Essential Equines

IMG_4220.JPGLast post, I focused on goats as a great example of how herbivores can regenerate the land, through holistic management techniques, but they aren’t the only ones within our agroecology. We also have horses, and sometimes also work with donkeys in a similar pasture rotation system, often on their own, but sometimes sharing pastures with the goats, depending on the type of vegetation available. Because our equine friends are grazers, the predominant vegetation is low to the ground, making it easier to lay fencing without having to clear a lot of brush that would be grounding the electric fence. It’s also easier because they only require one strand of tape to contain them, compared to the two that barely keep those capricious goats in.

A major drawback to grazers here, though, is that the mountain’s ecological succession does not favor grasslands. In fact, I heard that many of the grasses common in the region today, were actually introduced in the seventies. None of them are in any way invasive. Within a few years, shrubs, cactuses and vines begin to take over. The grasses initially appreciate the respite from full rays of low latitude, high altitude sun, and the desiccating punches of wind during the dry seasons, and the richer, more fungal soil ecology doesn’t hurt. But by around a decade later, shade is just too much for the grasses, and scrubland dominates, preparing the environment for the next level of succession, on the way towards the lower cloud forest similar to the borders of the national park, a couple hours’ hike up the mountain. That’s the goal for most of Sacred Sueños, but obviously not for our edible savannah, nor the pastures.

For the goats, the scrubland is an ideal environment, and one that would last decades, if free from human interference. For horses, though, it’s not always great. It seems cows are even more particular. At least the horses and donkeys I’ve worked with would follow the goats example when together, and eventually learn which shrubs were fine to eat. I’d actually planned to rotate all the hoofs together, but eventually the horses would just eat the most delicious tips of grass, then opt for the goats’ favorites rather than finish mowing.

IMG_0368.JPGThe hills surrounding Vilcabamba were often macheted frequently, but now that labor costs have risen (not a bad thing in of itself) ranchers either spray with toxic chemicals or light the mountain on fire regularly in order to return the ecosystem to something more favorable for their cattle, the almost exclusive income generators for those lands. With horses and donkeys, assisted by targeted goat pressure, our grasslands are more diverse, and consist of less work wasted fighting the forces of nature.

Less work isn’t no work, though. I’m still obligated to do the rounds with a machete about a dozen hours each month. I spend more time than that, picking up a portion of their weekly poop.

Equines aren’t ruminants, like cows, sheep, and goats. Ruminants have a much more complicated digestive system, including the rumen, which is a fermentation vat full of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes. With an such an efficient ecology doing most of the digesting, the ruminant spends much of their time just regurgitating and chewing up fibrous material to produce more surface area for those microbes to eat.

IMG_0215.JPGEquines don’t have rumens, so they’re unable to break down most of what they eat. So while the goats spend much of their day looking at the view, ruminating wisely, the horses are mowing the mountainside nearly incessantly. For as much as 20 hours a day, they can be focused mainly on eating, and most of what goes in comes out the butt barely digested. I pick up a wheelbarrow of this concentration of grass clippings, and poop inoculated by a plethora of bacteria. The red wriggler worms really enjoy the mix of food and bedding.

It’s sad that poop is a polluting waste product in so many designs, when it could be a valuable resource if designed with ecology as a guide.

I value my equine friends for much more than their poop. In the industrial world, horses are valued as a luxury, a privilege of a wealthy few, but here they are an inexpensive necessity. It’s about an hours’ hike up a narrow trail, rising 700m (2300 ft). And the folks within the rest of Sacred Sueños are even further and higher! Horses and donkeys are essential for carrying materials, food, and sometimes even us, up and down between here and town.IMG_4973.JPG

While they may be a necessity because of our remoteness, I admit that I consciously chose a location that was remote. It wasn’t just a con that was worth accepting for pros like pure spring water and a fantastic view. The remoteness itself actually made it on the pro column during my land hunting days. Not having a road leading up to our home has meant not worrying about noise, privacy, and possible disputes. It nurtures our inner introvert.

I also consider living off road a way to challenge the social forces of unnecessary materialism. Our homes here stay humble, built predominantly of materials extracted from the land. Though our lifestyle is richer in food, freedom, and happiness than most on the planet, our ecological footprint is well below what our planet could sustain if everyone lived similarly.

