Posts Tagged ‘Clydesdale’

A Most Elegant System

Image “All flesh is grass,” says the Book of Isaiah, and so on our farm, that’s where it begins – with the grass.  The production of our free-range eggs and meat chickens is a good example of the genesis of this adage.

To produce the best chicken and eggs possible, we must raise the birds on pasture, and so rather than focusing primarily on the chickens, we must practice farm management principles that are best for the health of this pasture first.

Grass is designed with grazers in mind.  Grazers in nature run in tight herds and move around a lot.  The stay tight as defense against predators, and they move around so that the grass beneath their feet is always fresh.  Any given blade of grass is nipped off once and left alone as the grazer moves on.  The root of the grass dies back according to the amount grazed off above the surface, and the dead root elements decompose into topsoil.  The blade of the grass then has a growth surge in response to being nipped, and the roots do too.  Nip it more than once in too short a span of time, however, and you stunt the blade and the root, both.  Hence the old adage, “Keep down the shoot, kill the root.”

The first step then in raising the best chicken and eggs, is to have a herd of large grazers to keep the pasture healthy and prepare it for the chickens.  On our farm, this herd is composed of draft horses, yaks and dairy cows.  In order to mimic the patterns of natural grazing just described, we move them daily to fresh pasture, enclosed tightly in a temporary paddock delineated by solar-powered electric wire and just large enough to completely graze in one day, no larger.  They’re on there, they hit it hard, and they’re gone, leaving the grass alone to respond naturally.  They aren’t brought back to the same spot until the grass is ready.  Your grass tells you when and where to graze the animals, in other words.  This system is called “mob grazing.”  It is not only a key to healthy pasture, it is a potent tool in combating climate-change, for while over-grazed pastures which are the norm today lead to desertification and absorb little carbon-dioxide, and ungrazed pastures emit carbon dioxide from their thick decomposing thatch of dead, unused grass, mob-grazed pastures maintain optimum growth and absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide.

This method on its own, done correctly and with attention to detail, would result in very good pasture at about four times the volume a conventionally grazed pasture provides, but now we incorporate the chickens to add diversity to the system, for resilience is contingent on diversity.  Our meat and egg birds are rotated onto the paddocks the big grazers have prepared as the grass is coming back, for the chickens don’t like the grass too long.  The meat birds are kept in large, movable pens to protect them from predators and the elements, and the more agile egg birds range out from fixed-coops and a mobile “eggmobile,” protected by big, shaggy dogs whose working lineages are lost in antiquity.  They nibble the grass without having the impact of the herd animals, and they eat the insects and take in all the nutritional elements of a healthy sward.  They add their droppings to the grounds, an incredible injection of soil health-inducing nitrogen that the grass would not be able to incorporate were it not for the fact that it were being mob-grazed and kept in a hyper-productive state.  The chickens in turn take in many healthy antibodies and of course receive plenty of ultra-violet from the sun.  This way, we circumvent the need in today’s large and vulnerable meat birds for the constant infusions of antibiotics required to keep them alive in the crowded, stressed battery barns they were genetically designed for, and where the chicken you’re used to eating comes from.  And the eggs you get our way have been shown to be six times more nutritious than conventionally raised.  And so as a by-product of keeping our pasture in the best shape it can possibly be in, we get the finest chicken and eggs possible.  We also build topsoil, maintain healthy herds, feed draft-animals that provide us with the sustainable power that machines cannot, at the same time as combating climate change.

It’s a most elegant system.  Enjoy your chicken!
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The Hungry Gap is Over

In traditional farming, there comes a time of year in the early spring when one must lock their animals away in a paddock.  This happens when the grass begins to green-up, and the purpose in doing this is to let the pasture get a good start before beginning the season’s rotation of the grazers.  The paddock they are kept in for this period, usually lasting a month and a half or two, is called a “sacrifice area,” as it is sorely used by the animals and nothing much remains but dirt.  But it is worth this sacrifice for what it does for the rest of your farm.  The period the animals are kept off the fields is traditionally called, “The Hungry Gap,” for the animals are hungry for grass during this gap in their freedom, and like their wild counterparts, in their lowest condition of the year.  In addition, the horses have already been working the ground, and the mares may have been carrying babies to near-full term.  Gwyneth worked right up to the day before giving birth this time around.  This is something working horses have long been doing, and it is actually good for producing uncomplicated births to work the mothers close to the day of arrival.

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture

Gwyneth and new filly enjoy their first day together on pasture, ending the Hungry Gap for 2013.

This year, the hungry gap ended for us on May 21st.  (A couple of days before this was when Gwyneth gave birth.  Our first baby Clydesdale of the season, a lovely young filly.)  The animals, some thin and even a bit bony from a too-long, if fairly flaccid winter, were eager as always to get out on the grass.

Every day or at most two, our herd is moved from one small pasture to the next, given only enough area to graze off completely in that brief period. The patch is not then grazed again until the grass has come back fully. This is called “Mob Grazing,” and is the most efficient way to maximize the health of your pasture and the volume of grass, especially when it is a mixed herd doing the grazing, as different grazers eat the grass in a different fashion. Horses crop it down close and prefer shorter grass, for instance, while yaks and cows use their big tongue to encircle a swath of the tall stuff and pull it into their mouth.

Our first paddock, the one we traditionally break the gap with, is a mixed aspen-balsam-spruce savannah, a small patch of considerably less than an acre. The animals love it in there, it is cool and lush, and they sure are a pleasure to behold in this setting. Soon their condition will be noticeably improved, and in no time they will be back in prime shape.

Mixed herd.

Mixed herd.