Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Unexpected Benefits of Owning a Goat-Rental Business

 

As I started out with my goat rental business, I had some pretty clear expectations. Then came the unexpected things. They weren't all negative, and in fact, the unexpected was full of positives. My goat herd is not only a green eating machine, it is also a great entertainment package that is therapeutic, educational and mesmerizing. This is more than a business to me; it is a way of life that brings a service but also brings joy to those who hire us and those who stop by to visit, watch and learn.

Ag Entertainment

Almost immediately, I realized that people would want to stop and watch the goats as they "worked", but it quickly morphed into something more. As I learned how the goats reacted to the various environments, I was soon able to tell the visitors about how the goats behave in a group and what to look for as they watched the goats graze. Watching five or six goats graze is one thing but to watch 70 to 75 goats is amazing!

I became an agricultural educator, giving short educational talks, answering questions — so you need to know goats — and you need to have fun stories to share about some of your more "adventuresome" goats.  We added two wethered males to the crew three summers ago, and they are the resident couch potatoes (there is a story there). They are also the token males on the crew, because we prefer to use females as this is a great way to re-condition them after weaning and to prepare them for breeding season.

My customers always get excited when they know we are coming to their property! They get a child-like excitement that many have not experienced since they were children and so they are overly excited and giddy. The anticipation is very satisfying to me. They love to watch as the goats almost fall out of my stock trailer as I open the gate to let them have their way with the weeds and brush. It is something I like to organize, to get the best thrill for all.

I generally give them a timeframe for how long I will take to set up fences. Then I will let them know when I am ready to let them out. It is almost like being the announcer in a three-ring circus. The customers love this!

Ag Education

For the more educated part of my job, I make sure I have plenty of information about the digestive system (the four-compartment stomach is of great interest) and gestation. Information on certain goats (a life story) is also of interest. Some customers even regularly inquire about certain goats throughout the season.

As the goats come out of the trailer, they run the perimeter of the area, tasting things as they go, as if to check out the buffet before plowing into the main course. Then the goats work as a team to bring down young saplings, vines and branches as if they've planned their attack on the brush.

Ag Therapy

My weed warriors perform a service, yet they are a mesmerizing entertainment that is also therapeutic in nature. I've watched many tired customers come home from work and start watching the goats, and as they watch, the amazement of the goats relaxes them and erases the work day troubles away. This is as satisfying to me as the nice paycheck we get as we leave.

Mary Powell is a goat rental business owner and agricultural educator with 30 years’ experience working on ranches, farms and feedyards. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Animal Science from Kansas State University with an emphasis in Livestock Production Management. Follow Mary and her many misadventures with the goats on Facebook at Barnyard Weed Warriors and Ash Grove Goat Ranch or on her BarnyardWeedWarriors.com website.  If you have questions for her about her goats or Border Collies, email Mary at barnyardweedwarriors@yahoo.com. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Start ‘Em Young: Connect Kids with the Land to Yield a Lifetime of Harvests

Young Boy Milking A Goat

There are many voices clamoring for our kids’ attention these days — from mobile phones to video games to extracurricular activities. But one voice is increasingly getting drowned out in the noise: the call of the wild.

Whether you are an aspiring farmer, established homesteader, or entering the “grandfarming” stage of life, getting your kids or grandkids into the great outdoors and connecting with nature will teach them invaluable skills and help prepare them for a prosperous future.

Nurture a Work Ethic

Federal labor laws prevent businesses from employing anyone under 14 years of age. While the intent of these laws is laudable, there are serious unintended consequences. Meaningful labor is a blessing; it builds confidence and character in young boys and girls. A young person who has not worked until the age of 14 will have a hard time adjusting to the demands of life. But any child who can walk can start contributing to a farm economy.

“A farm is a good place to teach kids a work ethic,” I once opined to a former dairy farmer and grandfather of three. “It’s the best place,” he corrected me.

Collecting eggs, feeding rabbits, and picking strawberries can be done from the earliest of ages, and are a real service — assuming some of the strawberries make it back uneaten. As kids grow they can take on bigger chores, including weeding the garden, watering the livestock, and mending fences.

The work on a farm is never done. But as long as the work is readily connected to rewards — a fresh strawberry pie or tasty BLT sandwich — kids will learn the value of work early and be well equipped to meet life’s challenges.

