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Hi from COSTA RICA (plus questions)!  RSS feed

 
Sergio Santoro
Posts: 256
Location: Nicoya, Costa Rica
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Hello,

my name is Sergio, I'm an Italian 36 y/o Hindu monk (for lack of a better English term) and I am living in an organic farm/yoga ashram in the middle of the forest in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
I said forest, but it's mosty pasture land; very dry out here compared to the South of the country, the kind of hazy tropical forest you guys may be thinking of.
We have a rainy season that goes from Apr/May to Now/Dec and then bone dry from Dec/Apr.
Our province of Guanacaste is famous for how hot it is, but we are on a hill top, so we can afford to have a couple of Jerseys (after some acclimatization).
Our land is some 145 acres, but mostly steep. We have some 10 acres (wild guess) of pasture land that we just cleared. We have 9 cows, of which 6 normal size, two Jersey heifers, then a miniature Zebu cutie bull who is going to be the progenitor or our future herd of miniature jerzebus. The idea is to have small cows that need less pasture land, but will produce a lot of milk (at least for the few of us).
We are all vegetarians, besides the cows we have 3 horses, 3 dogs, 1 cat, a banana grove, a greenhouse that's doing terrible. Actually too many trees and vegetables to list them all. Fighting local fungi and viruses has been really tough, though.
I'll be happy to send pictures if anyone is interested.

So, I knew very vaguely about permaculture, but got really into it this last week, and I'm convinced it's the way to go. I saw a ton of videos, but now I need to be corresponding with real people.
Here are my initial questions.

1.SWALES Does a swale really provide moisture for as long a stretch as our dry season is, or just for the first couple of months after the rainy season? I saw the video about greening up the Jordan desert, so I am hopeful. We all live in cabins here. The kitchen cabin, according to the local style, has a drain pipe from the sink that issues right below the cabin. I thought a swale would be great for catching that water and irrigate the bit of slope underneath, which we are incidentally landscaping. Is the only prerequisite for a swale that they be level and along with the contour of the land?
I have some pintoi peanut growing in that area, and that makes quite a thick mesh, but in general I wonder, wouldn't all that moisture "pluming" under a swale make the slope soft and prone to landslides?
Another area I'd like to swale is right below the road that gets to our zone 0. The road is cut out of the side of the hill; below it we just deforested to make pasture, and I'm afraid that with the first rain the water rolling down from the mountain will wash out our road.
If I put a swale right alongside the road, at the top of the pasture, and planted pintoi peanut on the swale's berm, would that help? Considering there is no established vegetation underneath, wouldn't the swale just increase the moisture of the ground and cause a mudslide in the long run?
I'm trying to convince everybody here of the efficacy of permaculture and I can't make mistakes.

2 PASTURES. What ways are there to optimize the pastures? I promise I'll search around in the forum for past threads, but in case my situation is unique, here it goes.
As you know, we have 9 cows, only one milker and already an unwanted pregnancy. Since we don't kill our cows, the increasing herd and the reduce pasture pose quite a problem. What or how can I plant in such a way that our animals get the most nutrition from the least amount of land?
Right now we are telling each other we are organic farmers, but there is a lot of work to do, meanwhile we need to feed our animals, plants and ourselves, so already twice the pastures got sprayed with herbicides and fertilizers. We are planting the most productive grass for this area, but I know there must be a way to optimize it much more. I'm thinking, swales, trees for shade that also provide nutrition, combined feed (pintoi peanut, grass, cane). I am really groping in the dark. While I realize that permaculture provides a vision rather than a specific method, any direction would be good.

Thanks in advance!

Sd
 
            
Posts: 77
Location: Northport, Wash.
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Hello Sergio,
It is a little difficult to answer specific questions without being familiar with your area, although, permaculture principles can apply everywhere.

I don't know how familiar you are with those principles, but they are easily found on the internet.  Just knowing those principles won't answer all your questions though, but they can tell you how to apply the knowledge you will have to learn in order to make your project a success.

It is very important to first have knowledge of your local plants, ecosystems, etc.  Once you are familiar with those, you can start to use the Perm. Principles to manage your operation.

