Thursday, December 7, 2017

Regenerative Agriculture: the role of rotational grazing

What's the deal with regenerative agriculture?
I mentioned in my last post that the main goal at Reverse Pioneers homestead is to undo damage on the land; to replace their dry and nutrient-poor ground with fertile & spongy soil, all while providing economic stability and food for themselves.  This, in a nutshell, is regenerative agriculture.  Using holistic approaches and integrative thinking, regenerative agriculture has the potential to undo many of the wrongs brought about by mankind's recent agricultural practices.  Through mono-cropping, contained animal feeding operations, unmanaged grazing, and heavy fertilizer/herbicides/pesticides use, we find that our soil is depleted, our water supply is dwindling, and atmospheric CO2 is climbing.  This isn't good news for the future of our food supply - successful organic agriculture requires nutrient-rich soil, water, and steady climate.  It's no surprise that the natural world is getting out of whack; from an agriculture perspective, we've done a pretty poor job of working within the natural laws.  We impose our own systems that fight the natural processes rather than work with them.

Regenerative agriculture looks to natural laws as guidance for land decisions, and uses management tools to guide ecosystems toward states of fertility.  Solutions to arising issues (like pollution, crop failure, or erosion) are found by tweaking the structure of the ecosystem.  Humans have a role to play; we facilitate the flow of energy from areas in over-abundance into areas of depletion.  The number one way that regenerative farmers accomplish this is by managing the movement of grazing animals across their land, also known as rotational grazing.

Rotational grazing

Rotational grazing is the practice of systematically moving grazing livestock among various divisions on a piece of land.  It disperses nutrients over the land, improves overall soil fertility, controls unwanted plants, enhances water retention, and sequesters carbon dioxide out of the air.

To get an idea of how greater soil fertility is reached, let's first consider how the bodies of grazers work.  Animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep are mobile fermentation machines.  They eat plants (grass, shrubs, trees)  which gets fermented during digestion by microbes in their guts.  What comes out on the other end is nutrient-rich poop that gets deposited back into the soil.  Yet, the nutrients get spread unevenly- the grazing animals acquire nutrients from a vast area (like a large pasture), but deposit those nutrients into a very small area (like a pile of poop).  Of course, given enough time, the poop would eventually break down and the nutrients would get distributed more evenly over the land, but there is an option to speed up this process - chickens!  Chickens are oftentimes rotated behind the grazers, as they enjoy scraping apart cow poop (or goats, sheep, etc) in search of little bugs to eat, all the while spreading around that nutrient-dense poop.  The soil now has a greater richness in microbial life than before, which means greater fertility.

The physical act of grazing on managed grasslands can retain water and sequester carbon.  To get a full perspective, let's consider the average cattle pasture: cows are given a very large area to roam, and they aren't rotated at all or very rarely.  The grass, therefore, stays pretty short (usually only a couple of inches tall) since the ground is rarely given rest from grazing.  The roots of these grasses are also very shallow, since roots only grow deeper when grasses grow tall.  Now let's consider a pasture that is managed within a regenerative practice.  A large herd of cattle are rotated intensively through a high number of small pastures.  This allows most of the grass to be resting at any given time, so the grass has the opportunity to grow tall.  Consequently, the roots grow deeper into the ground.  This is of huge importance because plants have the ability to transfer carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground through their roots.  The deeper the roots, the more carbon pumping, the less carbon in our air.  If every farm practiced rotational grazing of their cows/sheep/goats, imagine the potential to reverse global climate change.  (Now imagine if there were tax incentives for carbon sequestration on your land ... but I won't get too political).  Everyone imagines the best way to reverse global warming is to plant a bunch of trees, but grasses actually have a stronger ability to sequester carbon, so why not start with the millions of acres of cow pasture that already exists in the US?

The land needs grazers to move nutrients around.  Consider a large hill - nutrients naturally disperse downwards from rainfall and erosion.  How would it be possible for the nutrients to get cycled back toward the top of the hill without the movement of animals?  The grasses need to be pruned.  Without animals occasionally eating the top off the tall grasses, the younger grasses below get blocked off from growth.  The grass eventually stagnates, dries, and dies out (which means their roots die back as well).  These grasses are evolved to grow a foot-or-so tall, be cut back, and send up fresh growth from below.  Without disturbance, they can't flourish.  This is simply how they've evolved alongside grazing animals in the wild.

