There are some well-known and successful permaculture farmers who believe draft horses do not belong in a permaculture system. I disagree. If cattle have a place, certainly do plough horses who offer more utility and function. Here’s why I believe draft horses make a great addition to a holistic farm:
1. One draft horse can pull 2000-8000lbs
3. Meat in applicable countries
4. Gelatin/collagen in pharmaceuticals
5. Income from breeding, lessons, selling composted manure
6. Mowing by way of pasture grazing
7. Shed winter coat hair for paintbrushes
1. Manure is composted and returns nutrients to soil
2. Hoof prints make indentations in soil, creating seed and moisture collection pockets to help increase germination rates
3. Trampled cover crops during browsing return organic matter, nutrients and biomass to soil
1. Specie-specific parasite life cycles of sheep and goats are disrupted when horses rotationally graze same pastures
2. Sheep, goats, and foraging birds like ducks and chickens ingest parasites of the horse in return when rotationally grazing
3. Cover crops can be grown as forage for horses that also meet specific needs of the land (I.e. forage turnip for fodder abs to assist with soil compactions, etc.)
4. When allowed to openly graze, horses trim back overgrown growth such as Russian Olive while browsing.
A detailed presentation I created for a permaculture course through Cornell is available as a video. You can see that in the video below.
I’ve been waiting to write this post until the holiday season! Though pines are everywhere this time of year, they offer so much more than Christmas cheer. These trees are excellent contributors to a permaculture system!
Pines can be used for:
* Edible Nuts (pine nuts) eaten whole, raw, or cooked, ground in flour or nut butter*
* Edible Cones: some folks eat very young pine cones when small
* Lumber for carpentry, fencing, etc.
* Windbreak and privacy canopy tree
* Wildlife food and shelter source
* Drought tolerant tree species
* Tan/green dye from the needles
* Sap can be used for tar, pitch, turpentine, etc.
* Dropped needles are a great source for adding acid to garden beds and compost heaps
*An excellent companion for blueberries, rhododendrons, azaleas, hosta, and other acid-loving plants
* Open branching system allows for climbing vines in a food forest system
The best varieties for pine nuts are:
* Mexican Pinyon (Pinus cembroides): Zone 5-8
* Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis): Zone 5-8
* Korean Nut Pine (Pinus koraiensis): Zone 3-7
* Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea): Zone 7-11
Here on the property we have a wide variety of mature pine and spruce trees. Do you use your pines for more than an ornamental tree?
A guild is a neighborhood of plants that surround a fruit or nut tree. This species-specific curated ecosystem works to repel unwanted insects and even disease, attract pollinators, suppress weeds, mulch the soil, pull up nutrients from deep within the soil’s layers, and fix nitrogen.
All species require different guild members to successfully support them, just as in nature. In this video I’m sharing an in-depth explanation about how and why we implemented this practice that has been successfully used for centuries. We use sheet mulch to create square growing spaces, discuss foot traffic concerns, and placement of different plant species.
This is a podcast-style mini-episode called We Should Not Be Farming the Same. While fundamentals of planting a seed and caring for animals can certainly be consistent from homestead to homestead, there are way too many variables that change the nuances of daily life and systems from farm to farm. Weather, terrain, soil type, animal species, forage type, farmer personalities, energy efforts, growing zone, etc. all come into play when homesteading. And it's my belief that if you've truly been paying attention to your homestead, there SHOULD BE areas where general rules do not apply to your farm.
For example, I'm beginning to rely more heavily on perennial crops than annuals. I put more time, energy, and funding into sourcing perennial plants than annuals because my personal goals reside in soil health, carbon sequestration, and yields that require less overall work. Many farms use their animals for meat; we do not. We are a vegetarian homestead. Instead, I source animals for the functions they can contribute to the farm ecosystem. I did away with my coop for daily use (we still use it for extreme weather situations) and my flock resides in a gated pasture by night. Under the protection of my livestock guardian dogs, the flock is happier outdoors, there's less bedding costs, the eggs are cleaner, and my flock is given the ability to live more similarly to their native species.
Take a listen and find out how else we buck the typical agricultural system.
This new greenhouse has been in my head for a long time. Come spring, I'll be starting and growing the majority of our homegrown produce from this new space--which I'm building 100% on my own. This greenhouse uses old windows and doors from our barn loft and will make the process of growing food so much easier.
I am currently lucky enough to have an underground greenhouse with skylights and a sliding glass door. What's better is this is just off of my living room. But I've been using grow lights for 100% of my homegrown food efforts. In an attempt to be as energy efficient as possible, and to reduce hardening off time by as much as 10 days, I'm building this new space which will require only the energy of the sun for heat and lighting. Plus, it's positioned just off the barn which will take advantage of thermal mass from a larger structure and is positioned closer to the garden itself.
Every single window and door you see here was found in my barn loft left behind by previous homeowners, and only 3 windows came from a free roadside pile. It’s also southwest facing so lots of sunshine here.
Finishing up the greenhouse has been slow going since I started school again. But I’m finally finished with the outside construction, solar lighting, and exterior white paint. Tonight at dusk I wrapped up the last coat!
