We’re raising a new clutch of young birds here at the farm- and these little chicks will soon be joining their elder hens to work the land, as they have been for the past seven years. We’ve had an uptick in fertility within the soil, especially when we’ve used concentrated droppings in coop bedding for the gardens- note- the poop does not go directly onto eating crops, but gets folded into compost rows in the garden that will be planted the following year.
Chickens are the gateway animal to any livestock adventure, and have even branched out in recent years, to become “pets” in backyards across America. Not many roosters will be found in suburban flocks. In fact, I’ve known of farmers who have been forced to cull their roosters as the area became populated and incorporated. Urban sprawl is real, and it’s killing farms across this country. Bakckyard chickens is a great way to help bring poultry, and fresh food back to families now living in suburban sprawl.
Fresh eggs are great, and chickens are a lot of fun to observe, and interact with. They can have very distinct personality, and become more like pets to some stewards, but they are a working animal, with it’s own mission to eat, poop, lay eggs, and brood them into new chicks. If you are not willing to cooperate with this endeavor, you’ll find you have a flock of very unhappy birds who will be unhealthy.
Most commercial farms, where the vast majority of store bought eggs come from, even the “organic free range” birds, have thousands of animals crowded on dead land with no direct connection to the environment around them. They play no role accept producer, and they have a short life. For chickens who are lucky enough to be raised on land, with a direct working relationship with the ecology around them, helping to improve and diversify the place they live. This flock is not ever larger than 50 birds, and thrives within a few acres of woodlands and pasture with a night roost, grain supplement, and daily fresh water. The land gets fertility, gleaning of pest bugs and weeds, and people enjoy the eggs in our local food market.
Chickens play a role in forest restoration by taking the place of native birds like the forest grouse and other ground birds who once inhabited these woods in large numbers. Because people came and cut down the old growth, then populated the land with large tracks of pasture, removing the shelter and cover for wildlife. The animals were also hunted to near extinction, and to this day, native ranges and numbers of most wildlife continues to drop throughout the world.
At EEC Forest Stewardship, we’re replicating the native wildlife with working livestock to reboot the ecology and reestablish forests with optimal canopy cover, undergrowth, and forest floor habitat. Goats and sheep have stepped in on behalf of elk and deer. Ungulates play an important role in evolving the undergrowth of forests, and even thin stands by predating on young trees to keep forests more open for diversity of species.
The balance of animal and plant success is crucial. If there are too many animals, your under-story will disappear completely, leaving the forest bare. Many of the established groves at EEC are missing good under=story cover, caused by keeping too many animals, like cows and horses, on the same ground continuously, and probably not feeding the animals enough, so they began eating the trees, and a few died. Luckily, that practice stopped. Then the land sat unkempt for a decade, and nature filled the gaps- with blackberry. This highly invasive bramble prevented any other species of shrub or ground cover the chance to establish, so the under-story has a mono-crop hedge, which does offer a lot of cover and vegetation, but only one kind, and that’s not stability for the ecology of the space and limits what can survive there.
Now, recreating the natural browsing rhythms of elk and deer is impossible, so, with a limited human understanding, I’ve spent the past few years working on how to tune the animal work to the forest’s needs. This changes often from year to year. Sometimes I just let a patch rest for a while to bulk up on vegitation, but that means letting the blackberry back in, because once I replant with native species, the livestock has to stay of it for a long time- maybe a decade- to let the vulnerable plants establish.
Breeds chosen for this work in our forest were BROWSING specific, meaning they prefer to eat shrubs and other greens growing off the ground, as opposed to grazing animals, which prefer grass and ground dwelling plants. This is crucial in preventing overgrazing. Most sheep graze, so you’ll have to find a breed, like Khatadin, who brows and are hair sheep, meaning you don’t have to sheer them. Our Boer goats have been great at pulling down high growing blackberry, making it easier to remove. Now that all the high standing cane is knocked down, we’re shifting to a new breed of smaller goat, crossing our large meat animals with a dwarf milking breed. These new smaller goats will continue to brows back the brambles, but also be smaller and easier to handle, as well as providing milk and meat.