At Reverse Pioneers Homestead, we practice rotational grazing with goats and chickens.  Every week we take down the fences and set them back up in a new area, slowly moving across the land in a pre-determined pattern.  The chickens follow loosely behind the goats.

The land gets an extra nutritional "boost" because of what we're feeding the animals.  The goats get fed hay; they eat off the seed pods & leaves, and then create a bed for themselves by spreading around the remaining hay onto the ground.  This acts as a mulch by shading the sun and preventing water loss.  Through the goats' stomping action the soil breaks up, and the hay eventually decomposes and contributes to the micro-biome in the soil.  Less evaporation means better water retention, which is sorely needed in the arid hill country.
The goats nibbling on hay...
...and distributing the rest on the ground for bedding
The chickens are fed the scraps of our sunflower trays.  We only harvest the top inch of so of the sprouts, so a good deal of stalk is left behind.  Sometimes if the trays grow unevenly, we don't bother to harvest some sections of the sprouts.  The contents of the harvested trays are dumped into the chickens' area, and they get a tasty treat of greens!  Whatever they don't eat is wonderful "ground food", depositing a bunch of vitamins A-E, calcium, iron, folate, and magnesium into the soil.

sunflower sprout scraps thrown into the chicken pen
Eventually the nutrition from the sprouts get added into the chickens (and back into the ground through their poop), or directly into the ground through decomposition.

Once the goats and chickens have done their soil-building jobs on a section of land, we practice "seed and cover".  Kayce and Michael use a website that custom-makes seed blends based on your climate, soil, animals, and goals.  We cast the seeds out and then cover them with hay for mulch and sun protection.
cover crop seed mix

mulching the seeds with hay

Ideally, these seeds sprout and the ground becomes covered in greenery.  This is all thanks to the goats and chickens who used their bodies to enhance the micro-biome in the soil.  They transferred the nutrients from shrubs, trees, some grass, and leftover sprout scraps into the ground.  They are actively transforming dry, desolate ground into moist, fertile soil.  All the while, providing us delicious eggs and milk!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reverse Pioneers

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.  Last week we said “so long” to Scape Goat Ranch and moved on to Reverse Pioneers homestead.  It’s located in Blanco TX, which is still about an hour outside of Austin.  Blanco itself is a pretty tiny town, but offers a surprising amount of community events, classes, and locally-sourced restaurants and cafes.  We found the homestead owners Kayce and Michael on the WWOOF site, where they describe themselves primarily as “permaculturists and holistic management practitioners”.  Their main goal is to reverse the damage on their dry and brittle temperate grassland while providing for human needs.  They studied permaculture design in Thailand and have been implementing those practices on their 12 acres, and it shows.  Both of them hope to incorporate art, culture, education, and entertainment into the farm to reconnect people to their natural landscapes.  It’s these sort of reverse trends they’re after that give them their name.
Michael, Kayce, and baby Louisa (she's more of a toddler these days)

Reverse Pioneers (RP) is home to three Nubian goats and around ten chickens, which all play a vital role in the regeneration and nutrient building of their land (I’ll explain more in a later blog about how rotational grazing and ground feeding helps restore their soil biology).  The goats are named Darla, Ren, and Lurlene, and they produce the most delicious goat milk I’ve ever tasted.  While most goat milk has a distinct tanginess (or as some people call it, “goatiness”) to it, RP’s milk is incredibly clean and smooth.  I can’t taste a difference at all between their milk and raw cow’s milk.  I think it might have something to do with the fact that they don’t keep a stud on their property.  If a male goat is in rut (mating season) and is around the females, it can dramatically alter the flavor of the milk.  All 3 females are pregnant, and will likely kid in February (Kayce and Michael rented a stud to knock up their goats).  They’ll keep any females that Lurlene and Ren have, but Darla has had some health issues, so they’ll sell hers if they’re female.  Any males will get butchered for the homestead (so I can finally try some goat meat).  There are a few too many roosters these days at RP, so we’ll likely be butchering a couple of them within the next few weeks.  There is also very small garden which Kayce hopes we can expand in our few months here, and they’ve began direct sowing into the ground where the animals have worked.
Lurlene and Darla