To us, we mostly consider permaculture a system to guide us in the natural use of our land for our farm.  Using plant guilds to create optimum growing conditions for all the plants involved, microclimates, etc., is just part of it.  Shaping the land to take advantage of rain, snow, and the other things nature throws your way is another.  This involves a fair amount of knowledge, which is something you and the folks involved with you will have to acquire.  Permaculture designers are available to do this for people who prefer to hire that done for them.  In our case, we preferred to dive in and learn it ourselves.

People like sepp holzer have spent their lives trying this, then that, then something else to find what works in their little corner of the world.  This is something you will have to do also.

I can give you some ideas in regards to your questions, as we are also farming some hillside ground, but it takes your own observations and efforts to try different thing to find out what works for you.

In regards to water, ponds are one of the things you can try to hold water for your needs.  Then you can also use them for fish, swimming, and anything else you might think of.  You can do series of ponds, that are connected and the water flows controlled by gravity, pumps, gates, all sorts of things.
Cisterns are used a lot also, which eliminate water losses to evaporation.

If you look at Der Krameterhoff, Sepp Holzers place, he has many ponds located on his hillsides, which he uses to great effect.

With only 10 acres of pasture, you are going to end up buying a lot of feed, unless you scale down the amount and size of the animals you put on it.  We think pasture land is a waste of land.  We prefer animals that can graze in the forest, in what we grow there.  You will have to find out what your animals like to eat, then plant those.  We opted for goats for right now, since they will eat what grows here.  We had wanted to go with the Dexter cows, but the price was too high, they would also have eaten what grows here and are a small breed that would have not used up too much of the available resources.

If you are going to have animals, you will either have to learn to process them into food, or find a market to sell them at, unless you keep all females.  If you are going for milk, you are going to have offspring, which means either butchering or selling them.

Swales generally only direct water to where you want it to go.  If you have rich soil, it will hold a lot of water the water runs, but will not hold it indefinitely.  You can place woody debris along or under the swales to maximize this effect.  You can use swales to direct water to ponds, if you go that route.  You can also use plants to slow down the water and allow more of it to soak into the ground, providing the ground is able to absorb water.

So far as optimizing pastures, as I said, we don't like them.  They tend to be monocultures that you have to constantly baby sit in order to keep them productive.  We think it is better to have forested glens that contain plants suitable to the animals, with the surrounding forest containing plants that are beneficial to us, each other, and the animals using the forest.  If you prefer pastures, then you may want to consider plants like vetch or other legumes that will improve your soil and provide feed in the process.  What you plant will depend on your area and what your allowed to have.

We only have 20 acres, but even at that we are starting with just a small part of it, improving that, learning what works, what doesn't, you may want to consider the same.  We have a plan for the whole, but only work with a small part of it at a time.
Good luck to you.

 
 
Mariah Wallener
Posts: 167
Location: Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island, Canada
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Hello! I'm no expert but have a couple comments to make.

As far as swales go, I was just listening to Paul Wheaton on the survival podcast and he did mention that how you tweak the swale system is going to depend on your soil type, and that this related partly to the propensity for some soil types to get waterlogged and slide downhill as you are concerned about. So I'm certain there is a way to build swales to prevent that from happening.

As for the cows, I agree with KurtW. If you want milk you need lactating cows, and those come with offspring whose sex you can't choose ahead of time. if you aren't going to slaughter them (either for yourself or non-vegetarian customers) you've got a population control problem that will soon get out of hand. So your first issue is how you are going to control your cow population while still making them useful to have around. Taking meat-eating out of the equation (particularly if your ethics extend to not selling them to anybody else for meat) seriously limits your options. Without that or milk production you end up with expensive pasture ornaments.

The second is pasture management. In the movie "A Farm for the Future" they visit a farm where a guy does some cool stuff with cow management, keeping them in a forest over winter while growing specific grasses that don't suffer under hooves in the wet season (he's in England). Also take a look at what Joel Salatin does at Polyface Farms, rotating cows and chickens to keep the pastures healthy.

Some dear friends of ours recently bought a home in Costa Rica after falling in love during several visits over the last few years. So I'm always interested to hear about the ecosystems there.
 
Sergio Santoro
Posts: 256
Location: Nicoya, Costa Rica
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Ok thanks. I don't think we'll leave the cows free in the forest any time soon. They are professional escapists and the property is too vast. What if one breaks a leg or gets lost and can't find a creek for drinking? Or worse still, they come around through the barbed wire (only electric wire keeps them at bay so far) and eat all our crops or end up on the road or pregnant with the neighbor's bulls?