Two Children Harvesting Strawberries

Offer ‘Unscreen’ Time in Nature

There are screens for every crevice of life. Screens for theaters and screens for home. Screens for work, school, supermarkets, restaurants, billboards, gas stations, and of course, screens in our pockets. If there is one virtue that connecting with the land brings, it is respite from screens —taking our eyes off of what is simulated and artificial and re-orienting us to what is natural and real.

Unless adults take the lead, our kids will grow up immersed in a virtual reality and miss the wonder, imagination and rhythms of the natural world.

Wonders such as: tasting that first ripe cherry tomato of the season, whether grown on an apartment balcony in the city or on a two-acre garden in the country. Or watching the tulips sprout suddenly after a long winter. Or witnessing the miracle of new life emerge from a pregnant ewe — and then its twin a few moments later.

Immersing our kids in the natural world away from screens leads to increased imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills — qualities that are highly sought-after by employers today. It also helps to balance one’s perspective of life and the role technology plays in it.

Father Child With Baled Hay

Plan Productive Play to Foster Love for the Work

The old adage is true: “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The best way to get kids involved in farming is to start them young and make it fun.

There are many chores on a homestead that are quite enjoyable in small doses: transplanting seedlings, caring for baby chicks, milking a goat, or harvesting pumpkins. Conversely, the worst thing you can do is assign your kids chores you don’t like yourself. (Yes, I am referring to cleaning stalls.) That is a recipe for alienating kids from the land, as I have heard from many who have fled the farm as young adults.

Splitting wood might not sound like fun to most. But to a 9-year-old boy, pushing the lever on the log splitter while his dad sets the logs is genuine play. When the woodstove is keeping his family warm through the winter, he’ll take satisfaction in knowing he wasn’t just passing time but using it productively.

As children get a little older, starting a farm-based business selling flowers, eggs or purebred rabbits, is entirely within the capacity of a 10-year-old boy or girl. And such enterprises, regardless of success, will teach valuable lessons about stewardship, finances, and working with people.

Teach Intergenerational Skill-Sharing and Relationship-Building

Before the Industrial Revolution, before the factory displaced the home as a center for production, families worked together. From our 21st-century perspective, it can be difficult to grasp how differently families lived and worked back then. Children were raised, educated, and employed their whole lives on the family farm, often for several generations. Those who did not stay on the farm were apprenticed to local tradesmen, supplying much-needed goods and services to the local community. While they did not have most of the conveniences and creature comforts we enjoy today, they did have one thing in steady supply: relationships.

One of the tradeoffs we made for our modern conveniences — whether consciously or unconsciously — was giving up opportunities to mentor our young people through the context of work. Factory production meant the end of the apprenticeship model, the method by which generational skill, culture, and faith had been passed on for thousands of years.

But we don’t have to accept these tradeoffs. We can reclaim our place as mentors as we work alongside our kids. We can teach our children about stewardship as we kneel beside them in the garden. We can model resourcefulness as we harvest lumber and firewood from our woodlots. The deepest conversations usually surface while working — shaping souls happens more often in the barn or field than around the dinner table.

We are not merely making connections with the land, we are making connections with our kids. The growing season is short: Our sons and daughters will be moving on soon enough. This is our chance to sow the seeds that will prepare them for a healthy, happy, and abundant future.

Mother And Daughter Planting Garden

Photos by Rory Groves

Rory Groves is a technology consultant and family farmer who lives in southern Minnesota, with his wife, Becca, where they farm, raise livestock, host workshops, and homeschool their five children. He is author of the forthcoming book Durable Trades: Family-Centered Economies That Have Stood the Test of Time (Wipf & Stock). Connect with Rory at The Grovestead, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Collect Windfall Apples

windfall apples

Photo by SuperND/Fotolia

A time-honored tradition for country folk is harvesting wild foods, such as fiddle-head ferns in the spring. But sometimes, on the edges of former homesteads, you can find semi-wild foods (or food that has gone wild!), such as apples.

Pioneers and homesteaders have been planting apple trees since Plymouth days. Apples are a wonderfully versatile fruit; they can be stored for months and used as is, or transformed into cider, sauce, and dried apples for pies and cobblers. Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) spent much of his life in the late 1700 and early 1800s planting apple nurseries, primarily in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. It is said that some of those trees are still bearing apples.

