When we made an offer on the farm, we had the option of “babysitting” two beef cows and a geriatric haired dairy sheep until the beef are ready to slaughter in June (fate of sheep unknown). The former owner of our property broached this subject with me when I was at the house for the septic inspection, before the deal was even “closed.”
“Are you planning to raise animals?” he asked.
“Probably,” I said, “but not for a while. Maybe next spring. The whole place is so overwhelming. I think it’ll take a bit for us to just get our feet under us.”
He nodded. “Well, the cows really need a few more months to finish. I’d like to leave them on pasture a while longer.”
“Ok….” I said. I might have grimaced. “We could do that. But we know nothing about raising cattle. The biggest animal we’ve kept alive is a dog. We’ll need a lot of instruction on what to do with them. Do they need to be ‘put to bed’ at night?”
He looked at me with a combo of confusion and disappointment.
“No, they’re Ok out in the field.”
Apparently my tepid response to his delicate suggestion that the cows remain on the pasture awhile longer did not instill confidence in him. Because when we moved in, the cows were fenced off in the neighbor’s field, and they were the designated cowsitters.
We quickly realized our mistake. The front 1.5 acres of our property is occupied by the house, 2 barns, the “guest cottage” (it’s a trailer), chicken coop, dog yard, and garden space. The back 1 acre is a wooded stream. The 4 acres in between is pasture. In May in Western Washington, that means waist-high grass and buttercup, with some sedges and cottonwood seedlings taking hold here and there. Around the perimeter, Himalayan blackberries (a horrible invasive species) march steadily onward, where they envelop and short out our electric fence and threaten to take over the farm if we look away for even a moment.
Cows would have helped.
Pasture needs to be managed. If you just let it go, then northwest natives and aggressive invasives quickly start to take over. If you want to keep land in pasture, then you have to do something to keep it in pasture. Many people who have large pastures and no livestock opt to have it “hayed.”
At first this term confused me, since we don’t have hay. I thought it would be deceptive to advertise on Craigslist “come hay our field!” when in reality we have grass and buttercup. Then someone kindly explained that haying a pasture is the act of cutting it, drying it, and baling it. It doesn’t have to be of the hay species, and many animals will still eat it. But our grass/buttercup mix is not very high value, so we shouldn’t expect to make money off of having it hayed.
Cutting/mowing/haying a field is good for it. It whacks down undesirable woody natives, like cottonwood, and mowing increases stem density of grass. But it’s a lot of work to mow a field as big as ours, especially once the grass is waist high. And we don’t own a tractor. There’s also energy stored in that plant matter, and it seems wasteful to give it away.
Permaculture principles say that when you have a problem, instead of asking yourself “how can I eradicate this,” ask yourself “what can I add?” In our situation, at this current moment at the height of the growing season, our question is “what do we do with all of this grass?”
We’ve been on the farm 3 weeks. We’re not unpacked. We have boxes of backpacking gear still taped up in the basement; we have clothes stacked on top of bureaus that don’t yet have a home in drawers; we have stacks of framed art piled against walls in every room of the house. I had vowed “focus on zone 0 (the house) and zone 1 (the veggie garden). Ignore the pasture, it will wait.”
But suddenly it seems urgent. So I started researching animals that could help us out. I learned that goats “browse,” whereas sheep “graze.” We need a grazer, e.g., a lawn mower. So goats are out, for now.
Next I started researching sheep. Sheep come with their own unique set of problems. For example, if they’re dairy sheep, then they have to be milked twice a day, and I do not have that kind of time. If they’re meat sheep, you still have to shear them. In the winter, they’re a muddy miserable mess, and all of that wool gets infested with the same bugs that attack your stored blankets and rugs. And really, I don’t like lamb very much, nor do I like sheep milk. Sheep would help us manage our grass, but I don’t care for the product.
You know what I do like? Bacon. And lard. And hams, pork chops, and sausage. But pigs didn’t solve the puzzle either. They root into the dirt in pursuit of bugs, mice, and snakes, and in the process they often churn up grass. But they don’t eat it.
Or do they???
There are 2 heritage breeds of pigs that are popular among permaculturists and homesteaders: the kune kune, and the American guinea hog. They’re popular because they’re smaller than the conventional “shires” (berkshire, yorkshire, hampshire), and they consume very little hog feed. Instead, they thrive on kitchen scraps, and most importantly, they eat grass. That’s right, they graze.
I could get a lawn mower and bacon in one animal. The perfect answer.
Kune kune are funny little creatures, with interesting coat variations and little wattles poking out from their chinny chin chins. They will also set you back a couple grand for a breeding pair, and they’re too expensive to buy as “feeders.”
A “feeder,” I learned, is a weaned piglet you buy with the intention of raising it to slaughter, usually 9-11 months later. In heritage breeds like these, the feeders are often pigs that don’t conform to breed standards for some reason, or aren’t registered. Or they’re dudes. (With livestock, the lady is queen, the dude is often dinner.)
After ruling out the kune kune, I delved into the American guinea hog and discovered that their meat is revered by a few top-tier chefs who have gotten to taste it, and their pure white lard is top quality. In addition to being good eating, they have sweet dispositions. Despite the rarity of the American guinea hog breed, there are several farms in Washington state that are part of the American guinea hog registry. I emailed all of them and asked if they had any feeder pigs for sale, skeptical that I would hear back from anyone.
To my great surprise, they all responded, and they all had piglets available, both feeders and registered breeders. We were getting somewhere.
Josh and I hastily constructed a pig pen out of hog panels and T-posts, and we built a waterer out of a 55-gallon barrel. By now you’ve guessed what was in the neatly bundled box in the back of the truck.
We have 4 boarlets (uncastrated baby dudes). In the 2 days we’ve had them, we’ve learned that they eat the grass, but they love buttercup. These dudes are only about 20 lbs each, and they have nearly obliterated the buttercup population in their 16×16 pen, and the grass is steadily getting mowed down. Excellent news!
We plan to use electrified netting to confine them to a small area, and rotate them to new pasture every few days. This is called intensive rotational grazing, and it has a more positive and controlled impact on the pasture than turning the 4 piglets loose on 4 acres to graze where they will. Once they clear a section of grass and buttercups, we’ll move them onto the next. We’ll sow cover crops in the area they just mowed and tilled–clover, vetch, buckwheat–and if all goes to plan (i.e., if it rains), they’ll get to graze it one more time in the fall. Over time, our pasture quality will hopefully improve.
The piggies seem to be settling in. Two of the four were regularly handled before they came to us, and it took about 15 minutes to discover that they love a belly rub as much as our poodle. The other 2 are still undecided about human contact.
Pork will be for sale next spring 😉