Animal tractor

If you find
Inter-row weeds are hard to control
Animals offer benefits but can cause problems — such as in vegetable gardens
Orchard pests or ground covers get out of control
There is more work than you seem to have time for
Put your animals to work in an Animal tractor in a way that benefits you and the farm, keeps them under control and makes management easier and more predictable.

After all, why work if your animals can do it for you? This is an excellent way to use Animals as tools without making your life too complicated.

Livestock are marvelous at fertilizing, mowing, managing pasture composition, cleaning up crop trash, breaking soil crusts, improving soils through grazing shock, spreading seeds or confining weed seeds to a small area.

However, sometimes they get into areas and do things you don’t want them to. And they may have needs that add to your workload unless the needs can be provided for automatically.

So sometimes animals work best and are best protected when they are moved in cages that allow them and their manure access to the soil and that protect the animals from predation and weather extremes.

The most common form is a chicken tractor that allows birds to clean up crop residue, weeds and pests while fertilizing pasture, vegetable beds, orchards and vineyards.

Because they are confined, the animals are prevented from damaging the crops near where they are grazing.

Some vegetable/poultry enterprises have chicken tractors the same size as their vegetable beds or at least the same width. This allows the tractor to be lifted onto the bed or rolled into a position where it straddles the bed — depending on the setup. Then the birds have access to the bed without having access to crops growing nearby.

Pigs also work well in tractors — particularly in orchards where their high level of manuring contributes to soil fertility in a high-demand situation. Their rooting action turns over the sod and allows rain in and fresh growth and grazing shock to increase biological fertility.

Although not strictly an animal tractor, tethered animals can work well in the same way, provided the animal’s welfare is covered or taken are of. This involves protection from:

  • predation
  • tangling in their tethers. Traces can work better than central pivots, because traces can allow the animal free movement with little chance.
  • exposure to the elements beyond their reasonable capacity.
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Animals as tools

If you find
Your soil is capped or crusted
Livestock spread seeds
Pastures get rank and new growth is shaded out
There is more work than you seem to have time for
Give some of the farm jobs to livestock — use your Animals as tools.

Livestock are marvelous at fertilizing, mowing, managing pasture composition, cleaning up crop residues (trash), breaking soil crusts, improving soils through grazing shock, spreading seeds or confining weed seeds to a small area.

Get them working for you and you can focus on the jobs they don’t do well. Unfortunately you will still be left with filling in the tax forms and paying the bills.

Pastures and rangelands need animals to keep them in good shape, after all, they evolved together as a system. If the animals are domesticated, they need humans to manage them.

Animals are major contributors and yet there has been a growth in the number of farms that run no animals — cropping is continuous.

Yet in nature there are no areas where animals are unimportant in the system. Why?

Because animals provide manure to kick-start the system and keep it rolling, they keep vegetation in check, they cycle nutrients, they break up crusted soil surfaces, allow light in by thinning vegetation and periodically move the balance from one dominant species of plant to another.

But those are enough reasons for every farm to include some grazing animals. Failure to include livestock will almost certainly lead to an increase in costs or to a decline in productivity over the longer term.

Until you get the hang of it, an animal can be difficult to predict in terms of its results. But, any powerful tool takes a while to master.

As with any other tool, you need to use the right tool in the right way at the right time to get the result you want. Get one aspect of this out of whack with your aim and the existing conditions and you will get a different and maybe undesirable result.

Here are some ways you can use Animals as tools:

