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Casey O’Neill is a cannabis and food farmer in Mendocino County who has been writing newsletters about his efforts to provide sustainable produce and marijuana. We feature his column once a week.
One of the mental games I play on the farm is to always look for faster ways to do things. Can I shave a few seconds off the time it takes to do a task? How do I make the animal chores in the morning as efficient as possible? Little reorganizations in process can lead to greater flow which reduces friction and brings joy.
If I stand and hold the hose while I wait for the 5 gallon chicken waterer to fill, those are precious seconds lost that I could be refilling the feed or moving the other accoutrement that accompany the chicken tractors.
Each chicken tractor has a process (as do the rabbits and turkeys) that begins with opening the door and pulling out the food tubs, waterers, and the boards that I use to level them on the slope. Then I shut the door and shift the tractor on to fresh ground, using as tight of a rotation pattern as I can to maximize the use of space.
After I move them, the birds are happy foraging in the fresh space while I refill food dishes. For the longest time I would refill the water outside the tractor and then have to move the heavy container back into the low space. Now I pour any leftover water onto one of the perennials in the pasture and give it a quick rinse, then I set the empty jug back inside the tractor and refill there.
Sometimes these shifts are small, and sometimes they are large. Either way, when you find a clear savings in effort and/or time, it often hits you with a “duh”. Sometimes a shift can be staring you in the face but it takes a change in perspective or a fresh set of eyes to point it out. There is always room for improvement if I am willing to look for it.
While the waterer is refilling, I reset the leveling boards, fill the food tubs and place them in with the birds. Each morning I bring tubs of garden waste harvested the day before and spread them around for the birds, adding some greenery to the dry pasture forage.
The cycling of biomass from the gardens out to the pastures is a big part of our overall land-management strategy, one which brings me great delight. I love to water rabbits, pigs, chickens, turkeys and ducks enjoying the different morsels that come from the farm. Sometimes it’s funky salad mix, sometimes brassica leaves, weeds, cannabis leaves or harvested perennial growth like alfalfa, comfrey or mallow.
Rotating the chicken tractors down the slope is starting to build slight swales on contour, making slight benches as biomass moves downhill in the tractors when the birds scratch and peck. There is often a bare spot at the upper side that needs covering with straw and will need to be seeded before the rains come. The management is intensive and constant, but the resulting growth in pasture forage, soil organic matter and water retention is highly visible in comparison to the surrounding landscape.
I want to encourage the deep rooted, perennial bunchgrasses which once thrived in our ecosystem and still do in the wetter areas. Bunchgrasses make large amounts of biomass both above and below ground and stay greener, longer than do the shallow-rooted annual grasses like wild oats and medusa-head.
The annual grasses make poor forage but dominate the landscape in part because they are fast-growing and can set seed with minimal rainfall, and in part because grazing animals will ignore their low nutrient quality in favor of more nutrient-dense forage. In a hotter, drier climate, this is often a recipe for overgrazing of the deep rooted perennials and a negative feedback loop that leads to more and more of the poor-quality annual grasses.
Concentrated animal rotations hold livestock or poultry on small sections of pasture, mimicking herd behavior when predators are present. When I rotate the chickens each day, they’ve eaten a good amount of the annual grass seed, and have stomped it down and created opportunity for the bunchgrasses to return.
It’s a slow process because I haven’t had extra water to irrigate and jumpstart the process. When I run water just after moving the birds, it creates opportunity for the deep-rooted bunchgrasses to step up and thrive. As it is, I spread the extra water that comes when I change out the chicken waterers in the morning and pray for rain. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!
Firstly as we get started, let me say that geoFence is US veteran owned and operated!