A brief back story... I am sort of new to permaculture (didn't know my way of thinking had a name) and a green farmer. I have limited "old" farming knowledge from my father who grew up on a generational rural farm. That's how I came across permaculture, I knew we could work with nature rather than against her. Before I even heard about permaculture or sepp holzer my ultimate long-term plan was to have a 100% certified organic property and produce that doesn't require the resource inputs that most conventional farmers put in. I wanted it to be self-sufficient, but it doesn't need to be a huge money maker (though I will continue to work towards that too). My property and everything on it has major issues and so we are cleaning the slate and starting completely new. I have researched and found appropriate solutions to all issues except one:
Problem... our 160 acre farm housed too many cattle and the previous owners ran heavy equipment when the ground was very wet (we have high clay), both have utterly destroyed the ground. We need to repair the land before we can consider having animals of our own (bison, turkeys, and a few goats). In the meantime we've been haying the pastures (which is about 70 acres the rest is in trees), and to give you a sense of how bad the land is, we have been almost thrown from our tractor haying. I am currently looking for a deep plough, as this will help with surface run off and pulling organic matter further into the clay rich soil. The land has been left fallow for 4 years now and all we've done was hay, so its in pretty good shape other than the unlevelness. But how to rectify it with the least amount of damage? How do I level it without ripping "the crap out of" the surface (harrowing), or risk compaction by using a roller. Once it's been corrected I will not use equipment on it again unless I absolutely have to. I plan on designated roads for equipment throughout the property and want only animals on the pastures.
Problem complication... I have multiple chemical sensitivities that almost killed me (unfortunately so to do my two very young children) which forced us to buy this farm away from cities before we were ready. Because I am still very sick and we do not get help out here, my husband is doing most of the work himself in evenings and weekends. I try to help as I can. So we have very limited resources of all kinds. We need to correct the unlevelness in the most time, cost, and energy efficient way while doing the least amount of harm. If there is such an animal.
Any suggestions achieving the above would be awesome!!! Thank you!
Howdy C, welcome to Permies! We are sort of a different bunch around here so some of the responses to your post may sound sort of weird to you, but believe me there is a reason for them.
There is a ton of knowledge here and lots of threads about pastures and hay. Hopefully you will take some time to read a bunch of them.
One of the things I am wondering is why you would want to level the field or plow it?
There are several folks here who are doing away with haying all together.
This cuts costs and work and they are proving it can be done year round.
There are also some discusions on how animals ,grazed correctly, can repair your land.
There is also a technique called keyline plowing that may help.
I am sure others will be along shortly to fill in the blanks.
One thought is that haying, IMHE, really depletes the soil. All the carbon and nutrients that the plants manage to bring up out of the soil are removed. For that reason I would not call haying "fallow".
Slow and steady wins the race with farming. I would try letting the pastures truly go fallow for a year. No harvesting of vegetation at all. Then do rotational grazing, preferrably with sheep and goats, for a year or two.
I think that will really help your soil health, and give you a better idea of just how good/bad your situation is. Given time, I bet your soils are better than you might think.
Level pastures are not needed for good farming. Do you irrigate? That would be the only reason I can think of to want evenly graded land. Otherwise I would invest your efforts into good livestock-based land stewardship, maybe soil testing and appropriate non-chemical ammendments. Go slow, let nature do the work.
To clarify, we "have to" hay (or sometimes just mow down the grass) until we can afford animals. Once we can afford animals we won't be haying anymore. And why we need to mow/hay, we have a huge amount of wetland, ponds, lakes around the area, that are not necessarily healthy and definitely lack biodiversity, and so there is a lack of beneficial insects and predators of biting bugs. I will be remedying this as well. The amount of biting bugs are so great that we cannot go outside without full bug jackets and being fully covered and there is no time of day when we are not attacked. Not so nice when we have hard work to do and its hot outside. What doesn't help is that my children and I cannot use bug dope (my children even react to citronella but I found that is ineffective here anyhow). And I've tried every natural alternative on the web, we even own a mosquito magnet. We find that keeping the grass down helps keep the bugs at a distance as the house is mainly surrounded by pasture. It's a matter of survival until we get the farm up and working which will not be for quite a few years. This is why the ground needs to be somewhat level, so we can safely run a tractor across it.
