A Cow, Some Chickens and a Bag of Seed
by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
The waking dream of my single digit years was of a doe-eyed Guernsey cow chewing her cud at a rail fence near the barn while, across the lane – inside a poultry-netting fence – a mixed flock of hens pecked at grains as a mottled white- gold- red and black rooster stood tall at guard. In a wheelbarrow between cow and chickens was a bag of grain – or was it seed? The dream had muted sounds and sharp competing manure odors. I loved that dream, still do. It always brought me comfort as it offered to me the simple, infinitely useful push as question… ‘okay, what are you going to do next?’
How we know anything when so young? Remembered watching my father, sixty years ago, morning after morning always in a hurry to go to his construction-site work, standing and pouring his hot first-coffee from one cup to another – both saucered – to cool. Even pouring into wide saucer and blowing across the surface then pouring back in the cup to drink. Kid that I was, I marveled at that, wondering how it worked – the transference of temperatures – the simple but no less miraculous physical reality of the cold surface warming as it cooled. The impatience. The artistry of solution. The implied understanding of the universe. The relations of it all.
And now more than half a century later, working to write some thoughts on interrelationships in farming: I wonder how the absence or presence of things alters (positive and/or negative) in myriad ways. And if transference has any part in the equation?
For the purposes of this essay, when we use the term diversified farming we are speaking of mixed crop and livestock operations where various animal species are raised in concert with crops. Examples might include a small dairy setup with poultry and swine coupled with grain and forage plantings and an orchard. Or a farm where legume seed is raised as but one crop along with bees, sheep and beef cattle. Or market gardens coupled with orchards, cane fruit, commercial duck and geese operations plus the rearing and training of cattle for oxen. Or a classic mixture of small dairy, sheep, hogs, poultry, work horses, grains, hay, silage and pasture. The list goes on and on…
And with each and every one of the possible combinations come magical entanglements of work and reward, fertility and discard. It can be, should be, a mirror of biological life – a mess of magnificence. Another way to think of it is as health, vigor and fertility akin to the ripe logic of a naturally random forest floor. Yes, with this approach to farming we make decisions and put our hands to some small manipulations but the very breadth of mixed crop and livestock systems often quickly leave us behind and spread out to do their own work of symbiotic osmosis and complementary relations.
There is naturally occurring phosphorus in the soil which is in a form (rock phosphate) and/or at a depth to be of little or no value to root systems. When we grow legumes the roots penetrate down deep and invite hesitating or locked phosphorus to join the soil’s party. If by accident, or choice, we cut or harvest the legume at that point when the root system has reached it’s absolute peak mass, down in the soil that nitrogen-rich tangle begins to decay creating a soil environment of complex actions and energies, acids bubbling together changing the very structure of the dirt and tweaking the molecular structure of minerals in some important cases catalyzing them to forms more readily available to whatever plant system is to follow. Next season or year that second crop is, with a healthier structural makeup and phosphorus riding shotgun, harvested and fed to pigs, chickens and cattle which will enjoy better health. Ah, but for this example we look to the manure those animals generate and see resultant biological elements in heightened form and makeup. That manure, applied to those same fields, gingers that soil to give it reserve against drought, compaction, and even to enhance feed values. That same ground, entering into rotation, works a back and forth magic with yet more improvements in soil health, crop vitality and ultimate feed quality. At this stage the soil is in full whoopee.
None of this is possible when a single crop is grown on the same piece of land with no livestock impact. Following the monocultural track ends every time in sterility of the soil.
Learned yesterday that electronic connectedness (the pervasive urgent plugged-in nonsense represented aptly these days by so called smart phones) is robbing folks of quiet non-engaged time (what some might think of as boredom) and that those stretches of near thoughtlessness give us necessary respite for the deep reflective subconscious where we may discover or rediscover vitality and new thoughts. People don’t want to be left alone with their thoughts, not today. Ironic that we old folks might fear those expanses of boredom somehow believing they might transport us to a mental parking garage the exit to which we are never to know. We feel the trap, a deadly trap. Ironic because in the quiet we should find the inner logic that reveals there never was any such mental garage. Transference? Like the hot coffee story? Allowing our thoughts to slosh from a warm engagement to a cool rest and back again until our brain is ready to mount the next horse. Is it sub-cognitive? Is it a form of understanding which resides and thrives below our surface understanding? And does that matter at all? It is more than a little like that story above of the soil’s impulse to party. Gotta go deep and leave things happen. Trust nature. Invite all the best elements over, spread out the refreshments, and get out of the way. That sort of thinking don’t happen when the mind is hypnotized by so called virtual realities.
