Written by Doug Crouch
The foundation of Permaculture is to observe the patterns and rhythms of Nature, which are partially, yet eloquently, laid out in Mollison’s approach to the Permaculture principles. These space and time patterns are quite universal in their applications and also apply to the realm of animals, both domestic and wildlife. This is especially true in their relationship to promoting soil health and a vibrant and diverse soil food web. Thus it is important to understand the role of wildlife in our native ecosystems and apply that pattern to our cultivated ecologies known as a Permaculture landscape. What kind of bird life, mammals, marsupials, reptiles, amphibians, and insects are there now and importantly what once proliferated there before the augmentation of the landscape from colonisation and its offspring known as monoculture? This rational worldview produced catastrophic results in many ways including killing native wildlife habitat and the creatures themselves for whatever
crop came next; suburbs, corn or soy fields, or even non-holistic animal systems. My point is, and I use a quote to justify it, is that “Nature never farms without animals”, Sir Albert Howard said. He is regarded as the father of organic farming in many people’s eyes and echoes this tremendous pattern recognition through a very simple quote. For a deeper look into that sort of philosophy look no farther than Aldo Leopold, the father of game management, who is one of the philosophical background leaders of the formation of Permaculture. His very influential book, A Sand County Almanac, features a short essay I highly recommend called Thinking Like a Mountain for further explanation. The modern day film How Wolves Change Rivers is a reflection of what Leopold was asserting in this seminal text. It shows how when an ecology has most or all of its players, and most importantly a well balanced predator/ prey interaction, behaviors change actually for the benefit of the environment. Leopold came to his realizations, much like Allan Savory of Holistic Management, through desecrating wildlife populations in a very Cartesian and rational way. Yet they came to the same point essentially, pattern recognition that bunching animals are healthy for an ecosystem. While there will be readers who are already irritated by my assumption of utilizing animals in the landscape for beneficial reasons, it must be taken back to the original point, what wildlife was present before the burning and the looting occurred? How did these animal interactions influence the soil, which is an important reason to look back especially in the context of Sir Albert Howard?
With that, we have to look at what level of succession is occurring within the habitat realm to understand how and why to work with animals. Remember that the expression of plants above ground is a representation of the soil food web below. So ask is it an old growth forest, is it brambly pasture going to forest scrub, is it a wetlands turning to prairie? Where are we and where
do we want to go? What creatures utilize these habitats and how do they solidify their niche? For example, in the eastern deciduous forest of North America, especially as you move south, Wild Turkey once proliferated in very abundant numbers. They were part of the burning and looting of colonialism and much of their habitat has been lost. It’s a ground nesting bird that relies on a mixed diet of insects, forbs and grasses, and even nuts in the fall. So if you are managing a forest how can you augment the ecosystem to have these niches filled? What was their role in promoting soil fertility? The point is that if you are trying to rebuild a forest, there is a great habitat for ground nesting birds. Thus chickens can be a great
replacement for them and stocked in numbers that can have a beneficial interplay with the land. They will feed on many similar foods but not so much the nut resource which is ok in a regenerating forest where this mast crop will be a longer term yield. However chickens can be utilized in free range or in a rotational grazing like pattern within chicken tractors. This means their manures will either be broadcasted around in the scatter pattern or more densely concentrated within their moveable chicken coop. This can be a seasonal rhythm rather than saying its one or another. Their manures are rich in phosphorous and nitrogen, both beneficial plant nutrients. We need not the bag of synthetic fertilizer when we branch this gap of animal interaction. Yes, building fertility can be done with no animal residues but there is no such thing as vegan permaculture and no animal residues because the wild birds also manure for example. I don’t say this to pick on that crowd, I just point it out like Mark
Shepard does in his amazing read Restoration Agriculture. Trained originally in Fish and Wildlife Management and my true passion, I got into Permaculture because it was forestry, agriculture, and non natural building that is the main destroyer of habitat and the cascading effect of killing wildlife and fisheries. So when you eat organic brown rice from a hip coop in the nice part of town, believe me, it is not vegan. The microbes that died in the process, the animals that were displaced and killed, and the monoculture that it was grown in, disqualify it from being called vegan in my soapbox opinion (i.e. orangoutang and palm oil). This article is not meant to spark the vegan, vegetarian, animal eating debate, its to express a pattern, chapter 4 of the Designers Manual. It’s to remember that the power of a cow makes it sacred in one religion, from its healing powers to its functions in buildings, to its fermentation in its stomach. One must draw from a questions that comes from insight now, what is a cow? It is not simply a mammal, that is a rational, dualistic, Cartesian perspective. This viewpoint is what allows the grazing manager to inject an animal with a slurry of chemicals and lace its food with genetic alterations, synthetic fertilizers, and steroids. Naturally, grass is eaten and goes into an amazing evolutionary accomplishment known as the gut of a cow. What comes out is nothing short of alchemical! It is a symbiotic relationship with bacteria and protozoa (two other life kingdoms) that allows this to happen, so is a cow really just a cow as you see it today? Is it really a mammal or