RP is also home to Kayce and Michael’s adorable 16 month old daughter named Louisa.  She’s super quiet (although knows words/phrases in English, Portuguese, and her own sign language), sweet, smiley, and a huge animal lover.  She thinks Paisley is the funniest dog on the planet and loves to watch her chase toys.  She also seems to demand my full attention when we’re in the same room, and starts to shout the second I turn away from her.  This bodes well for the fact that I’ll be on babysitting duty a few times throughout the week.  They have a dog, Sasha, and three cats, who are the most desperately loving animals I’ve ever met.

the cutest <3




Kayce and Michael moved onto the land with the hope of eventually quitting any off-farm jobs, and using the homestead as their main source of income.  For most farms and homesteads, it takes many years before the farm no longer requires supplemental income and can be self-sufficient.  Somehow, these two homesteaders managed to turn a profit within the first couple of years! This was another major draw of RP for me and Sean; we can certainly learn a lot from them on the business and management side of homesteading.  They accomplished their goal by focusing on microgreens as a source of income.  Microgreens are essentially sprouts that are harvested after they’ve only grown a couple inches tall (think about sprouts on Jimmy John subs).  Kayce and Michael grow sunflower sprouts, which are particularly hardy and nutrient-dense.  They grow the greens in trays in their greenhouse, and produce around 50 pounds of sprouts a week.  They sell the sprouts to local restaurants and bistros, as well as weekly farmer’s markets.  So, why sprouts?  They tend to be used in high-end restaurants (which are willing to pay top dollar for the fancy greens), they have a quick turnaround time (they are ready to harvest in about a week), they don’t require much water, and most importantly, Kayce and Michael enjoy eating them.  That’s one of the biggest lessons in homesteading; grow what you like.  Not to mention, their animals love the greens, so any overages go unwasted.  RP hopes to expand the variety of what they sell, but for now microgreens work best.  They hope to get some mushrooms cultivating within our time here, and hopefully start selling them as well.

Most of our day-to-day work is based around the sprouts; watering, tending, harvesting, and planting.  Once a week we move the animals and their fencing (again, I’ll explain more later) which takes the majority of the morning.  On top of this, we’ll be moving through different projects; improving the goat pen, building a new chicken coop, expanding the garden, improving greenhouses, and so forth.  One day a week I help Kayce with food prep (like baking bread or rendering lard) and I also take her baby from her so she can do non-mom things from time to time.  It’s a pretty great set-up!  They subscribe to a vegetable CSA and a meat CSA, have their own goat milk and cheeses, and do lots of bartering at the farmer’s markets, so the food is always great.  We cook most meals in our camper, which is parked on top of the driveway overlooking a pretty stellar view of the hill country.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Morning Routine at Scape Goat Ranch

            I wake up around 6:15 to COCKLEDOODLEDOO!  The roosters need to make sure everybody knows that it is officially morning, and they take that responsibility seriously.  Weary-eyed and still half-asleep, I eventually roll out of bed and into my work clothes.  As I open the door of our tiny A-frame camper, I’m greeted not only by a temperate post-summer breeze, but also by Bullet, the donkey.  He stays out overnight, as his primary role is farm bodyguard.  He’ll chase off coyotes, foxes, burglars, dogs… you name it.  I hastily close the door behind me so that he doesn’t try to attack Paisley, who is still lazing about belly-up on the bed.  I have to pee, and the only usable toilet is in Warring’s trailer, and I don’t want to wake her up.  Trees it is!  Bullet watches me curiously, almost judgmental.
Bullet hungrily waiting outside my door
            Feeding time.  Not for me, but for the animals who have been up for hours and are eagerly awaiting their breakfast.  Bullet follows me into his pen, and I throw some grain into his bowl.  I sneak out of his pen as quickly as possible, trying to avoid getting kicked by his powerful back legs. He can be a serious ass, but I still love him.
food stalking 
       The chickens are next; they get some pellets (no corn or soy here, thank you very much) and water.  The hen coop can be tricky; they have a “feeding tube” that was fashioned out of large PVC piping.  It pull it out through a hole, fill it up with their breakfast, and shove it back in, trying to prop it back up correctly as countless birds start jumping on the pipe to eat.  I fail a few times until I finally muscle it into place, probably pinching a few little chicken feet in the process, and getting a decent forearm workout.  Apparently this is easier than just throwing food into the coop; the chickens used to fly at the door when Warring opened it up to throw pellets down.  Understandably, she didn’t want her face scratched anymore. 