Good point, haying is not fallow. It was fallow last year: we didn't have time to mow it down. The soil is good, and I love the clay, we never have to water. But the low permeability needs to be addressed a bit, we have a lot of run off and that wetness stays for days, if not longer, on the surface. We need it to permeate a little faster. That's what I mean by the clay needs to be addressed.
As I mentioned before we plan on buying/renting a deep plow (subsoil plow, yeomans plow, whatever you prefer to call it) to not only address the clay, but because the past owners ruin the ground they created wet areas in every ditch, depression, tire track, etc that they made: thus adding to the mosquito and no-see-um population. However, I'll be able to build a natural swimming pond without a problem here I've spent 4 years now looking at everything on this farm and addressing the issues holistically. That's why we are cleaning the slate, the previous owners were so ignorant of nature and her processes, that they did everything wrong (and I mean everything) which has caused so many serious issues that it's too numerous to talk about on this forum. And I know people will ask "well why did you buy the farm", it was literally "live here or die" what would you choose?
So this is where we are and as I've said, my only issue is trying to mitigate the unlevelness with the least amount of damage and resources. Would just using a deep plow level the ground? I've never used a deep plow before so I have no reference to draw from and I cannot find any mention of this on the web. Or would we have to use a deep plow and a light harrowing? I don't know. That's why I'm here asking you veterans. Thanks again for all you input, I really do appreciate the help.
Have you looked into an Epps fly trap to help with the biting flies, they are very effective and simple to use, and they cover about ten acres. I had really good luck leveling out a pasture by mob grazing cows on it when it was a little wet, but you've got to have enough cows, that will respect portable electric fence. I don't think it would be so successful trying to crowd buffalo! Controlled grazing of trained cattle can do some amazing landscaping work, eliminating weeds, leveling ground, and getting the grass and legumes to grow thicker. You don't have to own the cows, either. In most areas I think you could find people looking for pasture who will pay you to watch their cattle while they improve your land. If you are just overwhelmed with the work a new place takes, though, mow your fields with a flail mower and you'll be doing your soil a favor, instead of haying it or letting it fallow. Haying removes nutrients and reduces the pasture diversity; letting it fallow speeds it's return to forest and weakens the stand as a whole. A flail mower chops the grass fine and allows it to act as mulch. Improved grazing management will heal the whole water cycle and may eliminate the need for heavy equipment to subsoil.
I'm finding that a whole lot of chickens will really take care of bug issues. Some electric net fence to protect them from predators and a nice coop with nest boxes and you're on your way to turning pasture and bugs into eggs and meat. They do an OK job at scratching the surface up but not much for deep tillage. Pigs seem to doa pretty good job at digging and you may find them useful in sealing a pond. They will also eat rodents and pasture so if done right you don't have to mow and you'll get pork in return. Don't forget that all the manure will add fertility to the pasture.
That's the bacon and egg pasture system in a nutshell.
I agree with the others here, the last thing you want to do is plow the fields up. That will do more damage from a permaculture standpoint. You want the texture in the land.You need the texture in the land. If anything, you want to add more texture to the land to deal with the water issues. You need swales to channel that water into ponds. Swales and ponds create edges and that is where you will see your greatest productivity. Use that hay to create organic matter that will attract earthworms which will aerate your soil better than any plow will do. A few goats and a dozen chickens will not cost you much and will do the work for you. I'd also recommend pigs and geese as they will love the uneven fields and will help restore the land the fastest.
Also, haying a field leads to 55%-70% fewer spiders and ground beetles which are your main predators for your biting insects (spiders deal with the adults and beetles go for the larvae). While the haying might reduce the numbers of biting insects temporarily, you are giving them the advantage in the long run by killing their predators. Flies and the such survive by breeding quickly where as predators typically breed slowly. The fly population will rebound quickly relatively quickly after you hay a field but it can take a full year for the population of spiders and beetles to recover. Unfortunately there is no quick solution to this but if you keep doing what you are currently doing, it will not fix the problem, only exacerbate it.