  • Herd effect can break the capping of soils and allow water to infiltrate and let germinating seeds break through the surface and get started rather than dying under a crust
  • Hard even grazing can bring on Grazing shock and that can help build soil and improve pasture quality
  • If there is a pasture variety in a particular area and you would like to spread it further, you can use your livestock. By timing your grazing and confining animals to that area when the seed is ripe then moving them to a different area where you want to establish the plants you can have them drop the seeds in their manure and hopefully establish the variety in the new spot.
  • You can also use animals to confine weed seeds them to a small area such as the stockyards. By timing the grazing and confining them to a small area where the weeds are seeding then moving the animals to the yards you can ideally have them drop the seeds where they will do least damage and are easily rogued out
  • Many mouths make light work: By grazing a pasture that is tall or old, you let the light in and let the plants grow. This brings on quality feed for later
  • have them provide manure to kick-start a new system and keep it rolling. This is common in a poultry-vegetable enterprise such as is run by many organic market gardeners and truck farmers. The hens are brought in to graze the remains of the last crop, turn the soil and deposit manure. Then the next crop is planted.
  • they keep vegetation in check,
  • they cycle nutrients,
  • They can be used carefully to assist you to move the balance from one pasture species to another. This requires careful timing to reduce the plant you want to lessen in the pasture and allow the one you want to improve. It is very effective when you get it right.

Using Animals as tools gives you a very versatile set of implements that can carry out multiple tasks while you do what you do best. And while they are doing it, they are generating more profit and keeping costs down.

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Minimal overgrazing

If you find
Overgrazing happens one plant at a time
Some animals return to regraze the same plant, almost the moment a new leaf appears ( such as a sheep, rabbit, horse or kangaroo)
Any ground that is not covered with living or dead plant material is ripe for erosion or weed invasion
The best chance you have to maintain pasture species composition is by minimizing the number of desired plants that die and encouraging desired plants to spread.

Preventing death of desirable plants means limiting overgrazing.

Overgrazing happens when a plant is grazed to the point where it will die or be seriously weakened. This can be brought on by one animal in a matter of one minute.

It happens one plant at a time. As a result, it is happening to this plant and that plant long before it is noticeable across a larger area. Continue reading

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Living haystack

If you find
Keeping animals alive on bought fodder means “buying the animal twice”
Fodder conservation takes time, effort and money
Fodder conservation contributes to soil acidity while robbing the soil of fertility
Input costs cut into profits before the crop is harvested
Hay deteriorates while in storage
Having a Living haystack that you can harvest for your animals or they can harvest for themselves can save a lot of time, effort and money.

More importantly, it can save animals in drought or can be a Hungry gap filler. The hungry gap is the time when there is insufficient grazing for your normal number of livestock because of seasonal weather patterns.

Some species of fodder trees and shrubs suitable for growing as a Living haystack are discussed briefly below to give some ideas.

Your aims, type of stock, farm setup, local climate, soils and other factors can have a large influence on which species and management approach works best for you.

Some fodder tree species possibly suitable for Living haystacks are: Continue reading

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Enterprise model

If you find
Starting from scratch with no blueprint to follow can be difficult or confusing
You want to bypass any avoidable mistakes and snags as you develop a new enterprise
The easiest and most effective way to do it is often to pick up an enterprise template or enterprise model from someone else and modify it to suit your circumstances.

This allows you to stand on the shoulders of giants, people who have succeeded at what you are about to attempt.

It saves you from having to re-invent the wheel or at least it saves you from having to re-invent the enterprise.

Some well known enterprise models include:

  • Joel Salatin and family’s mixed broadacre grazing of various livestock combined with value adding. A good starting point is his introductory book, You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Start & Succeed in a Farming Enterprise by Joel Salatin
  • the market garden run by Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane in a very cold part of Australia (yes it gets cold in parts of Down under) and in particular the CD-ROM Growing Annual Vegetables by Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane showing the tools and techniques they use every day. This is the garden Joyce started to feed the family. It still does and it feeds many other families and supplies some of the best restaurants in the nation’s capital, Canberra.
  • Eliot Coleman also farms in a very cold area and, like Joyce, most of his model can be applied in almost any climate. Eliot Coleman’s excellent resource: The New Organic Grower is a classic. It is a manual of tools and techniques for the home and market gardener and you can just copy so much of what he does and modify some of the rest.
  • There are plenty of rotations that you can follow in broadacre cropping. they are specific for each cropping system and location, so talk to your local advisor or find a farmer who is succeeding with one.
  • And there is Joel Salatin’s classic that was a major force in reviving the chicken tractor for broadacre farming, Pastured Poultry Profits. I spotted this book after I started my poultry farming — I started organic chickens on broadacre in 1992. Some friends of mine built a very successful business on it. Truly inspirational.
  • and in ricegrowing Tom Randall and his son Peter Randall. I will put up a page on that soon.

