For an important part winter was going to be about planning the coming season; our first as real farmers. An awful lot of thought and studying theory and talking with people has gone into it, and so far it has resulted in many ideas, insights, excitement, and… one ugly image.
The image is the first extremely rough map showing where what part of our plans may take part when the snow melts (about a foot now, with more expected before winter is over). Following it will be an explanation of the parts and how they could work together.
In very large lines, the whole property is 6.4 hectares, with a gentle slope roughly down from west to east. The slope becomes steeper in the woodland, all the way down to the lake.
Nothing in this is really decided and agreed on yet, but I see it as a starting point for discussion between ourselves and, hopefully, with some others who know what they’re talking about. Especially the holistic grazing side of things is still quite new to us.
Let’s have the image then:
The design points for now are:
- A hügelbed pick-your-own area in the northwestern corner, on the highest of three fairly level “shelves” in the landscape. The image is from a Sepp Holzer book, and only gives an example of what it could look like. I do like the ponds in the image, but small test digs have not shown any ground water coming up. Getting water into this area and keeping it there may be somewhat tricky, but the next design point could help:
- A pond between the hügelbed area and the guest house, which is on the second of the three shelves. This area seems to be the only one on the property, apart from the lake to the east of our woodland, where water will come to the surface naturally, even when it’s dry for weeks. A hole dug here will likely need no other work done to it to turn into a pond. Should it prove impossible, temporarily or longer-term, to get water in ponds in the hügelbed area, it could be pumped from this pond up to the hügelbed area using a solar pump, which would help with the water retention improvement uphill. The water from the pond on the second shelf could also provide water to the guest house without requiring a pump, since the guest house is a level lower again. And… this pond could be the start of the water management plan for the whole land on and below that same level if swales and further ponds are dug strategically over time. For now it seems as if swales may be left for 2017, unless we find more time ànd money ànd working hands than we think we might.
- And then there’s the big one: the holistic grazing management area. We’re still very new to this concept. Personally I’ve been dreaming about having dairy cows (despite many years of trying I still haven’t been able to source raw milk EVER) for years, and then a few years ago I learned that cattle can be used in permaculture-like settings without doing damage, but doing good. This has remained a fairly elusive bit of theory for me until I started studying it more and more since this winter. That search led me to the term ‘holistic grazing’ and a few similar ones. It’s a vegan’s nightmare, because one of the big arguments against eating meat is that it causes climate change, destroys land (desertification is a big word), and that it requires food which could feed people. But studying holisitic grazing leads to the understanding that although this is true for the very worst industrial feedlots, it doesn’t hold quite so well for ranching (though that can have many bad sides), and actually the opposite is true for holistic grazing. I’d say that the main goal of holistic grazing is not producing milk and/or beef, but producing soil.By mimicking natural populations of large grazers, which are forced along by shitting and pissing on their own food as well as by pressure from predators, you have the cattle (or other grazers) intensively graze one area for a day or two. Very very simply put, this to the point that roughly 1/3 of the forage is eaten, 1/3 is trampled into the ground, and 1/3 is left alive. The first third will be converted into manure and milk/meat, the second into mulch, and the last third can grow on, making deeper roots which aids compaction and water retention abilities of the soil. After the grazing period, the cows are moved off that bit of ground and onto the next bit with fresh healthy plants waiting for them. While it gets the same treatment, the previous patch can rest and heal. And it will heal very quickly as the grazing and manuring stimulates growth and diversity and water rentention and many other good things. For a more in depth explanation of this, please see this very clear and informative video:
Back to our own little map.
The white line is the permanent fence (as long as this setup will function, anyway) around the whole grazing area. Like all other fences in this setup, it will be electric.
The brown circular line is a path connecting all the paddocks, fenced off on both sides. From whichever paddock the animals are grazing, they can always reach that path and walk there to stretch their legs, and to get to the water source that we’ll put somewhere along the path, hopefully fed by that one pond. Also, we may build a shelter for them somewhere along the path.
The yellow lines are also permanent fences separating the paddocks. These paddocks will be subdivided with temporary electric fences into patches large enough for the cows to graze down sufficiently within one, two or maybe three days (see video above for how that works). How large these patches will be will depend on the quality and quantity of the grass, and on how many cows we’ll have. These things we’ll still have to work out. That said, we’re currently considering starting with just three cows, simply to get used to them, how they work, how they behave, what they need, and so on. None of us has real experience with these beauties.
The next step is starting the calculation of how much forage an area this size with this setup could provide. I’ll be talking soon with the farmer who mowed our meadow last year, because he will have a fairly good idea about that. He also keeps cattle, although I’m pretty sure he does it on a low-intensity long-term scheme. Still his insights will be very valuable during our very steep learning curve.
Although I’m talking about cows all the time now, we will add more kinds of animals over time. Already we have a few ducks on the farm, and chickens will be added as soon as the snow is gone (rotating the chickens over the grazing area with or after the cows can be a very good thing, because they will spread the manure even more through their scratching, and the manure will draw in more food for the chickens in the shape of worms and insects). Then the cows will follow as soon as we feel we’re ready for them, and they will be followed, when the time is right, by sheep, pigs, goats, and whoever knows what/who else.
It’s been interesting trying to put this in written words for the first time. It pushes home how new this all is, and how much there is to think about.
I hasten to add, actually, that if we will start working this way, this is not likely to make us into big dairy/beef farmers. The cows and other animals (including us humans) on the farm will have one primary function, and that is to help improve the soil and the functional diversity on the land. To further that goal, the meadow will not remain only grass and herbaceous plants, but we’ll be planting bushes and trees there, as well. More ponds and swales are also going to find a place on the land. Somehow it must be possible to combine something approaching a food forest with large grazers, and healthy water management. Cows, as well as most other farm animals we tend to know only as living on open land (if not in huge buildings) originated in forests or open woodland.
Once the soil and the diversity have improved, we may decide to reduce the grazing pressure considerably, moving forward into the next successions stage, as it were. That requires much further thinking as well, but we’ve got a few years for that, I think.
If anyone has any valuable insights, critiques, suggestions, connections, etc., we’d be most grateful if you would share them.
Please keep an eye on this site if you’re interested in how this project is going to develop.