Maybe it would be a good time to make a list of your assets and your aspirations for your property. I would emphasize that you dont have to do anything. All are choices.
Seems like with 70 acres of pasture, you could contract it out to another farmer to responsible graze. That would solve quite a few problems at once, and earn you some money, without any labor inputs.
Sometimes stepping back from the 'problem', and considering things from a different paradigm, such as what do I have and what would I like, can yield new and unimagined solutions.
Unless there is a very good plan, heavy machinery almost always creates more problems than it solves. Especially so if the origional problem was heavy machinery.
One resource I would highly reccomend is Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It really is a book about problem solving and decision making more than anything else. Though it is also an excellent text on healing the Earth with livestock.
I've heard several people say that muscovy ducks will get rid of mosquito problems. With all that water they should be quite happy there! They'll also add fertilizer (our grass never looked as green as when we had ducks and geese pooping everywhere - stayed green right through a drought!) and eat slugs and other nasties.
Do you have any animals yet?
I agree with the others, haying removes fertility.
I've had a lot of people tell me that weeping willows suck the moisture out of the soil, making marshy areas much drier - they also make good livestock fodder. And they're FREE if you can find a weeping willow tree you can get cuttings from - just stick the (pencil-sized) cuttings in the soil (make sure the right end is in the soil - some do it by cutting the bottom at an angle and the top straight across) in early spring before they've started to leaf out and you should have a new tree in no time. Some say they're messy trees, dropping branches and leaves but all that is organic matter that adds fertility to the soil!
What clay soil needs is deep rooted plants to increase life in the soil that feeds off of the sugars roots release just for that purpose and feeds off the dead roots. Those bacteria, fungi, etc. will fill the soil with threads that open it up and hold air spaces to make it absorb water better, hold nutrients and make air pockets so the plant roots can grow even deeper. The roots only grow as deep as there is "top" sticking out of the ground to support them, so mowing not only cuts the tops off but also makes the roots withdraw back toward the surface instead of pushing ever deeper. If you mow but don't bale, you add mulch to the surface which will break down to feed soil organisms and be carried further into the soil by worms, so that will increase the fertility some but it will happen in winter without any gasoline, machinery or effort as well.
If you really are years away from pasturing animals, it could be the perfect time to establish some lines of food forest/windbreaks. Many of those trees can be free as well - plant rows of seeds from apples, peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines, apricots, etc. and see what comes up next spring. Then transplant them to locations where you'd like them to grow (or you can plant them in place but you may risk them getting lost in tall grass and smothered before they get a chance to grow).
Some are in favor of keyline plowing but I've also read that in some soils you have to do it every few months because it doesn't last very long. IMHO making some swales to push water along and collect it in ponds would be a better use of your money.
If your ponds don't have any fish in them, release some bait minnows (live, of course). They're native to the area, reproduce rapidly, and will eat the mosquito larvae for you. Plus they're super cheap. I got a pound of them from a fish truck for $8.50. If you have rain barrels they also harbor mosquito larvae but get too hot for minnows - get some cheap feeder goldfish (usually around 10 cents each) and put 2 in each barrel. Also see if your husband can clean out your rain gutters, they often harbor mosquitoes. We've found that lemon balm leaves rubbed on our skin helped repel them pretty well, but a clean diet with lots of green leafy vegetables IMHO makes you a less desired host to them.
I have MCS too but not as bad as it sounds like you do. I have to use Milk of Magnesia for deodorant and vinegar and baking soda instead of shampoo. I wash the laundry with oxyclean with a vinegar rinse to get residues off the clothing. I only clean the house with dish soap, vinegar, and baking soda, sometimes oxyclean or Barkeeper's Friend if I need extra help. I get a migraine from walking through a perfume section of a store or the cleaning or fertilizer section.