Back before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren't monocroppers. They ran a closed system, and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm, animals and crop diversity fell out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.
Before we had animals in the garden, we couldn't produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small, it was nearly impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead, we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately, with commercial compost, you don't know what's in it. Studies report that persistent herbicides are showing up in "organic" compost. On top of that, there's no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard-waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I wasn't entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.
To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost, we had to bring in at least five full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time, and money. It wasn't cost effective for us and it simply wasn't sustainable.
When we got chickens, I wasn't prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot, it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy, we found we weren't able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and nontoxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats, they joined in the fun.
This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure, we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread, taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance, as we have all that we need and don't have any extra. And we feed our animals organic feed, so we know what goes in and out of them.
After our final harvest each season, we spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits, they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot, it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We don't use it on root vegetables, of course, unless we amend very early, allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops, such as melons, squash, and corn, this homegrown compost was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.
But it's not just fertilizer that the animals provide. The chickens and turkeys, in particular, help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant, the birds get to go out and dig around, eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting, we fence the birds off from the beds, but they still have access to the area on the north side, where our orchard is. We allow the weeds to grow there as a trap crop for insects, which the birds eat while they also keep the weeds from getting out of hand.
The animals around here definitely earn their keep and provide us with food, directly and indirectly. I can't imagine doing it without them now.
Photo by Rachel
Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!