I realize that your experience and goals are for very different ecosystems than what I'm faced with, but as always there are similarities. The south east coast of Vancouver Island has a "Mediterranean" climate of long cool springs followed by drought lasting 3 to 5 mnths. With climate change, things are getting more irratic. We are trying to improve the soil in an approximate 3 acre field with 3 zones. The field is more or less surrounded by tall cedar forest (some Doug fir and deciduous in the mix - Mother Nature grows really tall trees on the west coast, so sun is limited in areas in morning and evening). There are 5 large maple trees that were left when the land was cleared, dotting the field and showing their age with signs of rot. There are sections of the field where Himalayan Blackberries have taken over, and nothing so far has enabled me to beat them back, although I'm beginning to consider trying "chop and drop" just as a soil building strategy.
1. There is an upper zone of very thin soil, lots of rocks, and lots of weed growth. We are running portable chickenshelters there in the winter when the lower zones flood. The chickens have made the land *very* uneven digging their dust baths. This year I observed many more dandelions, which I actually consider a good sign.
2. There is a middle zone which is sloped - slightly better plant growth with more grass, but still many rocks. I've tried planting grass, but it's difficult to get the timing right (there's the "planning" part that I'm just not getting right!) and feel it's been unsuccessful.
3. The lower fairly flat ground is the largest section with a winter creek running through. It gets very soggy in the winter, with standing water if the rains are heavy. This area has had both meat chickens and layers in portable shelters on it very heavily for the last 5 years. The grass is thick due to the high nitrogen chicken shit. The problem is that we end up having to cut the grass in the spring or it grows too fast to move the shelters through, but if the grass is cut at the wrong time related to the weather, the grass goes dormant - normal for this climate - and we have nowhere for the shelters to go unless we irrigate.
Two years ago, our neighbour inherited a small group of sheep (7 at the moment). As he had only trees we have tried letting the sheep graze the field from the late spring until the fall rains. Last year I tried to divide the field for the spring, keeping the sheep from the start of the slope up to the top. This seemed very hard on the poor soil in the upper area, so this spring I had the owner put a second cross fence at the top of the slope. We started the animals in the middle zone. They ate it down fairly well. The weird weather we had, possibly coupled with the animal fertilization from last year has resulted in lush-looking weeds in the upper zone. In an effort to not have to mow any more than necessary to keep the two shelters up there still moving, we recently shifted the sheep to that area.
I have been trying to read about various "soil building" and "permaculture" approaches to land management, but I don't feel confident that I'm transfering the key needs to our small eco-system. Everything seems to take too much time and money, with too little results. We either seem to have too much grass, or not enough and are using far too much fossil fuels (and derivatives in the form of chicken feed grown elsewhere) for me to consider what we are doing sustainable. The other half doesn't read about permaculture (except a variation of what Joel Salatin does - without the large animals his land has benefited from) thus I need data and expert oppinions to help get him on board. I would like to consider adding some tree guild "islands" but am not sure what plants to use or whether this would really be an appropriate approach for this eco-system. [I was thinking a group with Castanea mollissima (Chinese chestnut), Elaeagnus spp, and Ribes uva-crispa (Gooseberry). Recently I bought a couple of Lonicera caerulea varieties (Honeyberry) to try in the civilized part of the property and since there is wild honeysuckle growing on some of the fence lines, I could try rooting cuttings of that to add to the group. ]I've tried to read about "forage trees" but worry about introducing something else if it might become invasive. There is "bonsai" Scotch broom as well as the Himalayan blackberry already there.
So some of my key questions:
1. Can the techniques the Savory Institute teaches apply to such a small patch with limited numbers of animals/species?
2. Does the Savory institute have anyone following your teachings in this eco-system? (the map on your website doesn't show any north of California on the coast, or in other areas I believe are identified as "Mediteranean Climate", but I am no expert in the area of geography!)
3. Can you think of ways I can "stockpile" grass or other forage crops - things that can be grown easily when the weather is good that will hold until the sun is too low in the sky for anything to actively grow? Most grasses in this area are types that go dormant in the summer dry spell and are green in the fall and winter, but I'm finding that the fall rains frequently come so late that although the grass turns green, there is not really enough hours of sunlight for it to actually grow much. The lower field zone is too wet to move the shelters through, but the upper zone is so fragile and has so little green that I'm having trouble judging if the chickens might be doing more harm than good even being moved on a daily basis, as frequently it seems that the shelter has to go back over a grazed area before the plants put on any new growth in the low light.