So, if you are trying something new, check to see whether there is an existing enterprise model or enterprise template that you can modify to suit your circumstances.

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Strip grazing

If you find
Livestock are selective and will graze what they want and leave what they don’t want
Weeds build up in pastures
It is important to keep livestock nutrition high, such as in dairying
It is important to know that livestock are getting a particular level of nutrition
Strip grazing is a good way to get a patch of ground grazed flat or near to it so weeds are turned into milk, meat or wool at the same time as the livestock eat the desirable pasture plants.

It also means the animals graze the pasture or range to a more even level.

It allows good control of animal intake as well as effective Feed budgeting so that there is plenty of time to make up for any feed shortfalls.

This is the Short hard graze part of a Short on, long off rotation that can allow the benefit to be gained quickly in a grazing rotation and leave enough time for recovery in the long Rest phase.

The long rest can allow the pasture to bounce back strongly enough to beat more weeds before the cycle begins again with a fresh supply of good nutrition for the animals.

The long rest will allow full recovery and if timed appropriately may force weeds into a less competitive position at the same time as it gives the advantage to the desirable species.

This will allow a Competitive crop in the form of a pasture to keep weeds down.

Strip grazing is common in dairying and other Rotational grazing systems.

Because of the long rest, pasture can grow tall and this competition will beat some weeds. Other weeds may survive and switch to a more upright growth and this usually means fewer prickles plus the weed will be softer and more palatable. And then they are ready to be taken out in the Short hard graze when it comes around.

By having the right number of paddocks to divide the grazing into, the livestock can be brought into each at a suitable stage. If there is insufficient stock to provide the High stock density, some areas can be cut for hay or silage or can be left standing or slashed for Plowback to improve your soil’s Biological fertility.

Each Short hard graze will bring on Grazing shock and that will boost Soil organic matter and particularly soil Biological activity.

Strip grazing needs:

  • small enough areas being grazed at any one time to ensure a Short hard graze
  • enough stock to ensure that all plants are grazed and Selective grazing is minimized so that the control is in the hands of the manager instead of letting the grazing animals decide what they eat and don’t.
  • a long Rest that gives enough time for the pasture to get the benefit and recover fully
  • Soil with adequate nutrition to allow high levels of growth and biological activity to support the new growth
  • Natural indicators to ensure that grazing pressure is matched to pasture availability. Even a very simple feed budget makes this a lot easier.
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If you find
Your soil is becoming harder
Yields decline
Seedling establishment rates have dropped
Reed-like weeds grow in areas that are not waterlogged
Plowback can really improve your soil’s Biological fertility.

It does this by boosting Soil organic matter and this usually leads to an increase in Biological activity that then leads to a higher level of stored Complexed nutrients, better soil structure and greater pore spaces to allow more infiltration and soil gas exchange that leads on to a far healthier soil with fewer weeds.

It is also called ploughback — the spelling usually depends on where you live.

Plowback used to be a key part of farming, but today you are more likely to hear plowback used by the people in the stockmarket and the investment industry. There it refers to putting profits back into the business to build it for the future.

And that is what it still means in farming.

It is a key factor in developing Living soil which is the basis of agriculture — green growth comes from increased Biological activity and the resulting Biological fertility. Anything less is dead soil. Plants make soil come alive.

Basically Plowback involves returning organic matter to the soil in various ways such as through:

  • Green manures
  • Slashed surplus pasture becoming a Return to soil
  • Animal manure return
  • Leaving Litter on the soil surface to protect the soil and provide nutrients to the soil organisms in the upper areas of the soil. This could be litter from dying leaves and other plant parts that have grown there or it could be litter you have added, such as shredded waste hay that is no longer fit for feeding to livestock.
  • any other Nutrient cycling processes

And rather than just feeding the plants with available fertilizer, Plowback is a key part of Fed soil where it fulfills the old saying, Feed the soil, not the plant.