I'll have to absorb the PC concepts and apply it in a unique, context-specific way.

I think we'd rather turn what we already have as pasture land into cow convenience stores, planting trees of which they like the fruits and leaves, or bushes with berries, or canes etc.

I keep reading that fermenting the cow feed increases the nutrition and reduces the need for feed by a chunk, but I can't find details about that. I know they I got our ox drunk twice, once on old sugar cane bits (cow rum?) and once on the pods of a local tree, which they call sandal.

 
            
Posts: 77
Location: Northport, Wash.
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Here, we call fermented cow feed "silage", generally made with either grass or chopped corn.  The corn is chopped stalks and all.  It is very rich feed and is usually only fed to cows in milk.

 
Sergio Santoro
Posts: 256
Location: Nicoya, Costa Rica
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Oh cool, will I find info on wiki or you have your unique method? Thanks.
 
            
Posts: 77
Location: Northport, Wash.
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What you do is use a chopper, which is either tractor driven, or some of the bigger farms use a self propelled chopper, each of which tows a dump trailer behind it, mostly.  Some people use different methods.  The tractor towed chopper or the other chopper moves down the row, cutting the material (Either grass or corn) when the time is right.  The right time depends on the maturity of the crop, the moisture content, and a few other things I forget about, it has been years since I was involved in this sort of thing.  The chopper shoots the chopped material into the dump trailer.  When full, a truck usually pulls along side the trailer , and the operator dumps the trailer into the truck.  Sometimes, another tractor comes out with another dump trailer and trades with the tractor towing the chopper.  Slower, but it depends on the farmer.  I know of some farmers that get the trimmings from food processing plants (veggies) and make silage out of that.

The silage is then hauled to a silo.  These used to be upright and made out of concrete or wood but they are mostly now what are called a bunker silo.  The old upright ones you had to climb up into and toss the material down with a pitchfork into a truck or feed trailer pulled by a tractor.  Once full, then the material was fed.  I did a lot of this working on dairies as a kid.
The bunker silo is basically a walled area open on at least one end, sometimes two.  The material is dumped on a concrete slab inside of the bunker, and is pushed into place with some piece of equipment, tractor with loader, front end loader, dozer, etc., and the material is "walked" into place, or compacted using the equipment that pushed it into a pile.  When full, the material was covered with a tarp held down by tires.  This minimized the spoilage caused by being exposed to the elements.  The material is then allowed to ferment in the pile.
Some farmers are using long plastic tubes, like a sausage casing, and blow the material into it using another machine.
You can make silage on a small scale using plastic garbage cans.  I read about some folks doing this somewhere on the internet.  You can find out more about it by just searching "silage" on any search engine. 
We got away from this sort of thing and most mechanization as the cost is just too high.  We now prefer to do most of our work by hand, or with minimal mechanization, due to the cost of fuel, the damage done by tilling, etc.  Mostly, we just use our old tractor for heavy lifting and plowing snow or grading our road.  At least we did until it threw a rod this winter.  Looking for parts to fix it now.  Another reason to minimize mechanization, something is always breaking, meaning you spend a lot of time just fixing stuff.
We prefer to free range everything and let our animals graze on what we grow.  For us, this is done in the woods, in open areas we are creating. We got some great ideas for what we now call our fodder seed mix from some of the posts on this site (look up "guilds" and elsewhere having searched out what the animals  we plan to have, like to eat.  So, specialty feed like silage is something we are no longer interested in since it is easier to go the other route.  We only keep breeding pairs, or a male and a couple of females, during the winter so the number of animals we will have to feed is small during that time.  The babies are either processed for our needs, or sold off.  We will be harvesting feed in the form of hay, (from our fodder mix) once the tractor is working again, or buying it until we can get a better system going here
Sorry, starting to ramble some so will stop here.
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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"Fighting local fungi and viruses has been really tough, though.
I'll be happy to send pictures if anyone is interested."

I have an old friend in Montezuma who said the same thing about growing Eurasian veges in the tropics.  It may be very important for us northerners to adjust our cuisene and diets to make it work.

"1.SWALES Does a swale really provide moisture for as long a stretch as our dry season is, or just for the first couple of months after the rainy season?"