With my heart rate slightly elevated, I move on to the turkeys, who pose their own challenge.  “Stubs”, the turkey who got part of his beak chewed off by a raccoon, can be pretty aggressive, especially at feeding time.  I throw a cup of feed on the ground for them, but stubs can’t eat anything off the ground due to his deformed face.  So I place the feed bucket down at his level, which he gets to nibble at for a few minutes.  Taking the bucket away from him is the tough part.  He likes to charge at me full speed and talons first, even though I just gifted him with a delicious breakfast.  Not cool, stubs.  I throw a rock at him (the only way to fend him off) and walk away, pretending like my feelings aren’t hurt.
Paisley's face when I catch her eating bird food off the ground
          The adult guinea fowl are much more agreeable; I throw food into their pen, open the door for them, and move on.  The baby guinea fowl (or “guinea keats”) are absolutely petrified of me, and try their best to fly through the walls of their coop as I open the door.  I mutter some sort of soothing greeting, trying to calm them the hell down.  They’re big fans of pooping in their food, so I empty their day-old bowl and fill it up with fresh stuff.  They don’t really seem to notice a difference.  The pheasant next door paces awkwardly as I fill up her food and water.  She likes to peck at the fencing in her coop as I do this.  I asked another volunteer about this behavior, and she explained that the pheasant gets so excited about food that she just tries to devour whatever she can.  Or it’s a nervous tick.

adult guineas

guinea keets (they're almost adults now)
        I check up on Phyllis the Silky Chicken, who has recently hatched out 5 chicks.  They’re all quite mobile, and scurry about the cage as I dole out their meal.  I can’t help but to take a 5-minute break to watch these adorable little chicks.  Phyllis is a great mom.  In the earlier days, some of the chicks would jump out of the nest prematurely, and Phyllis was always quick to go check up on them and provide them warmth.  These days, she gathers her babies around and shows them how to use their feet to turn up hay and soil, looking for food below.  They mock her behavior and it is the cutest.
Silky chicks
I tear myself away from fuzzy babies and enter the duck pen, immediately greeted by a swarm of midges.  They’re really hard to keep away; even after a deep clean of the pen, the tiny bugs came back.  Trying not to breathe too deeply, I clean out and refill their water.  They get a few scoops of duck feed (fish-based), and then I hose down the entire coop to distribute the duck poop out.  I look around for eggs; there is usually one or two hiding in the corner.  I spend a couple of moments basking in awe at the “Quackaponics” (aquaponics in the duck pen) that James and Warring created.  Right now they're growing grasses and greens for chicken feed.

I come out of the duck pen and notice Paisley is guarding my coffee like a good girl
One of the ducks lives in the garden due to an injury
The rabbits are tucked in the front corner of the property, nearby the dog pen.  They’re very simple creatures, almost boring.  They just stare dully as I top off their hay and give them fresh water.  The cages hover overtop the “poop slide”, a slanted piece of roofing upon which all their droppings drop.  In theory, their spherical poop will just roll down the slide and out into the bucket outside, but in practice, the poop just lands there.  So I grab the hose and spray down the slide, accidentally showering the bunnies here and there.  I give the bunnies a little TLC before I move on.

