The grass really is greener on the other side of the deer fence. It may not show in the picture, which I am not enhancing, but every time I step out the front door, that greenness boggles my mind.
When we bought this land it had been “rode hard and put up wet.” Too much taking, not enough returned for decades. That’s what absentee landlords do, I guess. We stopped selling hay, started retaining the fertility and we started seeing a bit of slow improvement. In the orchard, we have practiced chop and drop mulching with the alfalfa. Every little bit helps.
The turnaround, I knew from loads of reading about restorative agriculture, comes from correctly pasturing animals. Now as a city-raised enviro-leaning newbie farmer, this runs counter to everything I have ever heard about the evils of grazing. Then I read (actually audio-read) Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. He describes how his family has built topsoil by grazing cattle. Whoa! Could this be true?
Then last summer the grasshoppers attacked the orchard. In Utah, grasshopper population explosions occur regularly, going back to the tale of the seagulls saving the first pioneers. We read of a farmer in southwestern Utah that lost 1500 fruit trees. We could see the damage on our own new plantings. In a moment of inspiration driven by desperation, we turned the chickens loose in the orchard. Within a week, we had no more damage. There were still a few hoppers, but no more damage. And the chicken feed bill dropped to near zero.
We didn’t try to do any rotational grazing with the birds. We didn’t do anything except let them be chickens. One day Red caught and ate an entire foot-long snake. They scratched, dug themselves dust bath wallows, and made manure as all creatures will do. Around Thanksgiving we thanked them for their service and moved them to the hoop house for winter. That was the end of it, until a couple weeks ago when I noticed that the grass in the orchard was greening up faster than anywhere else. The pasture just looks healthier out there. It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Seven birds in 3 months eating and pooping, and we can see the results are obvious.
And that, my friends, is why two more rolls of electric fencing arrived yesterday (bloody 70+ pounds of fencing). The goats, the laying hens and the meat chickens, and the geese that are coming later this month all have work to do. We are going to set up a rotational grazing program out in the orchard salad bar. The netting should keep the trees safe-the goats do respect the white fences. When the orchard is resting, they can move on to the south pasture, or into the shade of the cottonwoods. The hens already have a mobile coop. The goats will go on day trips from their year-round pen, and I will be building mobile shelters for the meat birds and geese when they are big enough and the weather warms up.
I don’t understand enough about what happens biologically when the herbage passes through the gut of an animal to say why it makes such a difference compared to the chop and drop we were doing before. I’m not turning in my green chick card-I’ve seen plenty of damage on our public lands from poor grazing practices to say that all grazing is good grazing. But we have an object lesson here on how quickly good grazing practices can reverse decades of destructive management. And I can hardly say that last year was even good grazing practice. We have a lot to learn about how to set up our paddocks for maximum benefit at a reasonable rate of our labor.
So that’s why the herd continues to grow. The current census is 32 chickens, 3 dwarf goats and 8 yet-to-be-hatched geese. That’s pretty light stocking for six acres between the two parcels; we might need more ruminant help but we will see how it goes. The herd’s work is just beginning here. I had a soil test done in 2010, the last year the place was hayed. One benchmark we can use for whether our management is improving the land is the level of organic matter in the soil. We’ll get another sample analyzed this fall. But right now the green speaks for itself-an extremely motivating sight. It’s time to get those animals on the move.
The only fear is that we might need a herd dog. Slate isn’t going to like that, not one bit.