But you don’t have to go to those states to find free-for-the-asking apples. Just by taking an autumn drive in the country, you will probably find an old farmstead with an apple tree or two loaded with apples, ready to become deer and bear fodder. Before picking, always try to find who owns the trees and if it is OK to pick the apples. You also might find trees, full of ripe apples, in your neighbor’s. They may be thrilled to have someone pick them rather than having to deal with rotting apples in the grass.

I was prompted to write about windfall apples by my experience at work this week. A group of us were taking our noon walk, where we routinely pass a closed retirement facility. Most of the leaves have fallen and so I noticed a formerly hidden tree, full of red somethings. On closer inspection, I discovered that it was an apple tree, still loaded with good fruit. Since no one is currently living on the site, I felt comfortable taking a few apples to make into apple sauce. Many of the apples had blemishes and some bug spots, but on the whole, they were perfect for boiling down for sauce. What a serendipitous find!!

I think I will make a note on the calendar for next fall to locate some more orphan apple trees in my area. Making apple sauce from a variety of apple types makes for the best tasting sauce. And if I find enough really tasty ones, I can make my father's favorite apple dessert - a schnitz pie. But that story will have to wait for another day.

Do you have a favorite found food? Tell us about it.

An Interview with Dr. Grant Woods of GrowingDeer.tv, Part 1

 Dr. Grant Woods with deer

Dr. Grant Woods of GrowingDeer.tv demonstrates how to process a deer post-hunt. Photo by GrowingDeer.tv

I have been a fan of GrowingDeer.tv for a few years now, learning more about the management of wild deer and their habitats, while also being educated further about trapping as an important part of that process. GrowingDeer was created by Dr. Grant Woods, a wildlife biologist with a specialization in deer management, to share his knowledge and experiences freely with the readers of their blog and video viewers. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Woods via email in this two-part series, hoping to encourage others to learn more about this valuable website and to get more involved in the management of their wildlife.

In an uncertain time where many processors may be booked up or turning away customers, GrowingDeer offers information such as this educational video on processing your own deer at home. Video Credit: GrowingDeer.tv

Fala Burnette: Thank you Dr. Woods for agreeing to this interview! It's a true pleasure to talk about wildlife management with you, and introduce the readers to GrowingDeer.tv. I'd like to start off by asking what initially motivated or encouraged you to really become involved with wildlife management, and property management to promote healthy wildlife?

Grant Woods: I was raised on a 100-acre family farm in southwestern Missouri at the edge of the Ozarks. There were no deer in the county and I had heard the Missouri Department of Conservation was restocking deer in the area. For some reason that piqued my interest and I thought about seeing a deer. I wondered if there would ever be deer near our farm!

Then, before school one morning when I was in the first grade I was checking rabbit traps my father and I had built.  While walking to the next trap I found a female fawn (approximately six months old) that had been shot illegally in one of our fields. I remember running to our hog barn to get my Dad before he left for work. Dad drug the deer to our barn and left it as he had to go to work and it was going to be cold all day. That evening we skinned the deer, fleshed the pelt, and rubbed Epsom salt on the inside of the hide as that's all we knew to do.

I had plans to hang the hide in my room but Mom had different plans so it was placed inside our barn and I would rub it and wonder about deer for years. I believe God used that moment to inspire me to become a deer biologist and I'm still following that inspiration.

Years later I learned about habitat characteristics and how degraded wildlife habitat was in some areas. Once I learned the vast negative impacts low quality habitat has on many wildlife (game and nongame) species I focused on learning and implementing techniques to improve habitat quality and therefore wildlife populations.

Comparing your childhood years (as you mentioned with low numbers and poor habitat) to now, and even in your work advising others on how to improve their properties, what sort of changes and benefits do people begin to notice when they pay more attention to improving these habitats?

I'm currently 59 years old and I didn't hear of anyone intentionally improving native habitat for deer or other species of wildlife until I attended college and then such actions were primarily conducted on state and federal lands.

Now it's extremely common for private landowners to improve native habitat using techniques such as timber stand improvement and prescribed fire. These improvements almost always provide substantial benefits for nongame critters as well.  As an example, many private, nonindustrial stands of timber throughout the United States of America were high graded during the past few decades. High grading timber is when the best trees are harvested and the less desirable trees in form and size are left.