Swales are not magic.  You still need to adjust to living in a droughtly climate.  Thus the goal of shifting some production to perennial crops which have a more established root system. 

"a drain pipe from the sink that issues right below the cabin. "

In a droughty climate, capturing and using all water flows is fundemental to any design.

"Is the only prerequisite for a swale that they be level and along with the contour of the land?"

Often swales are build slightly off contour (something like 2 cm drop per meter) to encourage water to flow one direction or another.  In this way you manage a network of swales that moves water where you want it to go.

wouldn't all that moisture "pluming" under a swale make the slope soft and prone to landslides?

Swales function in conjunction with vegetation.  Real 'rotational slumps' are more likely caused by landscape conditions.  If you are on slopes that steep in a monsoon climate you may want to reconsider pasture and the vegetation of choice.  Swales can also concentrate water resulting in a gully if not well planned in a monsoon climate.

"I'm trying to convince everybody here of the efficacy of permaculture and I can't make mistakes."

Permaculture is not innately effective--it is a theoretical framework.  Good design is effective.  Pc can lead you to good design.  I would encourage you not to promote Permaculture as a cosmology, but rather to use it to find good designg solutions.  Every useful technique promoted by Pc enthusiasts comes from someone elses good design, and can become strongly through functional analysis and integration.

"2 PASTURES. What ways are there to optimize the pastures? "

In tropics I would research about growing browse with perennial nitrogen fixing shrubs... (Tagaste?)  perhaps in combination with paddock fencing and swales.  I can sympathize with the Hindu monk thing... but your stocking rate sounds high (cows/acre) and if you have breeding stock and cannot control population, you have a 'Type 1 error' on your hands.  Much of 'optimizing' pasture involves being able to control and adjust the intensity of grazing/browsing pressure.
 
Sergio Santoro
Posts: 256
Location: Nicoya, Costa Rica
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Ooh I like the reply point by point. I'll try and do the same.

"Swales function in conjunction with vegetation.  Real 'rotational slumps' are more likely caused by landscape conditions.  If you are on slopes that steep in a monsoon climate you may want to reconsider pasture and the vegetation of choice.  Swales can also concentrate water resulting in a gully if not well planned in a monsoon climate."

Gully... so does it mean that a swale is just a depression in the ground, but ultimately filled with mulch or gravel?
I thought that whether they look like gullies or filled, they are both called swales. Around here I was gonna fill all my swales anyway for the mosquitos.

"In tropics I would research about growing browse with perennial nitrogen fixing shrubs... (Tagaste?)  perhaps in combination with paddock fencing and swales.  I can sympathize with the Hindu monk thing... but your stocking rate sounds high (cows/acre) and if you have breeding stock and cannot control population, you have a 'Type 1 error' on your hands.  Much of 'optimizing' pasture involves being able to control and adjust the intensity of grazing/browsing pressure."

Well, the idea was to start from scratch with the two Jerseys and the miniature Zebu bull.
Now, this can sound quite out there to most of you, but cows tend to give birth to females if on the day of conception the Moon was in a feminine sign (Water and Earth signs), and males if in masculine signs (Fire and Air). I just read about it and haven't done my own statistics, but the last two calves we had were females and their mothers conceived them both with Moon in Scorpio. I keep forgetting to get the conception dates for the bulls we have at the other farm in California. Anyway... so the idea was to retire the full-size cows in the neighbor's pasture and pay him something symbolic. So we'd start with miniature Jerzebus; how much land and feed can they require? Hopefully by the time we have 15 cows (a calf a year?) one of them will die... I don't know. We were also thinking of letting our cows rest and some years rent a cow from the neighbor and take care of her while she is lactating and then return her.

Thanks for replying!

Sd
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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Sorry, don't know a thing about cattle.

A gully is where enough water runs downhill so that it cuts a channel.  This channel captures more water.  The gully grows, and captures more water.  I have seen lots of gully erosion, often where roads collect water.

In a big storm, a swale can capture all the water until it gets full.  Where does the water overflow?  In a poorly designed swale, there is a single low spot, and all the water captured by the swale all drains to that point, and overflows.  This can create a gully.  Just plan for when your swale overflows. 

A gully is made by erosion and runs down the hill... a swale is made by people and runs across the hill.  Where rainfall is dramatic, people's swales can make gullies.
 
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