And along with humble homes, not having cars has contributed greatly towards having a realistically sustainable ecological footprint.

Before I continue, I should note that I don’t judge anybody for having a car. We use taxis often to get from town to the trailhead, as well as between Vilcabamba and the city, Loja. And when I’m hitchhiking or with friends, I’m extremely grateful that my rides happen to have a vehicle. It’s up to each of us to decide what to do with our lives, and I’m not interested in telling anybody what they should be doing with theirs (unless they ask me).

And if anybody asks me if it’s ok to have a car as long as it’s electric or hybrid, I would tell them that the ecological footprint of making those new cars, and especially of those short lived batteries, is massive, even if the electricity came from a renewable source, which it almost never does. Even with combustion propelled vehicles, since the manufacture of a car has usually as much impact as the amount of fuel used in it’s lifetime, it’s easier on the planet if you just keep driving your old gas guzzler rather than falling for the greenwash marketing, and buying a new fuel efficient machine.

But the ideal vehicle for moving me and my stuff, has been a good steed. They might not have speed, but they can move through versatile terrain. Instead of needing expensive fueling, they mow lawns and refuel on the landscapes that they traverse. Instead of smog, they produce worm compost. I know how to make more of them without depending on several industries to provide them and in-debt me for their use. And I appreciate their autonomy more than I trust any self driving car.IMG_7792.JPG

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Goats- Destroying the Landscape or Healing It?

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When I hear vegans argue against raising animals, I tend to agree with them, for the most part. Modern techniques favor confining large numbers of animals in dense areas, where disease is common, food lacks proper nutrition, and the animals are deprived of natural behavior expression. It’s not only the animals who suffer, but also the land. A lot of good agricultural land and fresh water is needed for modern animal feed, and waste contaminated with antibiotics, insecticides, and other poisons tends to pollute downstream. We can end up eating those poisons when we consume products of these unsustainable practices.

So if the vegans have such a good point, why am I raising animals, like goats?

There were a few years when I tried to regenerate depleted land using just humans as the animal species, which means I had to do a ton of pruning!

You see, when the primary species within the current ecological succession reach complete maturity, they use allelopathy (basically producing toxins) to reduce or prohibit the growth of the other species. It’s a way for those primary species to remain primary after their prime, get a few years or decades of seed production in before the new plants in town take over. Good for them, but it can stunt biomas production and carbon sequester, and regeneration is paused. The trick to avoiding this situation is to prevent those old plants from feeling old, and any perennial horticulturalist knows that this means pruning!

However, not only was it extremely time consuming, but the chop and drop technique was taking a lot of time to actually build the soil. Our contour ditches prevented erosion, but I think a lot of nutrients were lost to the air. I tried making compost and then top dressing that around the edible forest, and it was an improvement, but still labour intensive.

IMG_0459Nature has an easier way. Herbivores! They nourish themselves while giving the land that regenerative pruning which will perpetuate growth and vitality. Even better, they convert much of that biomas into liquid and top dressed fertilizer that can be more efficiently distributed by the soil ecology. And on top of that, they provide sustenance to assorted other species (including us), further improving biodiversity and ecological resilience!

Yes, I confess that I’m pretty addicted to all things dairy, and I admit that the income from selling raw goat cheese is a decent incentive… But the main reason is that I don’t believe agriculture can be sustainable, much less regenerative, unless it mimics ecosystem dynamics as much as possible.

I’m talking about not just maximizing biodiversity, but focusing on maximizing relationships between species. I’ll discuss how a healthy soil ecology contributes to numerous inter-species relationships, and the stability and resilience that such ecosystems have, in a future post. Also in the future, I’ll discuss insects, like bees. But I’ll get back on topic right now, by honouring the importance of the herbivore within ecosystem dynamics.

Some of you may have heard of Alan Savory, maybe even have seen his controversial Ted talk. I definitely recommend it! He discovered that, contrary to the belief that herds of herbivores generally damage the flora within ecosystems, they more often increase biodiversity, and improve the health of ecosystems above and in the ground. I believe the studies that couldn’t confirm the benefits of Holistic Management were likely the result of the scientific process creating rigid scheduling. Good management comes from constant observation, and feedback loops that make regenerative homesteading an art that uses science. There are many successful practitioners of Holistic Management, like Joel Salatan, paying attention to the land, and modifying the species and durations accordingly.