4. Similarly, can you think of shrubs or trees that can provide food for chickens in the heat of the summer when the grass has gone dormant?
5. Can you think of livestock that might be more appropriate than what I currently have available to me? In what sort of stocking rates?
6. We recently "adopted" two male muscovie ducks who do actively eat grass and don't dig the holes the chickens make. Do you think that muscovies might adapt to a portable shelter system and be an environmentally sound addition to the field? Out portable shelters are 10 by 12 ft bottomless hoop houses on wheels. At the moment we have a fleet of 6 of these opperational and a couple down for repairs. We have eagles, ravens, barred owls, hawks, raccoons and mink who all think chicken tastes delicious, so free range is not a safe option.
Sorry, this post is so long, and I'd love to have feed back from anyone with ideas. I am trying to leave at least this patch of planet Earth in better shape than I got it in!
Qberry farm is south of you at the same longitude. I am in the middle of the South Puget Sound on the Key Peninsula. My soil conditions are the same as you mentioned.
I have the advantage that the land has been worked for 100 years but the fragile middle slope is still a concern. This is what I have done.
The Himalayan Blackberries were seeded by the birds on the fence lines running north to south down the slope. Since I am no longer grazing animals, I took the fencing out and put the berries up on the posts with a top wire. The Himalayan Blackberries are quite manageable if they are trellised like other berry vines. They will try to root tip so while cutting out dead vines in the winter all tips trying to reach ground need to be cut back. I mow the grass on the flat with a blade on the trimmer, It uses very little gasoline in comparison to the riding lawn mower. I gather the windrow of grass that results and mulch the berry rows to keep grass from growing in the row and increase the fertility of the soil.
My berry rows [Boysenberry, Loganberry as well as the Himalayan Blackberries] are spaced six feet apart and my chicken tractors are 12 feet long and 4 feet wide with 4 lawn mower wheels each, therefore I can pull them up and down between the rows. After picking I can let the chickens out for a while in the afternoon and let them work the mulch over and eat the fallen berries. This seems to keep the insect pest down.
My buildings are on the upper part of the slope and the flower gardens are mulched with the grass and chippings of the berry vines and grape vines. The more level top of the property has fruit trees and some more Himalayan Blackberries which I have not tamed yet.
The transition between the sandy hillside and the flat white clay soil of the field becomes sub irrigated during the summer because the water percolating down through the sandy/gravely soil above is stopped by the clay. by keeping it mulched with the grass I can grow corn and other vegetables. I have also been experimenting with growing wheat on some spare patches to feed the chickens.
Jay I love your active seeking for solutions - just how I began so long ago. Please read other posts I have responded to in order to get a good feel for what managing holistically involves - using the holistic framework to help people like you sort out all that complexity, and then if livestock are involved using the planned grazing to deal with the complexity of animals having to be on the land and integrated with all other uses, cropping, weather, etc.
We have done a lot of work, including some of the pioneering work in Mediterranean climates such as you describe - but all of it on far larger areas of land to reverse the desertification. So all of that not much help to you other than if you do run livestock where it will help - seems to me you are holding sheep too long on the same land which will lead to problems.
Most of what I understand you are having to deal with on a small farm involves integrating many crops and small livestock - chickens, ducks, few sheep or whatever. In such cases we generally get people to do what you are doing - engage with permaculture and it's great network of people exchanging ideas and cropping practices.
There is no "body of knowledge" attached to the holistic framework as permaculture has - a body of knowledge. The areas where there is a body of knowledge associated with using the holistic framework are only those areas where entirely new thinking came about because of the insights that led to us being able to develop the framework. Those are the land infrastructure layout planning process associated with running large numbers of livestock (because we no longer had to isolate soil types, be influenced by existing development or water mainly) and of course the holistic grazing planning process. Other than those two areas the only other specific body of knowledge is the holistic financial planning process. This has retained all that any good business did with financial planning and cash flowing, but brought in new thinking in a few important areas. That process would help any farmer.
Sorry I cannot be of more help. My mind is still grappling with too much grass growth being a problem - wish I was with you to brainstorm how to turn that from problem to advantage.
