After 90 days without rain, and one of the driest summers on record, it’s finally started raining in NW Washington. I’m not sad about it. The garden has been very productive, and I’m tired of canning pickles and tomato sauce. I’m looking forward to evenings spent in my living room, the woodstove blazing, watching episodes of All Creatures Great and Small on YouTube while knitting socks. Winter means a slower pace (and flannel! Oh how I’ve missed you), and I’m looking forward to it.
Know what I’m not looking forward to? Mud. And unless you are blessed to live on a high and rocky plateau, mud is unavoidable in the PNW, especially when you own livestock. Many farms are in watershed areas, and most farms have at least some wetland-zoned acreage. It’s (usually) Ok to graze livestock in these areas during the dry summer when the ground is hard and compact, but as soon as the rain falls, they begin to accumulate standing water and seasonal streams.
Livestock, such as pigs, left on these wetland areas over the winter can quickly root up the soil and end up hock-deep in muck.
But don’t pigs like mud, you ask?
Well, yes and no, but more no than yes. Pigs like mud when it’s hot out. Mud cools a pig on a hot day, and it also covers their skin and prevents sunburn, because pigs can get a sunburn just like we can. That’s because their skin is actually really similar to ours (which is why porcine skin is often used for burn research). And because it’s similar to ours, it doesn’t like being moist all the time. Imagine if you had to stand and lay in 12” deep mud for days in a row. You’d probably develop ulcers, sores, fungus, and foot rot. So do pigs.
So you can see why mud quickly becomes a problem when livestock are involved. Our solution at Bellfern Homestead is to move our pigs up to the highest fenced paddock available after laying down a thick footing of wood chips. Really thick. Like 10-12” if possible. This winter paddock is often known as a “sacrifice area,” because you’re basically giving up ever using this area productively as pasture or cropland. For heavy livestock like cattle, paving the sacrifice area may even be necessary.
There are some real benefits to wintering animals on a sacrifice area.
- They’re not tearing up your pasture, which is vulnerable in the dormant season.
- They’re not defecating in wet areas that drain into waterways.
- They’re up off the wet ground, which is healthier for their skin and feet.
- They’re probably closer to your house or barn, making chores more convenient.
- You will not get in trouble with your local conservation district (more below).
Cons to overwintering on a sacrifice area:
- You have to manage the manure. You can’t just leave it to accumulate in a small area all winter. We scoop poop once or twice a week in the winter.
- You have to educate your customer base about why their pastured meat isn’t actually on pasture November–April.
- The animals can get bored. The more you can simulate foraging, the happier they’ll be. For example, instead of feeding pig mash from a feeder, scatter fodder like apples, winter squash, and potatoes around the paddock for the pigs to find.
I mentioned the local conservation district a few lines above, and if you live in rural Whatcom county then you’re aware of the fury and pitchforks surrounding a proposal by our county council to require “farm plans” for farms with heavy livestock if the farm has any “critical areas” on the property, like streams, lakes, or wetlands.
Local farmers often talk about the conservation district with the same disdain as a ship captain might talk about being boarded by the Coast Guard, but the fear and anxiety is at a new level in my hometown right now. No one wants someone riding in on a high horse of environmentalism and telling them how to run their farm, and yet few people seem to know what a farm plan entails, so speculation and accusations of big government interference are rampant.
I get it. I had some concerns about asking the local conservation district onto my property and getting a farm plan “on the books.” It seemed an unnecessary bit of red tape and bureaucracy, and like every other farmer, I was afraid of being told I’d need to spend thousands of dollars to “fix” something.
My fears were unfounded. What I got was a wealth of advice, information, and resources about livestock and pasture management, nutrient loads, pasture growth rates, and all of the wonderful science of raising pastured animals that I missed out on because I wasn’t in FFA. The basic purpose of the conservation district is to protect the public waterways from manure contamination, and they do this by educating people who raise animals about the downstream effects of manure, and then they give them grants to build fences, gutters, and compost bins.
I think we can all agree that we don’t want poop in our public water. Right? Right?
Anyway, we’ll see how this plays out, but it feels like one more stone in the “us” vs. “them” wall that America is busily building. I feel sad and tired, but grateful to have daily animal chores and winter preparations to focus on. And flannel. And All Creatures Great and Small. And knitting.