It’s finally goat time, and I start with the bucks (the older males).  Their names are Cardamom and Zeigen.  Cardamom was getting far too aggressive before I arrived on the farm… he tried mounting Warring a couple of times.  So he got neutered and now he’s much more calm.  Zeigen is the stud of the pack; all the babies this year were his.  I throw some hay into their bins, trying to not touch Zeigen in the process.  He’s in rut and smells terrible.  Once they’ve eaten their hay, I grab a rope and get prepared to give them their goat feed.  With their food bins in place on the fence, I hold Z’s food in one hand and Cardamom’s in the other.  I do a little fake-out dance to avoid them both going in on the same food dish (it would get ugly).  When they’re both happily at their stands, I proceed to wrap the rope around Cardamom’s horns, and secure him to the fence with a double clove hitch.  He sometimes finishes his food first and goes after Zeigen, hence the rope of shame.  I would jump in the pen to dump out their water, but then Z would probably come try to get on my back, so I save that job for a man.
Cardamom (left) and Zeigen (right)
The lady goats are next up.  My first job is to get one of the goats, Ginger, out of the pen without letting anyone else out.  Ginger is head of the pack and gets super aggressive during feeding time, so she eats alone.  I stand by the door and whisper her name, hoping she’ll catch on, but all the goats immediately perk up and barge at the door.  I reach over the fence, grab one of Ginger’s horns, and start pulling her toward the door.  The other goats feel this is a good time to start jumping up on the door (which only opens inwards) and ramming their horns in the general direction of my body.  After a few moments of commotion, Ginger manages to slip out and runs directly to her food bowl.  Now I get in the goat pen, grab three big bowls of food, and try to get them all placed on the ground in different locations without dropping anything.  The goats think that they’ll get their food more quickly if they jump at my back or head-butt my knees, but it really just results in bruising.  Once all three bowls are on the ground, it’s time to patrol the feeding.  Most of the time, one of the bowls is deemed the happening place, so I end up moving goats around to evenly distribute the feeding.  The poor little girls have to deal with a lot of head-butting from the bigger girls, so I try to make sure everyone gets their share.  The same process then occurs with the wethers (little boys), but it goes much more smoothly given there’s only three of them.  The smallest wether, Chip, sometimes gets beat-up by the other two, so he eats his own food in his little house. All the goats get let out and I get to hang back and clean up all of their poop.
I don't have any photos of the goat feeding process, so I snagged this from Warring
Once everyone has finished their breakfast, I let the chickens out and search for eggs.  They have nesting boxes, but some of the ladies prefer to wait until they have access to awesome hiding places outside to lay their eggs.  So I do a quick scavenger hunt around the property, and usually find 10-15 eggs.  I take them into the kitchen where they join the dozens of other eggs, awaiting to be eaten by us or traded with one of Warring’s many friends for meat or other goods.
I throw together a quick breakfast featuring delicious farm-fresh eggs.  We usually eat outside and watch the animal "happy hour".  Warring usually lets the kitties and dogs out at this time, so there's a lot of activity.  We finish up eating, drink coffee and cuddle with animals, and plan out whatever is ahead for the rest of the day.  

Sean & Jux, the love bug

'til next time...

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Scape Goat Ranch: first glance

There are a handful of reasons that I find myself in Austin Texas for the winter: to escape the cold, to have loads of climbing at my fingertips, and to be close to a forward-thinking, locally-focused, and outdoor recreation-based city.  More than anything, though, I was eager to finally connect in-person with Warring and James at Scape Goat Ranch.  I found them while searching on the WWOOF site for permaculture-based farms in the Austin area.  In Warring’s words, they are practicing radical self-reliance using punk-rock/alternative approaches to permaculture and organic farming.  Their mission aligned well with the farming and lifestyle principles that I’m currently striving for, and after a short chat on the phone with Warring I knew that we would be a good fit.
            We arrived after a full and indulgent wedding weekend in New Orleans.  The peace and quiet in the rural hills outside of Austin were the perfect remedy to our over-stimulated minds and bodies.  At first glance, Scape Goat Ranch couldn’t be more different than Chanticleer Gardens, our last farm in New Hampshire.  Scape Goat isn’t immediately breathtaking.  It didn’t help that our first two days were rainy and cloudy.  The ground is mostly dirt and gravel, as the goats have overgrazed the land (plans to eradicate this issue are being formulated).  There’s no typical “house”, just RVs, trailers, storage containers, and animal coops.  Pallets run along side-by-side, connecting buildings as a type of sidewalk to help with muddiness during rains.