Many folks purchase property primarily to have a location for them and their family to hunt. Because hunting is their primary priority they often are more interested in improving wildlife habitat quality then maximizing income from a timber harvest. This encourages them to leave the best trees while reducing the number of trees per acre and allow the residual trees to have less competition for sunlight and soil moisture. This not only improves wildlife habitat and carrying capacity by allowing native grasses and forbs to grow between trees but also allows a better crop of trees to be produced for future timber supply and revenues.

Watch for Part 2 of this series.

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. They are currently building their own log cabin and milling their own lumber, along with raising heirloom crops in the Spring and tanning furs during the Winter. Read all of Fala's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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How to Keep Your Chickens Happy: A Chicken Owner’s Adventures

Chickens Pecking Flax Jar

Gertie (left) and Anna (right) peck a jar to spill out the flaxseeds inside. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.

If chickens were as unintelligent as their reputation suggests, keeping them happy might be simpler. Popular culture, however, is misleading. Chickens learn not just from experience, but from watching each other and the humans who take care of them. They require frequent novelty and engage in cannibalism when bored.

I suspect free-range chickens demand less attention because they can better amuse themselves. Unfortunately, they also have a lower life expectancy. Ours, safely confined to a coop and run, need a lot of entertainment. As a bonus, keeping them busy entertains us, too.

Here’s an abridged list of the experiences to which we’ve subjected our chickens in the name of entertainment:

Home Renovations

We made a chicken swing out of a sturdy branch, but the ladies kept falling off. (Our friends in Charlottesville tell us their flock likes their swing, so your mileage may vary.) We sometimes give them a peanut butter jar full of flaxseeds with holes drilled in the sides, which spills treats as they roll it around the pen. After we mow, we dump grass clippings into the run, raking them into heaps because all chickens share an ancestral grudge against piles and will destroy them by any means necessary. This wanton destruction gives them something to do. We gave them a rotten apple that they rolled like an edible soccer ball; and, once, a xylophone, around which they gathered with the solemn puzzlement of anthropologists discovering an alien artifact, occasionally pecking it and making it ring through the hot afternoon.

Chicken Anthropologists

Chicken anthropologists! Top to bottom: a curious Brown Leghorn pullet (hard to tell which), Marta, Azul, Poppy, and Cinnamon. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.

One of our chickens’ favorite things to do is climb on things, so filling the run with stumps and branches might be our most successful chicken enrichment strategy. The result, our friends tell us, resembles a chicken terrarium. Although we cycle through different branch configurations to keep the ladies entertained, it’s usually possible to walk most of the length of the run without touching the ground, so they spend a lot of time playing “the floor is lava.”

Poison.

During run renovations one day, my mom called me over, gesturing to a branch still dangling with leaves. “Hey, you want to give them this one?”

Because I’d seen the chickens amuse themselves by stripping leaves off a branch just a few days ago, I took it and laid it down in the run, but paused when I recognized its seed pods. “Aren’t these poisonous?”

A quick Google search confirmed that mimosa seed pods are, in fact, toxic for animals, so I retrieved the branch from the run, scattering the chickens who had predictably clustered around to destroy it.

Sticks (Including Mimosa)

A chicken jungle gym made of fallen branches—including one mimosa branch, which was removed soon after this photo was taken. Photo credit: Claire Chamberlin.

“Actually, could you get the purple vine, too?” my mom called. “From under the coop.”

“What’s wrong with the purple vine?” How had we managed to almost poison the chickens twice in one day?

She shrugged. “Just in case. We think it’s coleus.” Although she’d found no articles explaining coleus’ effect on chickens, the list of symptoms it causes in dogs—ranging from bloody diarrhea to central nervous system dysfunction—was telling.

Retrieving poisonous plant #2 required me to navigate a veritable chicken jungle gym, squeezing between the chicken ramp and a small forest of tree stumps to reach under the coop. As I bent to reach into the pile of vines, a jutting twig blocked my progress: I couldn’t move my foot forward without snapping off part of the chickens’ playground. Half-crouched, leaning far enough forward that I could fit my head under the coop, I balanced on one foot while I pulled the other one free.