Modern animal farming is inhumane, and farming without animals is anti-ecological. If we want an agriculture that provides the benefits of healthy ecosystems, we need to add animals to our agro-ecosystems. And that’s one of my main reasons for having all the animals that we have at Wild Blossoms Farm, especially the goats!

IMG_0456Every day, our 2 goats are out in the pastures, doing the herbivore thing. Unlike cows, sheep, and pigs (all grazers, with their heads low), goats are browsers. They prefer eating from bushes and small trees, which is a bonus for several reasons: It allows for more biodiverse pastures; Bushes often provide diverse nutriential and medicinal needs; And while the dry season turns the grasses brown, the bushes remain green.

The goats get to browse through a pasture until they’ve pruned the vast majority of it, but before the plants produce tender new buds that could be devoured. That’s usually around two to three weeks, maximum.

Often, I’ll toss the two community horses in for the last day or two to munch some of the grasses that the goats don’t want to bother with.

Then I roll up the two lines of electrical fencing tape, pull the rebar posts, and plant them around the next pasture. Moving the fence tends to take me five hours or so, mostly just cutting all the growth that would touch and short the electrical fence. All that cut material is bunny food for days.

Once the goats leave a pasture, it can look pretty devastated, but it sprouts back in no time. Within a month or two, it looks great, but we leave it to recharge and for root systems to develop some more,as well as give enough time for possible parasites to starve before the girls return. That’s been between three and eight months. The dry season can slow regeneration down significantly.

We do give our girls treats during milking, a handful of oats and sprouted corn, molasses in their water, and a sprinkle of minerals that are particularly unavailable in degraded acidic clay soils.

IMG_7085Kristine also loves to make herbal teas whenever we have a goat that’s under the weather, as well as herbal medicines for wounds, hard colostrum udders, etc.

During the night (between late afternoon and morning chores), the goats are in their little caravan house. They enjoy shelter with a view, and the wooden floor is spaced and slanted enough to let their fertilizer through. They sleep cleaner and more comfortable, and the worms get over a wheelbarrow of goodness to play in every week. The goats help our gardens while turning their pastures into paradise!

Ok, I should admit that not all things are easy with goats. I’ve chosen a breed that lacks horns, thereby avoided possible broken teeth or other damage. I’ve also made the choice NOT to have male goats around except every couple years, when it’s time to get the goats pregnant. There’s a reason why lewd men are derided as old goats. Their behavior is as disgusting as their smell. Yuck!

Goat behavior, in general, can test patience. They are capricious, after all. If I don’t provide abundant pastures, they will escape, and once out, a goat will calculate what’s dear to you, and eat it. Whether it’s your kale or your shoes, watch out! Butters, when she was living at the Seed Camp, spent one year returning to the gardens to eat… Drip emitters!

IMG_0455Even though a goat might eat something as ridiculous as plastic, usually just to ‘get your goat,’ they can often be extremely picky. There are some plants that they only eat certain times of year, and some never at all. If I don’t put enough molasses in their water, they’ll go on thirst strike. It’s never enough to hurt themselves, but less water drunk causes a significant decrease in milk. Some people think dairy farmers own and subjugate their animals, but I often feel that they dominate me. This feeling is especially strong when I am the only one caring for them and must attend them twice per day, regardless of whether I want to do something off farm.

The personal reward is the milk. It nourishes the family, as well as the animals who enjoy the whey from time to time. The main use of the milk, though, is to make cheese for a humble income. Because we raise only tiny herds, thereby having an intimate knowledge of their health, we safely produce raw cheeses, just a couple every day.

From time to time, we receive criticism that our cheeses are too expensive. When you calculate the income from a couple years, minus the costs, and divide that by the hours spent milking, fence care, and selling, and take into account the months without revenue but the same costs during pregnancy and early rearing, it comes to about $2.50/ hour for us to manage a process that not only provides delicious nutrition, but does so with love for the animals, as well as regenerates the mountainside, cleaning the air and stabilizing the watershed. You’re damn right we deserve to be paid more.

It always perplexes me that people can whine about the cost of good food, but they never ask themselves why they think they deserve to make or have made what they do, doing whatever they do, while the people who provide them good food and a healthier biosphere, somehow deserve less? Instead of demanding cheaper food, donate to your local ecological farmer, and thank them for their great service! IMG_0453