Pasture Management with Small Ruminants

Sheep can mow your lawn, and goats will gladly rid your pastures and fence lines of poison ivy and woody brush.

  • These animals provide not only rich, organic fertilizers to help build soil, they can also provide endless hours of entertainment.
    Photo by Karen K. Will
  • All it takes to winter over ungulates is plenty of fuel in the form of hay and shelter from the wind. Contrary to popular belief, a barn is not often required.
    Photo by Karen K. Will
  • Even dairy goats can work wonders for opening up woodland understory and keeping woody species in check. Note the guard dog — a member of the herd whose job is to protect it from predators.
    Photo by Karen K. Will
  • Standard sized donkeys with a family history of disliking canines make excellent guard animals for your sheep and goats. And their thrifty use of most forages means that you won’t need to invest in special feed for them as you do with dogs.
    Photo by Karen K. Will
  • “Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions,” by Oscar and Karen Will brings together answers to common problems faced by homesteaders young and old, urban, suburban, and rural.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

Fueled by a failing economy and a passionate desire for a return to simpler times, a new wave of homesteaders is seeking the good life, and with it the kind of true satisfaction that is built, not bought. Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society Publishers, 2013) by Oscar H. Will and Karen K. Will offers these modern pioneers a fresh set of ideas for achieving independence through sweat equity and the use of unconventional resources. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Collecting Solar Energy with Ruminants.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS STORE: Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions.

Once part of most diversified and subsistence farms, four-stomached ungulates such as cattle, sheep, and goats are designed to harvest the solar energy that’s already been captured by plants. It is because they eat that converted solar energy to use as fuel for themselves that they can provide us with such a plethora of products and services. Farmers and homesteaders of old knew that the road to real wealth was paved with photons, neatly converted to food, fiber, fertilizer and mechanical work, and heat (at one time, many northern farmhouses were attached to the barn so the animals’ body heat could heat the house). So important was the harvesting of light energy through animals that no farm could be without them.

As modern agriculture became industrialized, it also became less diversified. Farmers started specializing in just a few crops or one kind of animal. And the ecological balance on the farm has been way out of whack ever since. When animals are moved off the land and into the prison-like torture chambers we currently call feeding operations, the animal benefit to the land, the farmer’s mental health and wellbeing, and the environment are lost. Perhaps most unfortunately, any semblance of self-sustainability was lost the moment agriculturists were brainwashed into adopting these methods. One of the principal flaws with current industrialized agricultural models is that it requires vast quantities of a finite energy source (petroleum) — ironically captured from the sun — through the very photosynthesis process that only partially fuels industrial ag — and stored in rich and highly concentrated deposits millions or more years ago.

Manage for the Ecosystem You Want

We’ve discussed the incredible power of hogs for tilling the ground and removing stumps and the like. But what do you do if you want to convert or restore an overgrown scrubland into productive grassland? You could opt for some quality time in the seat of a large diesel-fuel-guzzling machine and doze, shred, or otherwise destroy that unwanted vegetation. But, though operating heavy equipment can be fun, it is hard on a body and hard on the land, and it’s noisy, smelly, and pretty expensive. It’s also quick. But the 21st century homesteader has nothing, if not time. Your place won’t be built in a day, so take it one day at a time and marvel at your progress — employing a progression of animals to restore (and later maintain) a grassland can be soothing rather than jarring, and you’ll end up with something useful even as your land is being restored.

Likewise, if you wish to open up the understory in a woodlot, or clear heavy growth between rows of fruit trees or cultivated vines, well-managed groups of animals can help you make it all happen, and you won’t need to spend a dime on feed or fuel. In fact, you may well add value through increased animal numbers and/or through the products they offer while making a living from the growth you’re trying to get rid of.

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In this excerpt from Chapter Three, the authors of this book fall victim to and perpetuate a myth. Much like the “ecological Indian,” the “ecological farmer” of the past, is a modern construction. There is little evidence to suggest that he existed in truth, any more than there is of industrialization as the serpent in a past arcadia. That which we so dislike about “modern” agriculture is not a product of industrialization, as the authors suggest, but the natural extension of a very old, resource exploitive model. To be sure, industrialization facilitated the expansion and survival of this model, but it did not create it. Their own laudable goals and philosophy of farming owe very little to the past, and much to a modern insights into health and ecology. They need not dredge up myths from an imagined past to support their enlightened approach.



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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