When we first dreamed of our homestead, it looked a whole lot like Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof. We imagined ponds galore, diverse ecological life, expansive grazing paddocks, rustic dug out pig shelters, and microclimates aplenty to support avocados and olives here in zone 7a, along with all the usual suspects… apples, pears, peaches, plums, etc.
Although more modest in acreage, I am sure that one day our property will be just as beautiful and abundant in its own way. But ecological restoration takes time and work. And enduring growth starts with the soil.
I was a little naive when we first began working our land. OK – a lot naive. I thought I could plant up a bunch of stuff and let the chickens and goats roam around doing the fertilization for me. They would magically know to eat the weeds and leave my lovely new plants alone.
After those initial extensive and expensive plant losses, l have learned a few things. The first is that chickens, goats, and new plantings don’t mix. Early on, we redefined our ideas about free-ranging these animals and instead offered them spacious fenced areas and regular deliveries of forage that we cut for them. Eventually, when our landscape is overflowing with perennial growth, then we’ll start using a system of rotational grazing. But that is still a couple of years away.
For now, though, we are still making good use of their manure in our operations. Our methods are not quite as easy as direct application, but they are simple to maintain with minimal time inputs.
In winter, we give the goats lots of straw. I start by spreading two bales around their barn. Goats poop everywhere but they are picky about where they pee. When I cover the floor with straw they usually pick 2-3 spots to use for peeing. So then every other day, I spread some new straw over their pee piles. Once a week, I spread another half bale of straw around the barn to cover up their old droppings. Note: These are farm-sized bales, not the half-size bales you get from chain hardware stores.
About once every 6-8 weeks, I shovel and sweep out all the straw and goat stuff and start the process over. The old stuff goes into a compost bin right next to the goat house and usually adds up to about a 4′ x 4′ x 4′ pile.
If I have more than I can fit in my compost bin, I dig holes in the goat pasture, put the uncomposted stuff inside, and cover it back up with soil. Most of the soil in the goat pasture is still hard, red clay. It’s very steep, so I have a lot of terracing and directed planting to do down the road. But in the meantime, I find that when I make these little “fertility holes”, stuff grows like crazy right around them.
Now back to the pile…I never turn it, but our main red wriggler worm bed is just a few feet away. Even in the middle of winter, when we get a slightly warm night, some of the worms escape their bed and make a move to the pile. By 6-8 weeks later, when it’s time to clean the goat barn again, the original load of straw and stuff is about 1/2 the original size and ready for spreading. Due to farmer’s market regulations, we can’t put this stuff directly on the garden (composted manure is required to be aged 6 months before harvest), but it is wonderful for our edible landscaped areas or creating new plots.
In warm weather, I use a different system. I give the goats two litter boxes — 3′ x 4′ areas of heavy straw — for them to urinate in. I add a layer of straw to the litter boxes every other day, and empty them once a week into the compost bin. It takes a lot longer to build a pile this way, but we use a lot less straw. Also, parasites and pests are a bigger issue in warmer weather, so keeping straw off the floors reduces pest habitat. And the goats don’t like to lay in the straw in warm weather anyhow. So, this works out better all around.
Additionally, once or twice a day I sweep up their manure from the wood floor and put it into large trash cans. In winter, goats spend a lot of time up on the hill sunning themselves. In warm weather, goats spend a lot of time in their house, hiding from the sun. As a result, I collect a lot more manure in summer than in the winter. I can fill a 35 gallon trash can with manure in less than a week. Once full, I dump in a couple buckets of water and let the magic begin. It heats up quickly and in a few days, most of the goat pellets have a nice wood ash looking coating on them and the pile has cooled back down. At that point, I spread some on my worm bin, save some for aging to put on the garden in winter, and the rest goes into trenches or gets spread around our edible landscapes.
The fact that goat manure heats up so easily when contained tells me it’s not quite like rabbit manure which can be direct applied to the garden. But, it doesn’t take much effort to make it plant ready. Chicken manure, though, is a different story. That stuff is potent and requires different handling procedures.