And ‘that sort of thinking’ goes against the grain, some often say it even threatens society and progress. That progress is the result of linear thinking, working from what we just invented towards the new new, and always revering formulas for profitability – big pots of money. Somewhere in there is a pony (as the old saw goes) and that pony promises comfort, security and freedom from want. Ain’t true I say. Pots of money ain’t no solution. Good farming is one solution, good farming mixing livestock and crops.
As a young man, in my early teens, I was set on having my own farm. Grew up in cities, had no first hand experience. Plus all the conventional wisdom and free advice thrown my way insisted at every turn that I had no chance at my desire. But naysaying did not stop me from taking the dream to that next stage where I found myself sketching barns and field layouts, making lists of what I wanted to grow and incorporate into a farm plan. It was a dance. I did it all the time.
Because of my natural abilities with the fine arts, it was school counselors, parents and friends pushed me towards a fine arts education with the ‘logical’ and acceptable goal that I someday would become a teacher, perhaps even a college professor – in the fine arts. That way I could ‘do my art’ while I made a living teaching.
Because the path was open to me, I went down that route but never with the peculiar and particular passion I had for farming. Now, I’m not speaking here of my intense and abiding interest in the arts (music, painting, poetry, theater, dance, etc.) I knew that for me Art was a language that I had in my bag from an early age. Farming was something I wanted to do, but it was most definitely not a language I knew and used. This was not something I inherited. (Ironic that I managed to pay my way through graduate school by taking jobs on farms.) The fine arts stuff was always right there, I did it all and to varying degrees still do – those are languages that I have spoken all along. It would take nearly a lifetime for me to discover that good farming was as fine an art as any of the traditional categories.
Farming was a ‘language’ I would have to teach myself but always off to the side because of what I believed at the time to be the unlikelihood that I would ever get a chance to use the skills. My way into the patterning of my self education was through the forest of diversified farming. I had ready pictures of farming in my brain and they were inclusive. The whole gamut: sheep, chickens, goats, pigs, milk cows, beef cows, ducks, geese, market garden, orchard, cane fruit, bees, grains, hay, pasture, silage – they and more were all in my mental picture. So I naturally went searching for the sort of farm that might contain such variety. I found myself looking back in time to the early portion of the 1900’s – a golden era of true farming in North America. Inquiries led me to understand the distinction when we speak of an old-fashioned diversified general farm, one on which a system of mixed crop and livestock farming is practiced. These farms were often self-contained interrelated ecologies of intricate and genuine sustainability. And their diversification mixtures were often quite unique to the individual farms.
Now monoculture and industrialization are the rule. Today we see large closed-system industrial dairies which specialize solely in milk production often depending on feeds as purchased inputs. In old models of mixed farming, small-scale dairying was but one element – perhaps the primary one – and dependent on the farm’s production of pasture, grain, silage and hay. And in those mixed models it was common to see operations that took advantage of milk waste as stock feed, sheep flocks that could take advantage of those pasture elements not preferred by the dairy cattle, and kitchen gardens to round up the farm’s self-sufficiency. Where chosen and applicable, these farms easily incorporated draft animals as power source, adding manures and utilizing, in some cases, what might otherwise have been waste forage. But, all of that was back then. Now, as our culture wants to remind us, is now.
sidebar: Efficient at What?
I might digress for a second to observe that the ‘now’ we have doesn’t seem to be working all that well. True sustainability seems far out of reach of big agriculture. And billions of people go hungry. Today’s industrial agriculture has taken specialization to a high degree. Typically farms center on a single crop or two: corn and soybeans, tomatoes, garlic, onions, potatoes, wheat, alfalfa, beef cattle and hay, apples, filberts, grapes, sheep and forage, grass seed, market gardening. The target has, for a long time, been efficiency – but of a peculiar and slanted sort: the primary objective has been to reduce the number of man-hours required to produce farm goods. Little or no concern had or has gone into measuring the balance of how much goes into producing each calorie of food, how many calories of energy, how much top soil is ‘used up’, how much purchased energy is required? By most any comprehensive measure of overall efficiency BIG agriculture is bankrupt, far more is required than is produced. Nothing sustainable in the model. And the bankruptcy is further aggravated when we look to the new closures in these systems, one example: pesticide-ready gmo varieties requiring ever greater infusions of chemical boosts.