In the good old days the Organic matter was literally plowed back into the soil. Today it is more likely to be left on the surface.

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Fodder shed

If you find
There are times when green feed is short
A shortfall in green feed at times limits production or profitability
Seasonal weather and growth patterns leave hungry gaps in the feed year
You might be tempted to try out a fodder shed which is a fodder production system contained in a building. It usually uses a nutrient solution made up of artificial fertilizer dissolved in the irrigation water to feed and water the plants.

A fodder shed can produce green feed hydroponically in the form of young grass from sprouted cereal grain — using little water and almost no land.

Shed production of fodder is claimed to help to overcome seasonal production dips, weather limitations and land area restrictions that lead to feed shortages.

In theory it is a simple way to provide fodder year-round or as needed to fill hungry gaps.

It can also be used to improve productivity, particularly where feed quality is too low for optimal weight gains or production.

Fodder from a shed has been found by many farmers and some researchers to boost daily weight gains in meat animals and to boost milk quality and daily production in dairy animals. It can also boost fertility and lead to more lambs etc because a better fed animal will often produce multiple births rather than single births.

Some of these sheds can run largely on solar power and can use organically-acceptable nutrient inputs. Even so, it may not suit organic farmers unless they can source at an economical price liquid waste such as from aquaculture ponds, manure from piggeries or dairies or worm juice from a large-scale worm farm. Continue reading

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If you find
It is time for a rethink and a bit of space
Taking any sort of break or rest seems impossible
It’s hard to farm when you have flogged your soil or yourself near to death
Adequate rest is the break that allows recovery.

Although this pattern was originally about pastures and soil, it applies to farmers as well.

A farm is an organism and any organism that gets inadequate rest becomes more prone to stress, exhaustion and sometimes to failure.

If this sounds like you or your farming system, then Rest is almost certainly part of the cure. One reason why Animals on the move is a key part of rangeland and pasture management is that it provides rest.

If a lack of rest is what is happening to you, it is probably time for a rethink and a break, even though that may seem impossible at the moment.

Remember, it’s hard to farm when you have flogged your soil or yourself near to death.

Taking time out allows a fresh perspective and lets you come back to work refreshed and revitalized.

For the humans, sometimes all it takes is Activities off the farm because a change really is as good as a holiday.

At other times you may need to have a real holiday — whatever that means to you and your family.

A friend of mine has a cartoon on her refrigerator door that shows a farming couple returning home in the car. She says something like: “Thank you for the vacation, I enjoyed the whole day.”

If that rings a bell, it sounds like it is time for some time out.

And the health of the farm family is often tied up with the quality of the holidays they have. If your response to that statement is “What’s a holiday?” or “Why bother with holidays?” you may need to listen to the rest of the farm family on the subject.

A Short on, long off rotation can allow enough time for recovery from grazing or cropping and the shorter “on” time can still allow the benefit to be gained quickly in a grazing rotation or a cropping situation.

Similarly, in a cropping rotation, a Short on, long off rotation can allow enough time between crops that exhaust the soil so the soil can recover some biological fertility for the next crop.

Ways to achieve this include:

  • Fallow or non-harvest crops
  • Introducing a pasture phase into the rotation
  • Green manures and other regenerative measures.
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Short hard graze

If you find
Livestock are selective and will graze what they want and leave what they don’t want
Weeds build up in pastures
A Short hard graze with High stock density allows a paddock to be grazed flat or near to flat so weeds are taken out along with the desirable pasture or rangeland plants.

This basically eliminates any Selective grazing and puts the control back in the hands of the manager instead of leaving it in the tastebuds of the grazing animals.

This is one part of a Short on, long off rotation. The long Rest can allow enough time for recovery from the grazing and particularly can allow the pasture to bounce back strongly as a weed beater.

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