has it just been put into this nice little box so our rational minds can categorize it and form a category to place it? Furthermore, they are seed spreaders like the wind or birds and their hooves act as taxi cabs for fungus spores as well! So hard to place them once you see the magic of patterns not linear models. I have even seen mountain cows used in steep landscapes in Portugal to do fire prevention in Portugal through rotational grazing. As they graze through the understory of Eucalyptus monocultures on nitrogen fixing shrubs mainly, they knock the constant shedding of organic material by the Eucalyptus to the ground. There they step on it, chip it, manure it and urinate on it to balance the carbon to nitrogen ratio. They reseed the biology that was lost through the spraying to install the monoculture and add another layer to the food forest so to speak. So cows are the problem right? No the management in a linear model focused on extraction is the problem. The cow itself is a magical creature, how we use them in the landscape is the problem, it’s what destroys soil and wrecks the hydrological soil, not the animal itself. So please, when you look at a cow next, see if you can see the creature itself, the alchemist turning lead into gold, or in this case, green grass into black gold, humus.
Tractoring of animals is usually thought of with chickens but applies to many different animals. It rotates animals through a system to take advantage of a level of succession and form a new one. It knocks it back in one way but if done correctly through proper timing and management, as the principle use of biological resources dictates, it can push succession forward. How does one utilize a goat to get to a food forest? Well by feeding it brambles that we cannot eat the leaves and prickly stalks from. This concentration of animals in an area brings focus to the consumption of a particular plant life stage. This allows manures and urines to be cycled in place and build a more complex and diverse soil
food web. Once they have done the work you have options of planting trees or gardens into that space or rotating other animals through. Animals help to set the stage for succession and lessen our human intervention. I was always a bit skeptical about chicken tractoring until our 2015 staple garden at Terra Alta. After tractoring our three chickens for some time on and off (also got to free range) during the winter, we planted summer vegetables after doing a bit more digging. The sweet potatoes and zucchini went absolutely nuts on these concentrated manures combined with the in-place composting that chicken tractor management incurs. The leaves of the zucchini were huge and we jokingly complained how will we eat zucchini for lunch and dinner tonight for three weeks straight during our teachers training and then our 2 week PDC. Chickens not only forage on greens but also convert insects and seeds into manures that are then cycled by the soil life to increase organic matter %. This increase of soil organic matter % has many cascading effects and in that staple garden the humus’s ability to store water was vital for this bumper crop production.
Tractoring is a form of rotational grazing yet a different set of parameters are often thought about then the word is mentioned. Using animals holistically, like the bison or wildebeest herds of the past, is a great example of working with nature, not against. The grotesque practice of confined animal feed operations are an irrational monoculture of filth. However the grazing manager can have a positive affect on soil life while working in concert with these animals and the complex rhythms of soils and seasons. One of the main ways that rotational grazing affects the soil life is through a term called animal impact. This is using animals to help alter succession through intensive bunching that again resembles the bison herd (school of fish, flock of birds). Through this animal impact all plants are grazed fairly evenly and importantly the brown material of grasslands is effectively chipped and returned to the ground. This helps to eliminate fire risk and feeds fungal populations thus recycling minerals and nutrients back into the regrowing grasses and forbs. Without this, bunching grasses, which are invaluable feeds for our grazers more often than not, become mulched out by themselves and the overall system lacks this brown material cycling. They actually need this violent grazing on the land by a big herd of animals and then the rest to recuperate. Just dropping some sheep out in a big paddock for months at a time will not do this. Rather this is actually over and under grazing and a lack of creative human interaction that facilitates this landscape degradation, not the cow or sheep itself. This animal impact resembles the creative human interaction of chop and drop, and essentially becomes eat and poop. At the same time it becomes also like a mini compost pile as the manures are full of microbes and when rain hits it even becomes like a compost extract to a certain degree. All in all its a very effective way of doing the principle of energy cycling no matter the scale. Its the technique of rotating a dense herd of animals that makes it so effective.