Back on track: I wanted to farm; whether that was to happen or not I persisted in my working daydreams. From those diagrams of possibility I backed up a step to get ready for a jump shot: okay, say I might, just might, have a shot at a farm of my own some day, what’s next for right now? Where should my thoughts and preparations reside?
Starting from ‘scratch’; what would it take for me to build towards that old-fashioned general farm I desired? (Remember, I was young and didn’t know what I was doing or planning for.) I decided, as my early dream had informed me, I would need a milk cow, a dozen laying hens (with rooster) and an eighty pound bag of oat seed – oh, and a couple of acres I could use for at least three years. This is how I figured it: the milk cow would give me a calf each year and of course milk to drink, perhaps sell, but definitely to feed to the calves and feeder pigs I would add to the mix. I would also have the manure for fertilizer. The chickens would give me eggs and baby chicks to raise for meat, and if I picked the right breed I might have some fancy feathers to sell. I planned on penning the chickens near the kitchen garden with a run around the perimeter so that they would terrorize any unwanted bugs. Again the manure would come in handy for fertilizing those vegetables. And the oat seed I would plant on one acre, harvesting half early as hay and the other half for grain and seed to save back. I saw how this plan would create little growing concentric circles that, with luck and time, would give me a beginning as a farmer. Now, in retrospect, some half a century later I am surprised to see that my plan was indeed a sound one. It didn’t actually go that way for me in the beginning. It was a little more complicated and varied, but the thrust of that thinking was right on the money.
This orchestrated diversity in farming seldom happens of its own accord. There needs to be a composer and a conductor. We make choices all the time which expand or contract operations. Rather than thinking about a given farm’s operation as static (whether inherited, acquired in full-bloom or designed from ground up) the first step towards a fertile diversification is to account for (say encourage) the flux of surprise and biological insistence. It might be said that the mixed crop and livestock operation that is constricted by the operator’s insistence that his original plan is sacrosanct and perfect, and that it must be followed to the letter – that operation by its nature is denying the full force of diversification. For when a crop fails or a livestock variety or species suffers in the clime of a given farm there is likely a lesson and signpost in the calamity, an unexpected direction forward ready to be seen anew.
Inside of all this arranged flux and fertility, all these triumphs and failures, is a domain that would prefer of us that we are participating artists with farming, not technicians or lab assistants or industrial widgets.
Does this sort of diversified farming require crippling amounts of work and attention? I don’t like the question though I think I understand where it comes from. Implicit in this art of farming is that you, YOU, are doing what you want to do with your life, your limbs, your energy, your each and every day. If you are, you are in heaven, actual and proverbial. If you do not enjoy the minutiae of working with soil, plants, livestock, manures, waterings, and the mucky muck of farming – you shouldn’t be doing it. Find another line of work, something you can love.
Good farming does, and should, require fantastic amounts of invigorating work and enlivening attention. It is a large part of the reward. Yet, you need to be aware of the big and little ways you can ease the truly crippling, disgusting, depressing and frightening moments and aspects which rob you of the full reward. Oft times we unwittingly allow this farming business to be solely about targets and goals, such as yield amounts, market price per pound, live births and such. While all of those things are important they must not be the be all and end all of the farm. Because, if they are – they are. And the inescapable trap is set.
Some twenty-five years ago, I had lunch with Allan Savory. We had listened to each other’s presentations at a farm conference and were comparing notes about values. I had been schooled in beef cattle management with a western notion of extensive grazing and what were then exciting new numbers and expectations around and from tight patterns of rotational grazing, wherein animals were moved before plants were ‘overgrazed’ and the cycle let long enough to allow plants to regrow before the animals returned to the plot in question. “Overgrazing” was the absolute taboo back then. And rotational grazing systems gave patterns of predictability to carrying capacity for given pastures and to achievable net weight gains from cattle. Here were formulas we could ‘count’ on, while, we thought, we protected the land.
