightweight and active foragers. Geese are also good “watchdogs,” announcing and sometimes even accosting intruders.
Ducks love to eat slugs as well as other garden pests, such as snails and grasshoppers. Indian Runner ducks are excellent foragers and can lay 200 or more eggs per duck per year. They’re hardy poultry and produce a respectable number of eggs, even in winter, making them an attractive bird for cold climates. Another duck breed said to be a voracious slug eater is the Khaki Campbell, which averages the most eggs per duck annually — up to 300!
Guinea fowl will rout a plague of ticks, and they’ll do a number on all of the insects in your garden, including mosquitoes and Japanese beetles. Karen Gruner, who gardens and keeps draft horses, mules and donkeys on her farm in Ijamsville, Md., also keeps guinea fowl for just this reason. “They eat a wide variety of insects, including ticks, but unlike chickens they don’t scratch in the garden, so they can run in your garden without making a mess,” Gruner says. In addition to disposing of ticks, guineas can lay an egg a day. (Two guinea eggs equal one large chicken egg.) Harvey Ussery of northern Virginia reports that guineas, when penned with his squash, provide excellent control of squash bugs. For more reports on the amazing Poultry Pest Patrol.
Best Picks for Suburban Backyards
Suburbanites may not have the option of keeping larger livestock in their backyards, but they can still incorporate animals into their landscape. Hayden advises would-be suburban farmers to stick with smaller animals, such as chickens. Elston recommends the smaller breeds of dairy goats for backyard situations. His interest in these breeds was first piqued when he was investigating livestock that he could keep in his backyard, before he and his family bought their farm.
Incorporating livestock into your homestead will enliven and enrich it. Managed with skill, your animals will benefit your soil and landscape. Hayden says his livestock’s contributions to the farm go beyond vegetation control. “As an organic farmer, we’re trying to mimic nature and look at how ecosystems work,” he says. “They always have animals integrated into them. Whether it’s the wildebeests grazing in the Serengeti or the bison on the plains, there’s always an animal interface with the crops.”