It’s been months in the offing, but here at the Lee family farm we finally have some farm animals! On Monday we got seven ducks (mix of Khaki Campbell and Magpie breeds) and eight chickens (a cool heritage breed that lays dark brown eggs). Tuesday afternoon the sheep arrived, along with a Sicilian donkey we’ve named Hamish (hay-mish). Tomorrow I’ll be getting three Nubian goats to round out the menagerie.
The sheep are of a breed called Painted Desert, which is actually a mix of five other breeds. These fine ladies came from Ed Smith, who has been breeding up a nice flock and agreed to let me buy six ewes and two ewe lambs from him. Painted Desert sheep are hair sheep, meaning that they don’t require shearing because they shed their winter wool (you can see the remnants of it on the backs of some of them in the picture). These sheep are primarily raised for meat.
Here are most of my chickens (they’re hard to get into a shot together). These were generously given to me as a housewarming gift by Micah and Julie Janzow (of Janzow Farms) from an April hatching. They are of a heritage breed that is known for laying chocolate brown eggs. I have a little while yet before they actually start laying, which is a good thing because I need to build some nest boxes and a roost!
The ducks are another exciting addition to the farm ecosystem out here. These are mixed breed ducks, composed of a cross of Khaki Campbell and Magpie breeds. They’re still quite skittish in their new surroundings, and have yet to get farther from each other than you see in the picture. I’m hoping to get some good egg layers out of this little flock, because duck eggs are a very special treat that’s hard to get without raising your own.
Finally, we have Hamish the donkey. I deliberated for a while about whether I should get a donkey, and finally decided that it would be a good idea. Since making that decision, I’ve thought of a dozen things that he’ll be useful for around the farm, and I’m very excited to have him here. Hamish is a Sicilian donkey, which means his maximum size is comparable to the size of a pony. He has a very sweet disposition (though he’s still pretty wary of me and his new home). I’m looking forward to training him to pull a small cart and give the kids rides around the farm.
His primary role at the farm is defender of the sheep. There are three common choices for livestock guardian animals — dogs, llamas, and donkeys. Dogs require special food that has to be kept out of the reach of the sheep, and unless you get a proven guardian there is a fair amount of luck involved in getting a good one. Llamas guard primarily by intimidation. They will directly face and approach an outsider, which is typically sufficient to scare off most predators. However, if the predator is not intimidated away, the llama has little else it can do to defend itself and the flock. Donkeys have a powerful bite, strong neck, and sharp hooves. From what I read, they are the most consistently effective livestock guardians, and they have the added benefit of being trainable to do other farm work such as pulling carts and providing transportation. The final point in the case for donkeys is the fact that they eat the same food that the sheep eat, which simplifies their management significantly. The information I read about guardian donkeys recommended getting a normal sized one, but I’m hoping that Hamish will be able to fend off any stray dogs or coyotes that come prowling despite his small stature. If not, I’ll probably just add another donkey to the mix.
How do all these animals fit into my Permaculture design?
My farm is about 80% pasture currently, and my target is about 60%. These animals and their progeny will be responsible for maintaining the health of that pasture and the tree and bush crops that I am adding to it. The ways in which they do this are numerous, but I’ll touch on a few of the most important:
Yes, grazing. Many people don’t realize that prairie plants co-evolved with grazing animals so that their health and survival depend on the interactions with those animals. When an animal bites a prairie plant, several things happen. First, some of the biomass of the plant is removed. When the leaves of the plant are bitten off, the plant must use some of its stored energy (stored in roots) to regrow so that it can harvest adequate sunlight to support reproduction. When the energy in the roots is used up, the tips of the roots die back, contributing organic matter to the soil and simultaneously aerating it and improving its ability to absorb and retain water. A properly managed grazing regimen takes advantage of this process to maximize the “pulsing” of the roots and improve the soil rapidly in the process. By allowing the plants to grow until the point just before flowering and reproduction before being regrazed, you can ensure that the animals and soil reap the maximum benefit from the process.
Trampling is also an important interaction between prairie plants and grazing animals. Many plants in the native grasslands grow tall, rigid material that remains standing long after it has died. With a healthy interaction with grazing animals, this dead material is trampled down and smashed into the ground where it serves as both mulch and compost. This process helps the soil retain water and also provides organic matter. If the dead matter is not trampled, however, it remains standing year after year and accumulates over time, eventually blocking light to the base of the plant where the growth happens. This “self shading” can actually kill many plants, and leads to reduced diversity of pasture biomass and increased brittleness in the affected environment.
This is the most obvious and well-known process by which animals contribute to pasture vitality. In processing through the ruminant digestive system, materials in the plant matter that would normally not be readily accessible to plants are converted to a form that can be rapidly assimilated by the soil food web and put to use by the plants. You can almost think of the animals as walking composters, except that they produce an even more potent product. By grazing the animals on open pasture and controlling the amount of time they spend in each paddock, you ensure that the amount of manure and its distribution are such 0 that the manure can be completely absorbed by the soil (preventing runoff and the resultant problems in river and ocean ecosystems).
While the grazing animals are certainly critical to the health of the pasture and soil, the ducks and chickens also have an important role to play. These birds are extremely effective pest devourers. Without them, ticks, flies, and other pests can reach epidemic proportions quickly because of the richness of the environment. The chickens and ducks eat these insects, often in the larval stage, and turn them into useful products like meat, eggs, and manure. In addition, chickens are famous for scratching the surface of the soil. Scratching helps seeds from surrounding plants achieve better soil contact and improves germination, thereby enriching the pasture further.
The last large factor in my particular case is the ability of happy animals to bring relaxation and happiness to otherwise stressful life. There is just something that is deeply satisfying about watching the mob of animals go about their business, fulfilling all of the above roles and an unimaginable number of others that we don’t have a clue about. A sheep chewing its cud with eyes half closed, laying in the grass in the sun, is the picture of contentment. It’s easy to get lost in all of the function stacking and technical parts of permaculture and end up neglecting the aesthetics. The animals play an important role in helping to keep our eyes on the goal: a better life for all involved.