For chickens, I spread straw around their coop floor, but I put “slices” of straw (the way they come out of the bale) directly under their roosts. The chickens don’t usually scratch the slices as much as they do the loose straw I scatter, so it stays put better this way. In winter, I only clean the coop once every two weeks, but in summer, the heat makes things stink, so I clean it every week.
They do most of their coop pooping while roosting, so by leaving the straw in slices I can just pick up the slice and stuff it in a bucket to clean under the roosts. After a week or two of overnight droppings, those slices are pretty loaded. After shoving the slices inside, I put some of the loose stuff around the coop on top to fill the bucket to just overflowing. Then I move it to one of my (non-farmer’s market) garden beds, and thoroughly water the bucket. The buckets have 1.5″ holes drilled in the bottom. So, as the water trickles through to the beds, it creates something like a compost tea.
In the photos below, you can see a newly filled bucket, a bucket after 2 weeks, and then one after a month. I give these a gallon of water a week, if we don’t have sufficient rain.
In the header photo, you can see a whole bunch of greens and the hint of a blue bucket hiding in the middle. This was the test I did to make sure this idea worked. I planted those greens in October, they got about twice the size of the same kinds of plants in a bed without a bucket. They had no pest damage, whereas the other plants had little holes in most of the leaves. And, that bed survived all our cold weather and is still heavily producing five months later. The arugula has gone to seed, but the head lettuce that I’ve cut four times are still regrowing and mustard greens are exploding.
One plant did get nitrogen burn when I first put the bucket in place. So, I do give these a couple weeks to compost before I plant or add them to already planted beds. Then after 6 months in buckets, I can just dump them on the beds and spread.
And now that I know how well this works, I plan to use this concept outside the vegetable garden too, like around trees that have been in the ground at least a year.
Other Fertility Methods
We also have a few other tricks we use to build soil fertility.
- We haul in materials for sheet mulching. This is expensive, but the results are incredible. Also, the materials are local and by-products of other industries, so we don’t feel quite as bad about it.
- We grow cover crops including buckwheat, hairy vetch, three kinds of clover, and hard winter wheat.
- We grow lots of comfrey and cardoon to use as chop and drop mulch.
- We raise our ducklings and juvenile chicks in our greenhouse. We use deep straw bedding to cover our wormery underneath. We now do the same for our brooder.
- We do most of our peeing outside, uphill from edible landscapes for trickle effect.
- Although chickens and goats don’t mix with new plantings, so far ducks and turkeys do fine. We have 29 free ranging ducks and 2 free ranging turkeys that wander around during the day, eating grubs, seed heads, and doing their business. We occasionally lose a plant to a duck tramlping, but it’s pretty rare.
- We now irrigate with duck pond water, so this is kind of like a compost tea too.
- I make weed islands every chance I get.
- We trench compost. When I process ducks, most unwanted parts go to the pigs, but heads and feathers go into a trench dug in areas that will be planted up later. And when we process pigs, the unwanteds go in a much bigger trench.
- I cook all livestock bones for bone stock, then I used to freeze the bones to parcel out to our dog Honey. Since he he is no longer with us, I am going to use the bones to make bone meal soon. So, this will be another way to add nutrients to our landscape.
- We sprinkle wood ash from our hot tub and chimnea in all our growing areas.
- We put our kitchen scraps in our main worm bin. We also grow oysters on coffee grounds and feed the myceliated spent grounds to our worms in our main worm bed.
- We apply mushroom spawn to mulched areas which really kick starts decomposition.
I am sure there are a few more methods I’ve missed. Since we are trying to build soil in a hurry, we try just about everything to see what works and perpetuate the systems that seem to have benefits and mesh well with our other processes. Soil as needy as ours isn’t picky about how it gets nutrients. We might have to be more careful later to avoid making our soil too nitrogen rich, but right now, all of this works for us.