Next I’ll be painting the interior trim-work black. Why? White on the outside reflects light, black on the inside absorbs heat and better retains it for nighttime temperature consistency.
I have learned there is so much more to pasture management than rotational grazing, cover cropping, and stock density (the amount of animals in a given pasture space). And it’s no surprise that proper pasture management is one of the most disregarded facets of farming and homesteading—it’s extremely complicated! But it’s also extremely important and can be a huge money saver on feed costs. Not to mention healthier animals mean less vet bills. Clydesdale girl over here is completely open to lowering hay costs. 🙋🏻♀️
As of now, I cover crop my fields for animal forage and soil health. I rotationally graze multiple species. I return manure to the soil. But I’m learning there’s lots more that I can be doing. For example, understanding the nuances of each species’ behaviors alone is hugely relevant.
“Compared to cattle, sheep eat a greater variety of plants and select a more nutritious diet, though less so than goats. Sheep will graze 60% grass 30% forbs and 10% browse if available.” - University of Nebraska Extension
“Horses tend to be the hardest type of livestock on pastures. Pastures with cattle are usually more uniformly grazed, weeds are not as large a problem, and overgrazing is not as immediate… Horses tend to group around certain areas, killing the forage in this area and exposing the bare ground to erosion and propagation of weeds. Some horses tend to defecate in localized areas which causes manure buildup and reduced palatability of forage in these areas. The most difficult behavioral trait to overcome in horses is their selective grazing instinct.” — Oklahoma State University Extension
If that’s not enough to think about, then weather, forage type, soil nutrients, moisture quantities, turnout time, species type, season, palatability, supplementation of forage with feed and/or grain, and nutrient utilization are also factors.
What does this all mean? I’m doing a deep dive this fall/winter in rolling out an even better forage management plan into my farm for spring. With two horses and five sheep as my main grazers, I think my 6 acres has plenty to offer. Let’s see how low these hay bills can go. Why? Self sufficiency and land stewardship.
It all comes back to the garden.
Every animal ultimately has to serve two roles to become a part of our working permaculture ecosystem—contribute to the garden, and contribute to the animal health system. The only creature that doesn’t do both is honeybees, but their pollination contribution is unmatched. For me, one type of animal to fulfill each role is enough. Too many small hoofstock, for example, throws off the whole system.
Here’s what I keep:
Bees: pollination, honey, wax
Ducks: eggs, down feathers, slugs, snails, insect garden control, larger animal parasite reduction via rotation grazing, winter garden clean up
Geese: ward off small predators like hawks for the ducks, graze pastures, reduce weed height, down feathers, eggs
Livestock Guardian Dogs: Protect all stock, keep gophers out of garden
Sheep: wool, wool seconds for biodegradable mulch for garden, compost, parasite control for horses
Horses: riding, manure for compost, break sheep parasite cycle, pulling/driving
Guinea Fowl: tick control, compost
Cats: Rodent control in barns and growing spaces, tick reduction
Everything is connected and nothing exists in isolation.
I used to glaze over soil health when I started homesteading. But now I get it. We need to pay attention to it. It matters.
Nutrient dense soil is the foundation for nutrient dense food for humans, and forage for animals. We can feed our crops with liquid kelp or synthetic fertilizers, but there’s so much more to it. We need to feed the soil.
Adding organic matter (leaves, sticks, manure, compost) gives the soil new material for plants to feed off of—and the plants that grow in it. This improves soil structure… the ability to absorb and retain water, self-fertilize, and become more resilient to change over time. If we just feed the crops and not the soil, we’re exacerbating the problem. Here’s why:
Plant roots are surrounded by microbes and micorrhizea (fungi). These work with plants to pull nutrients and water from soil, and protect them from harmful pathogens. If we feed the soil with manure, compost, decaying cover crops, leaves, etc, we feed this system, strengthen the fungi and helping our crops. If we just feed fertilizer we are directly feeding the crops—the fungi is no longer needed to work to pull nutrients from the soil and those microbes and micorrhizea begin to die. Any remaining microbials begin feeding off soil structure at lightning speed because they’ve just been doused in the very nutrients they are meant to absorb slowly. Soil structure is consumed too quickly and is depleted. Our soil begins to die. Studies support this.
I have shifted my focus as an ecological farmer from feeding my crops to feeding my soil. I will no longer be using liquid kelp or other synthetic fertilizers. I will no longer be sowing straight grass as forage in my pastures. I’ll be planting consumable cover crops that feed my animals AND my soil simultaneously year-round.
Detailed info on all this will be in my upcoming book, The Sustainable Homestead. You can also listen to Season 2, Episide 2 of my HOMESTEADucation Podcast with Mandi of Wild Oak Farms.
Angela is the farmer and content creator behind Axe & Root Homestead LLC. This historic six-acre permaculture farm is home to two Clydesdale horses, ten honeybee hives, five sheep, two guardian dogs, barn cats and a flock of 40 geese and ducks. The farm produces maple syrup, fruit from a small orchard and loads of garden produce for consumption, preservation and donation to the local food pantry.
The Sustainable Homestead, is out for pre-order NOW!