Imagine if you could have a machine that cut your grass, got rid of your weeds, fertilised your soil AND gave great cuddles.
Livestock have come in for a lot of bad press recently. There are some excellent reasons for this. If we keep using them the way we do at present there is literally no chance of sticking to non-catastrophic levels of global warming. In the EU they produce more greenhouse gases than vans and cars combined.
But, like with most things, our silly human brains only absorb that information in one way – that farm animals are definitely awful all of the time. Then we think about it, chat to some people who might know a bit more than us, and do some reading. It turns out that we’re just using them wrong. Having taken plenty of advice we’re in the process of building a mixed herd here at Petalon. We’d like to explain why.
Weeding is the worst. When you grow in raised beds you have bare soil around your plants. Nature abhors a vacuum, so these get colonised by weeds, even if you use clever no-dig practices to keep them at bay in the short term. No-dig stops them coming from below, but where weeds grow outside your working area their seeds carry on the wind and are absolutely delighted to find your nice bare soil.
Fortunately, many breeds of sheep love eating weeds. Using portable fencing we are now moving our Gotland sheep around the fringes of our field and keeping those weeds right down. Prior to their arrival we spent days of labour pulling up these weeds and wishing pesticides weren’t the devil. Thanks to the Gotlands we now don’t spend any time doing this, plus we get to hang out with some mighty handsome balls of wool.
Last year we spend a lot of time strimming. The thing about strimming is that it’s great fun the first time, but has rapidly diminishing returns. We are now very bored of strimming. Our animals take a job that we consider a chore and have turned it in to a sustainable way of feeding them. In the same way as with our weeds, by keeping the grass a bit lower we don’t allow it to go to seed and infiltrate the growing beds.
Though many plants fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, the soil life that utilises that nitrogen prefers it in poo format to plant format, so you’re better off letting them eat the cover crops and poo it back into the ground. If they trample it in a bit, then all the better.
But it isn’t all about poo. A mixed pasture is evolved to interact with large herbivores. Quite a few things go in to this process, but the net effect is that soil health is better and things grow faster if it is “mob-grazed”. This means allowing animals to heavily graze a small area over a short period of time, before moving them on for a long time. This aims to replicate how land would have been grazed by nomadic groups of animals for hundreds of thousands of years before we came along, and the evidence suggests it’s still what plants and soil prefer.
We currently have a small herd of Gotland ewes who were surplus to another farm’s requirements on account of their “lumpy udders”. In the Spring we are taking on a small group of Valais Blacknose sheep and a few Kunekune pigs. We’re still on the hunt for some cows. We need to make them super-tame because we don’t have the facilities or the desire to restrain them for vet testing so will either need to take some very young ones and handle them a lot, or some older retirees that are very used to being with people. Let us know if you have any hot leads.
Why so many different animals? Like most things, soil prefers variety. Variety in the plants that grow in it and variety in the animals that graze it. The varied effects of these animals through their weight, hooves, diets and poo should make for a very fertile mix. We’ll move them through our larger field, munching the cover crop / herbal ley that will be up to our knees by the Spring. In the areas they’ve just been moved on from we’ll bring in our chickens and ducks to scratch up the ground and add their own unique contributions. Following this we’ll lay thin cardboard as a weed suppressant and drop green waste on top to make big blocks of growing space. After the green waste has been raked flat we’ll wait a few weeks for the card to soften and start planting in the top! These big growing blocks will be used to grow flowers that we know suit our soils, climate and process well based on our experience from the other fields.
We’ll keep you posted on instagram as the new animals arrive.Back to blog