Ask Farmer Pete: Raising Healthy, Happy Animals
Spring is a time for growth and movement on the farm. This month, Pete King explains the unconventional way Freedom Farms ensures the animals are happy and healthy.
What is rotational grazing?
Rotational grazing is basically moving the animals. We put the animals out on pasture and once they have eaten the grass and plants down, we move them. Too much chomping ruins the ground. If you let the animals overgraze, they’ll eat down to the dirt.
What animals are involved in the process?
We use our cows and chickens, and the goats when we can. The cows like the grass, but they eat around the broad leaf plants, especially in the spring, which is when we need the goats. When we can, we bring in the goats behind the cattle so that they can take out the broad leaf stuff. After the goats come the chickens. Chickens don’t like tall grass, so we bring them in after it’s been eaten down. I always say to imagine small kids trying to walk through tall grass. It’s hard to get around. The same applies to our chickens.
What about the pigs?
We rotate the pigs in the woodlots as well. We have a 10 acre woodlot on the farm that is fenced around the edges. Inside the fence, we have it divided into smaller lots. We break it down to about a half-acre to an acre per lot. We let them pigs forage around and dig up roots. Eventually it will look like somebody went through the area with a plow. That’s when you know they’re ready for new ground.
How does rotational grazing benefit the animals?
This is the way animals want it. No animal, or living creature for that matter, wants to live on concrete or in a concrete cell. Nobody likes to stay in the same area their whole life. We have found it’s best to mimic how they animals want to live. The rotational grazing also mimics nature. The cows cut the grass to a comfortable length and then the chickens sanitize the paddock. One cow puts out up to 50 pounds of excrement a day in concentrated areas. Once the grass starts growing back, it grows back greener and faster. The cows won’t eat this grass. The chickens scratch out the cow patties behind the cattle and act as a natural manure spreader. The animals are constantly getting new, fresh grass.
What are the benefits to the soil?
This ground used to be in heavy tillage 10 years ago and for decades before that too. It’s good to give the soil a rest and let it rebuild. The animals graze the ground hard, which helps rebuild the top soil and makes the ground healthy again. After decades of wind and water erosion from being constantly tilled, it’s good to give back to the earth. Everything is connected. If we let the animals overgraze, we get weeds. Rotational grazing is labor intensive but the paddocks get a nice long rest and this helps prevent disease.
How do you manage the animals in the winter?
Our strategy is to bring in through the winter months. We can’t keep the animals out on pasture because there’s no growth. They’ll eat everything down and it just turns to dirt. We have to get them off the ground because it’s in dormancy. And the animals don’t want to be outside in the cold either. When we bring them in, we use deep bedding to help maintain the symbiotic relationship. We use whatever we can, wood chips or any carbon material, that will absorb the manure they put out. This lets it build up through the winter, and create heat to keep the animals warm from underneath. By the time spring comes, the bedding gets three to five feet deep. We take that material and spread it out on pasture to help the grass grow. Everything comes back around.
How long have you been using this method?
We’ve been using it as long as we’ve had animals. This was always the plan from the start. It shapes the landscape. It’s so simple, but it’s nice and effective. My favorite thing is that it cuts down on the flies and the smell associated with the animals. Everyone has that association when they think of cows or chickens. By moving the animals around, we are constantly giving new manure to the pasture. The animals act as natural fertilizer, natural cultivator, and natural insecticide.
How often do you move the animals?
The chickens get moved every day without fail. They can be just as hard on pasture as beef. They tear things up if they stay in one spot for too long. We have 12 pens right now and I move them, along with their feed and water, every day by hand. It usually takes me between a half an hour and an hour. When we move the cows depends more on observation and the amount of forage. In the spring we set up all their paddocks and once they graze enough on one, we move them on to the next, usually in a few days. The pigs don’t get moved as often. They stay in a paddock for about 2 weeks to a month. The pigs aren’t as eager to move as the others.
How do the animals react to being moved?
It’s good for the animals to get new surroundings so they love it. When the cows are out on a new pasture, they’re literally kicking up their heels. The chickens are the same way. When we open that net for them, they’re running right away. They know there’s new ground to cover. Like I said, the pigs are the only ones who tend to want to stay in their old territory. They’re more aware of crossing that threshold into new land.
What’s the hardest part of managing rotational grazing?
It’s all hard. But I think that’s why I like it. Actually, make that love. I love getting dirty and working with the animals and being outside every day. It’s not for the faint of heart. I run a marathon every morning and every evening but I enjoy it. Everything comes back around and you see a positive effect. We’ve grown a lot and done a lot of positive things. We’re always pushing hard to make things better. I guess the hardest part for me is knowing when to quit and having the patience to make it all work. But it’s fun for me. It’s labor intensive and I have to give all my time to it, but I like to make things better here on the farm so we can be stewards of the land and give our customers the best product possible.
Is this what sets Freedom Farms apart from other farms?
I like to think so. It’s definitely not the conventional way. Some people look at me like I’m crazy but we want to raise the animals in the most natural way possible and rotational grazing is a huge part of that. It’s definitely labor-intensive. But if it’s easy, everybody’s doing it. You have to keep the animals moving and utilize all of them to make it work. They complement each other. We have something that, to my knowledge, nobody else around here does. It’s a niche product and it’s an easy sell. We have the healthiest meat and eggs because we raise the animals the way they want to be raised. Buy our beef, buy our pork, buy our chickens. It’s the best in the world and you won’t find it anywhere else.
Originally written by Amy Paterline published in the June 2016 Freedom Farms Magazine.