This process took long enough that Poppy, our White Cochin, showed up to investigate. Sisters, we appear to have caught a human. What do we do now? I petted her as she passed by.

Petting Chickens

My mother and I want our chickens to grow accustomed to human touch so we can more easily catch them if we need to bathe them, rescue them, or take them to the vet. I began by teaching them to eat out of my hand, laying a trail of sunflower seeds, Hansel and Gretel-style, that led closer to me until finally I rested the last sunflower seed on my fingertips. The first chicken who learned she could survive eating out of my hand was Marta, the Splash Andalusian, but Poppy picked up the habit from her pretty quickly.

Poppy is serious about food. She’ll bulldoze the others out of her way when she wants a snack, and during Japanese beetle season, she eats all the bugs my mom brings into the run while her friends are still hanging back murmuring how uncouth it was for their food to start flying away.

Poppy (White Cochin) on a Branch

Our White Cochin, Poppy, roosts in the shade under the coop, using one of the many sturdy branches with which we made our chicken playground. Photo credit: Wendy Chamberlin.

After I started hand-feeding the chickens, my mother started petting them, a plan of which they didn’t approve. Predictably, our Cochin and Orpington were the least high-strung; the Leghorns and Andalusians spent several weeks uttering shrill screams whenever a human reached out to touch them. They’ve grown more used to human touch over time, but all eight still sometimes shy away. I don’t feel comfortable pushing their boundaries, but I keep doing it because I’ll need them to know they can handle being touched if I need to pick any of them up someday to save their lives. Also, I’m still selfishly hoping that they’ll decide they like being petted, because I enjoy petting chickens. Like I said: Entertaining the chickens keeps their humans busy, too.

Claire E. is a college student interested in sustainable development, independent living, and the stories and music that connect us. Read all of Claire's MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.


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Getting Started With Milk Sheep, Part 3: Lambing, Milking Your Sheep, and Using Sheep Milk

Ewe and lamb milk sheep 

In my previous two posts, I covered preparing for your milk sheep, how to choose and buy milk sheep, and the basic care and breeding of them. After you have your milk sheep on your homestead and have bred them, you can get to the fun part, the purpose that you bought them for: milk!

Part 1: Housing and Supplies 

Part 2: Choosing and Caring for Sheep

Lambing

Lambing season is an exciting and fun time. Seeing new life come into the world is a miracle, no matter how many times you have seen it. But it can also be stressful if you have ewes that have complications. Be sure to prepare a lambing kit ahead of time with the supplies you need in case of complications. Ewes don’t take very long to give birth, so if you have a first-time mother that has been obviously working at it for more than two hours it is time to call the vet. And if it is an experienced mother, you should call after only one hour of obvious labor with no progress. Losing the baby, or the mother, or both because you waited too long to get help is a tragedy you don’t want to experience.

Once the lambs are born, give the mother space and chance to lick them off and bond with them. Keep an eye on the situation, but give them space. If the ewe or lambs are having issues, then you can intervene and help out. The most common problem is chilled lambs and you will need to help get the lamb(s) dry and warm. A chilled lamb will be weak and unable to nurse. The lamb should be up and nursing within 30 to 60 minutes of birth. It is good to check on the new lambs frequently to be sure they are eating often and strengthening.

During the first few days, the lambs will go through a cycle of eating, playing and bouncing around a bit, then napping. We like to leave our lambs in the jug (small lambing stall) with their mothers for at least three days. This gives us an opportunity to keep a close eye on them and catch any problems early. It also gives the ewe and lambs a chance to bond well before being introduced back into the flock.

Milking a Sheep

It is important to train your ewe to the stanchion well before she lambs. There are many ways to handle when to start milking after lambing, and you can either milk-share with the lamb, or remove the lamb(s) and milk twice-a-day. Some people don’t milk until after an early weaning, which they do at a month of age. Others remove the lambs and start right away. And there are all sorts of options in between.

At our farm, we milk-share with our lambs. We begin milking the ewe about 5 days after lambing (sooner if she only had a single lamb), while leaving the lambs with her 24 hours a day. We generally begin removing the lamb(s) from the mother for short periods over night at about a week of age. We milk once a day in the morning. We slowly increase the amount of time that they are apart and by about three weeks of age the lamb is away from the ewe for 12 hours over night, we milk in the morning, and then they are back together for 12 hours during the day.