Thank you for your reply. I've read some of the other posts on greening the desert, but will continue to read more as time allows. I did realize that most of your work relates to larger tracts of land, and some things are difficult to scale down and still maintain a cost/time effective pattern. I am very concerned that the sheep are staying too long in one area. The extra fence line installed this spring improved the situation but I will need to create either "living fence" barriers within the larger areas, or find a cost/time effective way of containing the sheep with electric fencing to smaller sections that are quick to shift. Electric fence can ground out if the grass it too high and wet. This spring my son built a "portable gate on wheels" that could be insterted where ever it is needed which will be an asset when we try to contain the sheep to smaller areas for briefer periods. Unfortunately, that "surplus of grass" concept you are grappling with is only true for 3 months out of 12. Finding environmentally sound solutions of animal feed for the other 9 mnths is very important to me. This is where I think tree or shrub fodder plants need to be integrated into the holistic plan for the sheep. If anyone can think of evergreen plants that are appropriate as part of chicken feed, I would be interested in trying those also. I am trying to expand the plantings of what seems to be a type of "Walking stick cabbage" that the chickens love. It can't be grown as pasture due to its height, but if it were grown as part of narrow hedge rows, the time to pick and deliver it would be much reduced. It doesn't grow very much during the winter, but it does hold growth made during the spring and summer.
Thanks again and I will continue to seek ideas and solutions and do my best to follow the dictum, "first do no harm".
Thank you so much for your thoughts and ideas. I am definitely trying to see the Blackberries as an asset rather than a liability and your suggestion of training them makes sense. Making it into some sort of living barrier to keep the deer and sheep where I want them has merrit, and my friends were pleased with my first attempt at Blackberry wine last summer, so I do know they have uses!
It hadn't occured to me to try using the cutting blade on the grass. The string blade simply tangled things up too much and the hedge trimmer is very exhausting to use. I will definitely try the cutting blade as soon as we get some sun. Last year I did use some of the long grass to cover damaged areas of soil in the upper zone, but I'm old school and tend to think of "composting" rather than "mulching". I'm definitely shifting and looking at many things - like dandelions - with fresh eyes and a wider perspective. It's not a "problem", it's an opportunity!
What are your chicken tractors made of? How many do you have? Are your chickens in them year round? How many do you keep in a single 4 by 12 space? Do you let them out most days, or only when the plants aren't in fruit? If groups from different shelters are out at the same time, has that led to problems? I definitely agree that the chickens keep bugs down and fertilize naturally. With your berry rows 6ft apart, the birds get protection from the flying predators that are a major threat where we farm. I need to see how I can change the patterns we are using in a large enough area to prove the concept.
Jay go to my response to Keri for further ideas on easily moved electric fence. And for gates we have long used a form of gate put anywhere along a more permanent electric fence - one where the whole fence lifts allowing a wide area for animals to move across. I believe the design is in our Handbook. Only some types of electric fence short out when touching wet grass - long ago we used the New Zealand stuff from Galigers in Paraguay - used single strand through long grass (actually meeting over the pickups) in very high rainfall and constantly wet - and that held very large herds of cattle with no problem.
As you requested more on the chicken tractors:
They were built for my sister apparently a 4H project for one of her friend's children. The design was to accommodate two 12x2 foot sheets of plastic roofing for the top which was fastened to a 2x2 inch wood frame frame with 4 cross pieces with a matching top frame for the pen. The pen has a 2x4 bottom frame with a 16 inch riser of 2x2 then another frame with the interior cross pieces 16 inches from the ends to serve as roosts then another 16 inch riser at each corner to the top frame. There is a screw eye in the center of each the interior cross pieces to hang the feeder and water. One of the three had a nest box on one end close to the ground for ducks. I moved it to the upper section of the end for the chickens but it had a tendency to get wet. Therefore when one that I loaned to a neighbor came back broken I built the nest box inside above the roost bar on one end which worked much better. I also made the roost bars in an X pattern for better bracing of ht shape of the pen when moving. The outside of the pen is covered with 32 inch high chicken wire which with the spacing of the framing seems to be strong enough to keep predators out. I lost the chickens to predators because of not shutting them back in in the evening. The pen with the nest box had wheels on the end with the nest box but the 2x4s were not pressure treated and the bolts pulled out of the rotting wood. I recommend treated wood for the bottom frame. Eventually I put 4 wheels on each pen with lag bolts that fit in the hub of the wheels with a big washer next to the wood.
Here is the story about the chickens and the wheat. Some of the lost grain came up the next spring. I was given a barred rock rooster who's head came to the top of the pen while the hens heads only came to the height of the roost. When the wheat got ripe the rooster wold grab a stalk in his beak and bend it down to the ground for the hens to peck the grain off the head.