Back before petrochemical fertilizer cocktails, farmers weren’t monocroppers. They ran a closed system and part of that system included animals. The animals ate the crop waste and silage. They helped work the land. And their waste helped keep the soil healthy. As synthetic fertilizers became the norm animals and crop diversity quickly feel out of favor. Monocropping huge expanses of land was less work than having multiple crops and caring for animals.
Before we had animals we couldn’t produce enough of our own compost to amend the soil. On top of that, because the pile was fairly small it was near impossible to keep it hot enough. Instead we relied on bringing in commercial compost. Unfortunately with commercial compost you don’t know what is in it. Studies are showing persistent herbicides showing up in “organic” compost. On top of that there’s no way of knowing what persistent pesticides and fertilizers are also in your commercial compost. Think of all the grass clippings that go into yard waste bins. Now think about all the crap many homeowners put on that grass to make it green and weed-free. I’m not entirely sure that was something I wanted around my food.
To be able to amend all of our soil with just compost we had to bring in at least 5 full truckloads of compost every season. This wasted quite a bit of gas, time and money. It wasn’t cost effective for us and it simply wasn’t sustainable.
When we got chickens I wasn’t prepared for what they could do to my compost pile. Because their manure is hot it literally made our compost hot. Steaming hot. But being busy we found we weren’t able to turn the pile as often as we should. So we handed the job over to our chickens. They got all of our kitchen scraps and non-toxic yard waste. They ate what they wanted then turned and shredded everything else. They kept the compost aerated and added their manure to it. When we got the goats they joined in the fun.
This black gold they gave us was beautiful and plentiful. We completely stopped bringing in compost. With the manure we needed less material overall because it was more concentrated. This made it easier to spread taking an afternoon rather than several weekends. It is the perfect balance as we have all that we need and don’t have any extra.We feed our animals organic feed so we knew what was going in and out of them.
After our final harvest each season we would spread the black gold over the bed to allow it to continue to compost down further before we planted the next crop. When we got the rabbits they added a new dimension to our soil amending. Because rabbit manure is not hot it can be added directly to the plants without being composted. This allowed us to amend the soil while the plants were actively growing. We, of course, don’t use it on root vegetables unless we amend very early allowing at least 60 days before harvest. With heavy feeding crops such as melons, squash and corn, it was a godsend because it insured that we could continue to feed the plants throughout the growing season without worrying about burning them.
But it’s not just fertilizer that they provide. The chickens and turkeys in particular help with keeping weeds down and also with pest control. When the beds are dormant the birds get to go out and dig around eating mountains of cutworms, potato bugs, earwigs, and basically anything else that moves. When we start planting we fence them from the beds but they still get the area on the north side which is where our orchard is. There we allow the weeds to grow as a trap crop for insects, which the birds then eat along with keeping the weeds from getting out of hand.
The animals around here definitely earn their keep and help provide us food directly and indirectly. I couldn’t imagine doing it without them now.