The benefits of milk-sharing are that the sheep have a more natural experience, the lambs grow better, we only have to commit to once-a-day milking, and, if needed, the lamb can be left with the mother and the milking skipped. No matter what schedule you are on, it is important to milk within 30 minutes of the same time each day or you will have a drop in milk production.

Feed the ewes their grain while they are in the stanchion being milked. It doesn’t take long for them to get the routine down, and at our farm we are able to open the stall door and have them walk over and jump right onto the stanchion when it is milking time. First, you must get the udder and teats thoroughly clean and look for any signs of mastitis. The udder should not be hot, overly engorged, nor hard. You should also look for sores or wounds on the udder and teats.

Milk machine milking sheep

Some of our ewes are hand-milked and for some we use the Dansha Farms Brute milking machine. Each ewe is different and we do what works best for her anatomy as well as her temperament and preferences. The milking machine is cleaner and faster, but some ewes don’t do as well with it as with hand-milking. Plus, the experience of hand-milking can be a very satisfying one. If you hand-milk, it is often easiest to reach in from behind the leg, as opposed to from the side as one would do with a goat or cow.

Hand milking sheep

Milking takes approximately 10-20 minutes per ewe. Variations in the size of the teat orifice, as well as whether they are being hand-milked or machine-milked, can affect how long it takes. Also, ewes that are nervous in the stanchion or new to it can take a lot longer because they don’t let down well. It is important to be sure the ewe is getting completely empty when you milk or your milk production will drop. Milk-sharing with a lamb helps prevent this since the lamb will try to nurse as soon as you are finished milking and thus will empty her out. If you are new to milking, or your ewe is, I definitely suggest milk-sharing until you get the hang of it, so you don’t lose too much production to your inexperience.

Immediately After Milking

After milking, you need to get the milk strained and cooling as quickly as possible. We pour the milk through a strainer with a disposable filter into glass canning jars.

Sheep milk filtering into a jar

Then we put a lid on it, date the lid, and put it immediately into the refrigerator to cool. It is important to get it chilling as quickly as possible.

Using Sheep’s Milk

You will find that sheep’s milk is very creamy. It is more like half-and-half than whole milk from the store. We have used the whole sheep’s milk to replace cream in recipes with great success. Sheep’s milk is known for making amazing ice cream, just from the whole milk. We enjoy using the milk raw, but also find it great for making a multitude of dairy products. If you find that your milk has an off-flavor then you need to first be sure that you are checking the milk carefully through a strip cup for signs of mastitis. Secondly, assess the cleanliness of your milking procedure, as well as how quickly you are getting it strained and cooled. Also, flavor can vary based on what you are feeding, and it can also vary from ewe to ewe. We find that some of our ewe’s milk is sweeter than others.

The cream in the milk does not separate as easily as cow’s milk, however, we have found that if we let the milk sit for 48 hours, we are able to use a small ladle and skim off quite a bit of cream. This cream can be used to make butter, which turns out very white. Sheep’s milk is also great for making yogurt, sour cream, and kefir.

Because of the high butterfat content in sheep’s milk, it is excellent for making cheese and will yield more cheese per pound of milk than cow and goat’s milk do. We make ours into both soft and hard, aged cheeses. Some cheese making books give details about sheep’s milk and even some recommendations of how to handle it differently as you are making your dairy products. Our favorite cheese making book is Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll (available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store).

Keeping milk sheep on the homestead is a fun and rewarding endeavor. I have touched on the basics to help you get started, but of course there is so much more to it. Do your research, learn as you go, and have fun.

Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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My Pony-Powered Gardens Work!

Dolly and I working the field 

Who doesn’t love ponies? I get all teary-eyed when there’s a horse scene in movies, and horses have been a big part of my life since I was 9 and took my first bareback riding lessons on a 35-year-old palomino gelding. Thirty-plus years later, my love of horses has translated into using horsepower on my homestead. Duke and Dolly are retired Amish ponies who can plow, cultivate, pull a cart, and teach humans how to communicate clearly and kindly. Even though they are too old for the heavy-duty work they have done all their lives, they have no problem keeping our acre-plus of garden in good shape. They know the ropes, and I did not have to do a bunch of training to get them used to the equipment. It’s more like they are training ME to work well with the tools and horsepower.

