Over at ye olde blogge, on one of my Independence Days updates, a reader commented on something that I’d posted. I’d mentioned that we are having trouble with goat parasites – most specifically, meningeal worm. Meningeal worm is a parasite is hosted by snails and transmitted by the feces of white tailed deer. It is worst in camelids like llamas and alpacas, but goats are a secondary host, and two of does, Selene and Mina, have it. It is most common after a wet summer and warm fall – this past summer was the wettest in living memory here – we had almost 20 inches of rain in June alone, and it was generally a warm fall, with few frosts. We’re lucky – we knew what it is, our vet knew how to treat it, and we caught it fairly early, so everyone should be fine.
In order to prevent recurrence, I have two choices. The first is large doses of wormer, much larger than one would typically give a goat. There are two problems with this – first, the possible health consequences of using this as preventative, the second that a growing immunity to wormers in general, including the two specific ones most effective on this parasite is a chronic issue with goats.
The other option is to try and exclude either snails or deer from our pastures and browing areas. There are two options for this. The first would be an additional dog – we have a working farmcollie, but she’s not an aggressive territory protector, and we know that the deer have been coming closer and closer to the house since we lost Rufus, our alpha dog. The dog might exclude the deer from areas that the goats browse and reduce incidence of the parasite. The other option is ducks or geese or guinea fowl – ie, some animal that eats snails to reduce the density of snails on the material the goats are browsing. We’re considering both of these options (actually, we wanted both ducks and another dog anyway for various other reasons).
Claire, commenting at the other blog observed that every animal we get seems to require another animal – that, for example, we use cats to control the mice, but if we aren’t to be dependent on commercial pet foods, that means we need to raise a meat animal to feed them (hence, in our case, rabbits). To the commenter, it seemed like a negative – one animal might lead to another. And on a small homestead or urban project, you do have to place limits upon that sort of thing.
But for a farm, I actually see the comment as both true and a positive thing – that is, I think this is a really useful ilustration of why farms once were diversified, and why they probably need to be again. We could simply worm heavily. We could try draining the wetter parts of our pasture, or excluding all wildlife, or putting our goats in pens rather than on grass – these are other possible solutions to our problems. But they aren’t the ones we want to use.
What animals live on a farm? Of course we can all close our eyes and make the list – and in the old kind of farm, many species lived there at once. This is in complete contrast to the modern farm, where farmers raise sheep, or cows, or whatever, but an enormous preponderance of one animal. The classic small farm had sheep and cows, ducks and geese, cats and dogs. There’s an actual reason why our old vision of what a farm is has so many different kinds of livestock on it.
One is simply that diversification was more better for the farm economy. Having different crops to take to market at different times of year spaced out the work, and the profit. Different animals and plants use different habitats and kinds of land. But there are more complex reasons as well.
Consider this – a pasture that will support one cow but not two cows, will generally support one cow plus 2-4 sheep and their lambs. This is because the sheep will eat shorter grasses that the cows have already grazed, and eat some plants that are less palatable to cows. There are several advantages to this – the first, of course, is that you have lamb, wool, sheep’s milk and sheep manure as well as milk, beef and manure from the cow. But your pastures are also grazed more fully and more evenly, with fewer problems from unpalatable plants that would otherwise proliferate as the others were eaten down.
These analyses can get complex – the same pasture can probably also support an indeterminate number of geese which will eat shorter grass still, or a few goats (assuming cow and sheep are both Johnes negative) that will eat brushy weeds and clean out hedgerows. But do you want your hedgerows cleaned out? Do you have a market for geese? Might it be better to follow the sheep and cow on pasture with chickens who will eat pasture and insects and also help reduce worm pressure for next cycle by eating worms and worm eggs. Or perhaps you want to use that ground for growing grain next spring, and should put pigs on it to till it up…
The low energy farm often uses animals to do things that we now do with fossil fuels. So rather than use a chemical poison to kill the snails on my property, I can use ducks. Besides not being a poison, I get to sell the ducks for meat afterwards. But they also require balance – too many ducks are not a good thing. I can’t always do what I want – I might find that I need another animal to fill a particular ecological niche on my farm – say, that I need Guinea Hens to reduce tick pressure on humans and dogs, even though I don’t particularly want them, or even though guineas are less profitable than chickens.