Savory with his experiences ranching and observing in central Africa, and with his development of the theories behind Holistic Resource Management, wanted to talk about the great plains of central North America and the recorded history of migratory buffalo impact. He made the observation that the luxuriant and climate-shaping grass plains were maintained if not created in part by the impacts of buffalo overgrazing. Thousands of these grazing beasts would pass in tight formation over the land, eating it down to the nubbins and trampling the top soil to a pock-marked mess. And then they would move on. The sheer expanse of the landscape gave buffalo the opportunity to always move to fresh pastures. They had no reason to return to where they had ‘overgrazed’ until and unless that piece of ground regrew sufficiently. And the remarkable thing is that it did, and then some. Savory’s point was that the trampling, severe grazing, and manuring of these beasts followed by long rest and regrowth resulted in a cycle of ever improving top soil health. And the grasses grew stronger, taller, more protective, more alive as biological cover and habitat – which in turn further added aspect and vitality.
Savory’s conclusion stuck with me. “We make a mistake when we see the production of beef cattle as our goal. We should always see them as a tool to grow our soil. Our objective should be to grow the soil. If in doing this we end up with some cattle to sell, as waste product if you will, then so be it.” His point was that if we can let go of the linear notions of producing x pounds of something to sell each year paradoxically the soil may have a chance to improve so dramatically that we actually end up with more to sell, and freedom from the tyranny of that other goal set. If the be all and end all of the farm is that the soil and all dependent species improve in vigor and vitality each year, the trap disappears.
Instead of thinking about farming as a linear process, we need to start thinking about it as a spatial process. And you might ask, ‘what are you talking about, how would you diagram that?’ How important is the armature of each operation’s diversity? Extremely important. How it is configured is less so than how porous it is. With each and every element and aspect of the mixed farm you need to leave the framework open, with lots of holes, to encourage actions spreading sideways, in any and all predictable and surprising ways. It’s like my take on my father’s process for cooling coffee and how that has come to spread out my notions of where and when I learn useful things.
But the mixed crop and livestock thing, it has to get over our collective disregard. The cliche is that diversification means not having all of your eggs in one basket. More importantly it also means not having all your baskets depending on each egg. When the farm’s revenue is spread out over many segments and production cycles it may seem, because the increments are small, that your revenue stream is old-fashioned, fragile and slight. While if you expect one or two large checks from a monocultural operation you may feel modern and as if you own greater security. It’s a trick and a trap set by society at large, ag economists in general and insurance executives. The irony is that the procession of small incomes spread over time and effort reduces vulnerability and stress. Spreading risk, income and work is so far out there in the realm of cool it puts ‘modern’ to shame.
Plug in your prices in your region today: selling 10 beef animals – direct markets, cut and wrapped ($?), selling 20 lambs – direct cut and wrapped ($?), selling 240 dozen eggs per month x 12 mo ( $?), fifty butcher hogs sold direct over year ($?), selling 10 ton of good hay ($?), selling grain, seed, fruit, vegetables ($?) results in + or – $? . (It should be easy to imagine that this same outfit also results in seed saved, stock numbers growing, and soil improving every single year.)
Because of the smaller scale of operations for each unit, the technologies required are far less costly. Most times, this sort of diversity tends to spread the field work and harvest out nicely making it an ideal fit for animal-power or mixed power farming.
What these numbers represent? 12 beef cows, 24 ewes, 250 laying hens, 5 farrowing sows, 4 acres of market garden, and forty to fifty acres of good cross-fenced, small-fields soil; a decidedly small mixed crop and livestock operation with all the requisite elements for continued growth in fertility and stocking numbers. What happens if you have 25 calving cows, 50 lambing ewes, 500 laying hens, 10 farrowing sows, 8 acres of market garden and 80 acres of good soil? Wow!
It doesn’t have to be this formula, massage those elements and resulting numbers any way you wish, but don’t allow yourself to lose sight of what a glorious, deliberate, flexible well-planned mixture like this can mean to the health and vitality of the soil, the animals, the crops, your children, yourselves, and those folks who are lucky enough to live around you. Staggering, yet so very achievable.
Many a modern farm in this American landscape appears antiseptic, sterile, and drug dependent – except for the yards and gardens of the farmstead, that area around the buildings where much of industrial agriculture is kept at bay. It is here that we see kitchen gardens, chicken – sheep – hog – and horse pens, orchard, vineyard, corrals and manure. What I am asking is that we begin imagining that those vibrant real farmstead yards be allowed and even encouraged to spread out into the waiting tired and lonely fields. That we imagine that each and every agricultural holding become a ‘farm’ in the holiest and coolest sense of the word.
It happens when a few million people individually take their one cow, dozen hens and bag of seed out to the hinterlands and grow the soil – upwards sideways and deep. LRM