After a couple of days, though, I started to really see the charm of this homestead.  Sitting down with Warring and James, I discovered how far along this place has come and the big plans ahead for us.  Once we get fencing put up, the goats will be rotated through the land, allowing the grasses and wildflowers to fill back in the landscape.  We’ll be constructing a greenhouse, expanding the outdoor garden, planting a new lavender & wildflower section, and improving various animal structures of the farm.  Once the rain clouds cleared out, a gorgeous view of the hill country surrounded us.  They have about 12 acres, and most of it is still woodsy.  James cleared a big trail loop through that part of the property, and I’ve been enjoying going for strolls under the cedar trees with Paisley and practicing yoga with the sounds of mourning doves and wrens around me.  It’s really quite lovely here, and the “grunginess” adds to the overall radical, “think outside the box” experience.  We’ve even gotten used to the fact that there is no sewage on the property.  I’ll spare you the details.
community kitchen

Hammock view


Warring and James are the definitions of gracious hosts.  They truly want us to feel on their level when it comes to making decisions on the farm.  Warring is eager to tap into our previous experiences with WWOOFing to help her with figure out garden plans and greenhouse construction.  She’s always making sure that we have what we need and that we’re doing well each day.  The work load is extremely laid back; one of the first things James said to me was “we’re not slave drivers here”.  More than bringing in WWOOFers that they can utilize for work, they simply want to host people they jive with and those who can help create a sense of community on the ranch.  Warring especially wants to be a missionary in spreading the word of counter culture, self-sustainability, and alternative living options, and she’s said that hosting WWOOFers is her way of contributing to that cause.  In her words, she’s not trying to squeeze out every nickel and dime of work from us, she just wants us to become a part of their “crooked farm”.  That being said, we’re slowly getting guidance on various projects and hope that we’ll keep ourselves busy over the next few months.  The two of them are extremely interesting people; Warring is an ex-stage performer and worked in PR in Los Angeles, while James works in animatronics.  He worked on some big productions while in LA, like Pirates of the Caribbean.  He even drove around with Johnny Depp once.  Jealous.  The city became too much for both of them, and they wanted to move back close to family and reconnect with their roots.  James has been on this property for five years, Warring three.

The animals are the backbone of Scape Goat Ranch.   There are around 15 female goats, 5 male goats, a donkey, a dozen guinea fowl, 50ish chickens, 10 ducks, a pheasant, 3 turkeys, a few tarantulas, 9 cats, and 3 dogs.  And a partridge in a pear tree!  Animal care is our number one focus for now; morning and afternoon chores are a must.  Each animal has its own personality, and their moods vary depending on the time of day and when their last meal was (I understand).  All of the birds are raised for their eggs, and males & older females end up being processed for meat.  During a phone conversation with Warring last year, I mentioned that I was transitioning out of vegetarianism, but that I was looking forward to working on a farm that produced ethical, free-range meat.  She agreed that Scape Goat would be a great place to help me connect with my meat sources, and that “life and death are equally celebrated” on the ranch.  I got thrown into it more quickly than I thought; our first weekend here consisted of processing 2 chickens and 2 ducks. Warring makes sure that the entire process is as stress-free and pain-free as possible… she even meditates with the birds for a few minutes before slaughter to calm them down.  I didn’t actually kill any of them this time, but I watched carefully so that next time I’ll know what I’m doing.  I plucked all of them, and let me tell you, the amount of down feathers on ducks is astounding.  The whole process for 4 birds took us about 3 hours.  Sean and our fellow WWOOFer Matt did the butchering, which I hope to do next time.  It reminded me of dissections in my Comperative Vertebrae Anatomy class.  Two days later, we ate roasted duck for dinner, and gave much gratitude for the lives we took to nourish ourselves.  It was the first time I’ve ever eaten meat that I helped raise, and it was truly gratifying.  And delicious.

More photos to come... I've been slacking.