Connect with Tradition with Draft Animals

Why use horses? Honestly, because they are fun and make me a better human leader.  I won’t deny that the actual tasks could sometimes be accomplished by a machine more swiftly or with less cash cost than using the horses. But that’s really because gasoline is so weirdly cheap at this point in history. The TRULY cheapest fuel source is the grass that grows on my very own pasture. My horses are solar-powered tractors. They are voice-activated, they can reproduce themselves, their exhaust is fertilizer, and they are fully compostable when their lifespan is up. I’d like to see an electric vehicle beat that.

Most of the world’s farmers use animal draft power, not tractors. So I’m in good company when I hitch Dolly to the cultivator and ask her to walk through my field of buckwheat to plow in the stems of this cover crop. She and Duke cultivated the field where corn stands 8 feet high now. Why is the corn so tall? Might have something to do with the composted horse manure we slathered on the field.

Duke and Dolly, at 51 inches tall, are a little big for my small fields. Nutmeg the miniature horse is gearing up to be a work horse, and donkeys make awesome draft animals. Let’s not forget the mules, those champions of sensible farm work in hot weather. There’s no need for a giant draft animal if you’re working a small amount of land — and it’s really best to get the size of animal you are willing to feed (and clean up after!).

Advice for Farming with Horses

The man I got my ponies from grew up driving enormous Percherons, then switched to Shetland ponies. “Just as much fun, and a lot less feed,” he said wisely. I wouldn’t keep a single horse, because they are so much happier in a group. Having at least two also gives me a backup if one horse is out of commission for any reason. Duke is old and steady, perfect for teaching a youngster or testing a new harness. Dolly is eager to do serious work, so she’s the one who does most of the heavy lifting. I can use both horses together for some tasks, but for the most part I drive them singly, which is safer and easier for a new driver like me.

Whatever your equine of choice (okay, I know oxen are great, too), working with draft animals presents safety challenges. When I started, I knew just enough to get myself in trouble, and it’s only the previous training of my team that saved me from mishap. I treasure working with a mentor like Doc Hammill, who can look at a video or pictures and give me advice based on decades of experience. With a flight animal tied to pieces of metal, it’s worth having some wisdom on board. Take things slowly, especially if you are working with an animal who’s not trained to hitch.

I can’t even scratch the surface of training animals, and recommend you look up an experienced trainer who isn’t boasting about how many wrecks they’ve survived. I’d rather hear about how many wrecks they’ve prevented. My goal is for the animals to be safe and happy while they work. I get a thrill from the sweet smell of moist soil under the teeth of the cultivator, the clink of the harness and the smooth response from a well-trained horse, but horse farming is not for die-hard adrenaline junkies. Peaceful hours of work at the walk make for relaxed horses and fit farmers!

I was thrilled to find two retired Amish ponies who knew the ropes literally and figuratively. They must have grown up all around farming equipment. Their bodies show signs of hard use — knots and white hairs left by scars — but they are easily able to cope with my farm’s light work. I have saved hundreds of hours by not having to train a young horse, so don’t overlook the oldsters. They deserve a good home where they can teach new people to farm safely.

Reaping the Benefits of Horse-Powered Gardening

What tipped me over the edge into investing in horse farming? Knowing that I would be able to introduce young people to the art. Horse farming is like a video game but real. You can actually eat the results of your labors after you have guided a pony between rows of corn or onions! Farming with horses gives me immense satisfaction and a real marketing edge when selling produce at our farm stand. Everyone wants to take a picture with the ponies. Folks who want a change from riding lessons can come help me harrow a field, which keeps the horses fit and pays for some of the hay bill.

The team on the big field

As Duke clip-clops down the road hitched to his red cart, or Dolly leans into her collar for another pass around the buckwheat patch, I know that horses bring joy and satisfaction to my life. I’m a better human by taking care of them. Horses are patient, open-minded teachers, and when I consider all that horses have done for humans throughout history, it’s only fair that I do my best by them. They will be hauling firewood and providing compost for years to come, and if the idea of horse power intrigues you, I encourage you to look into this ancient and timely way of accomplishing true teamwork.

Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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