Ask Farmer Pete: Bringing the Animals In
A blizzard was blowing in as we caught up with Pete King, head of pastured livestock operations at Freedom Farms. Luckily, Pete’s careful pre-season planning meant that all his pigs, chickens, and cattle were warm, dry, and well protected from the storm.
Are Freedom Farms animals free range?
Pete King: At Freedom Farms, we practice intensive and rotational grazing. We have a limited amount of land, and we believe that intensive grazing is the best practice for our animals and our soil. We move our animals constantly during the growing season, so the ground has a chance to rest. We put the cows on pasture one day, then follow it up with chickens the next day. The birds clean up after the cows, and then the grass comes back strong.
Where do your pigs, cows, and chickens spend the winter?
PK: We put our chickens and hogs in greenhouses, and our beef in a barn with a corral. We bring the pigs in from the wood lots and the cows in from the pasture. It’s important to give the land a break, and we need a break too. We try to make the winter work of feeding and watering as easy as possible after running hard all summer long. We put the animals inside on bedding and keep their feet dry for a few months, then it’s back to intensive pasture grazing all summer long.
There is plenty of space in the greenhouses for the animals to move around and lots of sunlight, but there is a roof over their head and they are protected from the wind and snow. We keep 30 hogs in a greenhouse that is 100 by 20 feet. It’s easy to roll up the sides of the greenhouse to let fresh air in and to bed them when they need bedding. There are hydrants in the greenhouse, so watering them is easy too.
Why is it so important to get the animals off the pasture in the winter?
PK: In the wintertime, everything is in a state of dormancy. The ground is not able to recoup. If we kept the cows outside all winter they’d be excreting on the ground. The manure would run off the frozen ground and leak into the water supply. If we put animals out on the frozen pasture, it would be a muddy mess in the spring. We wouldn’t have a pasture, we’d have churned up mud and weeds. Winter means it’s time to give the ground a rest. We bring the animals in and put them on clean, deep bedding. We keep adding to the bedding all season long.
What is in the bedding you use for the animals?
PK: We use straw, wood chips, and wood shavings. Basically we use carbon materials that can hold nutrients in suspense and provide a dry bedding for the animals but then break down when we apply it to our pastures.
How long will the animals stay in the greenhouse?
PK: We usually move the animals out about April 1st. We clean out the greenhouse, apply the bedding to the fields, and plant a cover crop in the greenhouse and let that grow to fruition. After the cover crop is done, we can put a crop of vegetables in there.
There’s a blizzard going on right now. How are your animals doing?
PK: I just opened up the sides of the greenhouse the chickens are in, and they won’t set foot in the snow. That tells me I’m doing the right thing keeping them in the greenhouse. We’ve had a couple long, hard winters and I haven’t had any animals get sick. The animals are happy, unstressed, and comfortable. They stay tucked away warm, dry, and out of the wind. Keeping them in the greenhouses is easier on our backs, too. It gives us some time to build for next year. I feed the animals in the morning and the evening and the rest of the day is spent maintaining equipment and building for next season.
What are you doing now to get ready for the next growing season?
PK: We need a bigger infrastructure for our egg layers, so I’m working on that. I’ve got brooders to build for next year so that we can raise more broilers and more turkeys, and I’m making new sleds? for the turkeys. There is always something to do to make the job more efficient, and to make my work run smoother next year.