Homestead Helpers: Sheep, Cattle, Pigs and Poultry

Livestock aren’t just useful for meat and eggs. They can mow lawns, work garden soil, dig stumps and more!

| April/May 2011

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?

Multipurpose Livestock

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.

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