Goats can destroy a forest, and your orchard, and the garden, and all the fencing ever built, so know what you are signing up for with this animal. We tether ours on light chains, or take them on browsing walks for short periods in the more intact groves near the creek. This is a supervised predation of the landscape, with someone driving the animals on to prevent overeating. Someday, when the whole forest is restored, the goats could be moved through the landscape throughout the year to forage and brows down the under-story until the elk and deep populations return. Without under-story management by wildlife or some other working animal, the forest would become too congested and massive fires would eventually burn hot enough to destroy even the old growth trees, who are resistant to smaller, cool fires, which occur in dry years where the undergrowth is browsed back by healthy herds of elk and deer.
The picture above shows what an intact under-story might look like, with room for even more native species as the stream buffer develops. The osoberry, vine maple, sword fern, and 30 year old Douglas fir are all well on their way, and can survive the occasional browsing of animals moving through the landscape. This area is not a place to tether or fence in stock.
Without the help of livestock, it would take a very long time, many lifetimes, for the native growth to return and thrive on this landscape. Decades of habitat removal and the leeching away of fertility, left the soil marginal and exposed. To bring back abundance, concentrated movement of animals on the landscape returns nutrients, removes mono-crops, and invites space for diverse ecology to evolve. This makes sense where more players= more outcomes.
Constraints on stock is also critical in forming a successful animal/plant coexistence. Our stream buffers dictate runoff control, meaning our nitrogen levels on the surface of the soil (green manure), must be mitigated before arriving at the creek. We didn’t choose pigs as our main stock, because a hillside farm draining into a salmon stream was not the best use of the land, and certainly would produce toxic levels of nitrogen. Take a moment to lean about how industrial pig farms operate, warning- bacon will be harder to buy in a store. After you learn about lagoons, and how often they leech into the soil or burst into a river during floods, understand the true cost of your meat treat (I still buy it at the store occasionally).
Leafhopper Farm has raised pigs, once, and will again-but only 2 at a time, as the impact they inflict upon the land is extremely high, this is why they are raised on cement in factory farms. Our two Berkshire guilts (non-breeding females), grew into monster tillers of the landscape, which was great for plowing out blackberry roots. However, if left on a single space for too long, erosion issues would occur, and the build up of pig experiment became a smelly mess. We did not keep our pigs through the winter- they are not designed for that, as they reach a body weight max at 250lb after about 200 days with an average daily gain of 1.35lbs.*
When your paddocks look like the one above, you must take your animals off it. This ground was a control space, to see what the pigs would do in a week. Keep in mind- these pigs were young, about 2 months old. If they had been mature adults, this would have been the pen in 2-3 days (with two pigs). Knowing the limitations of your land is crucial, and I’ll be writing more on how to scope out ground resilience. The paddock above remained fenced, and a grain experiment was executed. Utilizing stock to till up soil for a new planting is what they are best at. Just remember how hot the soil will be with green manure- especially that of a pig, which is quite high in nitrogen. Our Katahdin sheep on the other hand, poop a cold manure- safe to put right on the soil without any nitrogen burn. They are also active grazers, moving around a lot on their own, and they brows, which not all sheep do naturally. Sheep are merciless towards grasses, so we move the sheep often to prevent overgrazing.
Stress on the land will result in barren hard pack clay with no fertility if animals are left on the same spot for too long. In Western Washington, this can best be seen in horse paddocks. I cannot understand why people think our rain-forests are a good place for horses. The First Nations people who were in touch with this landscape and stewarded it, paddled canoes. They were not a horse culture, unlike their neighbors on the other side of The Cascades- where high desert made horse travel easy, though equine impact is also still a great threat to the sensitive desert ecosystem.
Horses are a great example of “livestock” which is not suitable to our temperate rain-forest environment. People have to lay down special footing, fill it with about a half foot of gravel, and still loose all their trees from the compaction. But hey, cars and roads are damaging too- priorities? It’s always going to be an uphill battle in our modern age of consumption. My suggestion? Invest in livestock- because you can’t eat paper or numbers on a screen. The land benefits from active stewardship, folding in natural systems which follow seasonal rhythms. Livestock “plugs in” to the ecology directly, with no other inputs required beyond a little human stewardship. Working with animals is rewarding for you and the land. It will also invite the restoration of native undergrowth, water retention in the soil, and better diversity across the landscape.