Furthermore when animals are packed tightly like this their manures are stepped on and given more edge so that it is easier for them to break down and cycle nutrients. This is very important because animals have an inherent desire for health. This is part of the reason they bunch and are always on the move in natural and intact ecosystems. Thus it is our role to be the ecosystem maestro, to reorganize it as if it were an intact ecosystem. Furthermore, the animals don’t want parasites to build in their body yet the dualistic management regime of animals by uninformed grazers proliferates this by keeping them too sedentary and spread apart (mostly because predators were killed off and farmers sit on sofas). This in turn cascades the use of antibiotics and dewormers. This has a very negative impact on soil microbes and soil flora in general. For example, the dewormer to take care of the parasites because of this lack of holistic management, kills both earthworms and the larvae of dung beetles, two hugely important nutrient cyclers. As they die off, the pasture weakens causing a farmer to apply more fertilizer, which increases the chance of parasite infestation and sickness due to low nutrition and high concentration of nitrogen in the pasture vegetation. The fertilizer also desiccates many forms of microbial life, especially the fungus, which is very fragile. This in turn spurs the antibiotic usage which then kills the foundation of the food web leading to soil structure collapse and the beginnings of erosion and drying out or poor drainage of pasture. Then farmers often turn to the plough to open soils up or prevent fire once these symptoms arise depending on the climate. These CO2 bombs of killing humus particles continue to erode the resilience in soil, the humus itself. These are all huge losses of energy at the site and continue to cut into the operators cost as more feed is needed from the outside, more fertilizer costs, more chemical this and thats and the treadmill of band-aid consumption speeds along. Add in some steroids and you have toxic and expensive slurry. This is why for overhead of cattle production in Portugal, you receive a 500 Euro check per head of cattle to subsidize its production from the EU. Thus our tax dollars are actually destroying soil life! That is why our consumption patterns of rotationally grazed, biologically grown meats can actually benefit soil and hydrological cycles.
Fortunately there is this alternative system and is becoming more and more available to the average consumer. It’s one that merges the past system of shepherding and holding land in common with individual property rights and conforming to capitalistic frameworks. It utilizes technologies such as electric fence yet reinforces the same natural herd pattern of animal movement and soil building rather than degradation. It applies seasonal
patterns to bring animals to pastures and forages like Honey Locust Pods or acorns to spur growth. It often involves utilizing multiple species for grazing so that not just herbivores are incorporated. In grazing systems like the bison or wildebeest there was always insects that consume the manure resource, which then attracts a new niche. This was then usually consumed by a bird resource, which we can all imagine the African images of birds on top of grazers or following just behind. Thus many are also pulling chicken tractors or rotating other fowl behind to further accomplish energy cycling and provide a diversity of nutrients back to the soil through a diversity of manures. This also helps to break the pest and parasite cycle as manures are further given edge when birds forage them looking for insects (scratching and pecking action). And if you have a food forest and need help recycling wastes and pests and greens, try out chickens, ducks, turkeys or geese depending on your end product and level of succession. Even if you don’t want to consume animal products, having
these animals around actually emulates a food forest because they are not devoid of such creatures in nature. Pigs can even go in later on in the system to help cycle fallen fruits and break tree pests, which forms a symbiotic relationship as well when again done with proper timing and management. It’s an amazing orchestra that is a complex web of life which Bill Mollison speaks about in Chapter Two of the Designers Manual on pages 28-30 on his take of pyramids, food webs, growth and vegetarianism. He derationalizes the pyramid and brings a balance of when that model is more conducive for flows of energy but invokes the pattern understanding of nature and its complex interactions. It brings forth the notion that energy is built on a site rather than always being extracted. One of the main ways to do just this is to interact in a symbiotic, pattern based way with animals through humane treatment. It’s the idea of cycling and we are not out of that loop either, how do we cycle our wastes, where does our food come from, and what level of farming succession, complexity and diversity are encouraging through your diet? “Eating is an Agricultural act” (Wendell Berry) after all.
Written by Doug Crouch
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