My dog keeps down predators, but requires some animal proteins to eat. Thus, she and the goats are reciprocal – without Mistress Quickly, the goats would be prey to the coyotes that den across the road. On a traditional farm she’d be paid in a share of their milk – we do this, although she also gets some dog food. The cats keep our grain losses down – for them (and other reasons) we keep the rabbits, which make use of marginal weeds that otherwise would be pests to us… The relationships are stronger when they are more complex and diverse, when there are more participants in each system.
Most of us grasp, of course, that monoculture is bad in general, but it is hard to viscerally grasp the consequences of reduced complexity, or of using one solution (fossil fuels and its outputs) to replace multiple resources. My own exploration of what our family needs for self-sufficiency plus income is a kind of re-inventing of the wheel, and not coincidentally, it comes to look more and more familiar.
There’s a price to be paid for all of this, as well as benefits – you can specialize, but only to an extent. You can pick and choose, but only to an extent. You will be more independent in many ways, but often, not as profitable as a farm that chooses the highest value crop and produces only that. There are costs in land use and resource use as well – the additional animals take space and time.
When we started out farming, we grew a huge garden and raised chickens. The chickens gave us eggs to put in the CSA baskets and eggs for the Challah we included in our baskets. They also gave us manure for our gardens. But we found that it was hard to get enough manure to support a garden big enough to run a 20 person CSA – we were dependent on neighboring farms, which wasn’t bad, but they didn’t always have manure when we needed it. Or we were dependent on soil additives and fertilizers that we didn’t make. We were also dependent on the lawn mower to keep weeds from going to seed, since we didn’t have enough stock to keep them down. Adding more animals made it better possible to grow the garden – but created new incentives to shape the garden in particular ways, so that we didn’t trade one dependency (on soil amendments) for another (on the feed store). Diversity was better – but not just more diversity, the right combination.
It isn’t just animals that work this way – plants do too. We know from research that in terms of output (as opposed to yield) diversified small farms produce more food, fiber and fertility per acre than monocrop farms. We know that polyculture is better for the soil, better for wildlife and soil life, better for people than monoculture. We know that different plants do well in different environments and that no 50 or 10,000 acres are precisely alike – trying to get the same amount of corn out of every single acre regardless of its conditions is not good for anyone.
This runs through pretty much every part of the diversified small farm, and it gets played out at the economic and social level – for example, running the diversified small farm with minimal fossil fuels takes people too. One way to do this, the traditional farm family way, was to have many children – but that’s not all that was involved. Neighbors traditionally shared work during busy times, sharing tools, resources and time – effectively allowing a farm population of four or five to expand to fifteen or twenty when it is needed.
The farm economy was diversified as well – my family often stops at a historical reenactment village that happens to be at approximately the halfway point between our house and my extended family’s. Once, while chatting with one of the gentlemen there, the village cooper, he observed that his shop would soon be closing, because he practiced cooperage only in the winter – spring through fall, he farmed. I was struck by this example of something that has always been true – only the most affluent farmers (or the ones in the best climates) actually farm all year round – the supplemental income that is the norm for farmers now has been the norm for a very long time. Thus, the cooper of 1830, my great grandfather who farmed and taught school in Maine in the 1890s, and the guy who farms and drives trucks now are all part of a logical continuity – that there is time for paying work in the winter or the dry season, and that farm economies are stronger when they are diversified.
Does this mean that everyone who gets chickens is doomed to own a yak? No, of course not. But it does mean that once you open up a system to ecological management, the process of figuring out what its proper mix of species is isn’t an easy one. Honestly, if I didn’t want ducks and another dog, I’d find another way to do things. But it is the case that the small farm of the past has lessons for creating a low energy small farm of the future – there’s a reason that there are more species, not fewer.
We’re still figuring out what the right combination of creatures and practices are on our farm – still debating whether we can make a living using our marginal wetlands as they are, what animals we should be eating down our pastures with and what will be needed as time goes on. But we’re committed to this basic project – to the idea that it is possible to create an integrated, self-sustaining system where most of the interventions are productive, rather than reductive – that is, rather than just poisoning the things we don’t want, we can intervene in ways that create some kind of net improvement in our situation.