Part of our sustainability mission includes our commitment to the soil, including the use of modest amounts of animal manures in our compost and on our fields. That means that we need to learn to manage small populations of livestock on the farm.
In 2010, we began to work with an interesting mix of animal species. For instance, we are getting help with field pollination in our trials from honeybees. The Grozinger lab at Penn State maintains a small apiary in the middle of G2's research farm. We get improved pollination (and a modest amount of honey!); we help out our friends at Penn State; and the Penn Staters get an isolated site in which to maintain their research honeybee colonies on a farm maintained under sustainable practices.
We decided that it was time to find an on-site way to use as much of the field and kitchen waste as we could. Raising a few feeder pigs each summer seemed to be an ideal solution. We fenced in an unused corner of the pasture; put up a small open-sided structure; brought in a water line --- and we were ready for pigs. Our trio of hogs --- all barrows coming from the Penn State breeding program --- are reared on pasture, with constant access to a locally-produced growing ration and cool fresh water. We've raised pigs before, but it's been since the early '80's. Three seems like a good number, but we could probably handle a few more in the same space by adding a second self-feeder.
To keep all of us in the right frame of mind, we've named the feeders Bacon, Ham and Pork Chop. The pigs are cute, friendly, entertaining --- but they are destined for the table. We need to keep that clearly in mind.
We routinely have to deal with insect and arthropod pests in the field. In fact, it is not unusual to find ticks on our legs and on our pets. As a result, we are attempting to manage the field population of ticks and insect pests by maintaining a flock of guinea fowl. The guinea keets arrived in May. We brooded them inside while we constructed a 12 by 20 poultry house. The guineas free-range over the farm, entertaining us with their antics. Are we seeing any measurable pest-control? We're not sure. Once the winter squash crop comes into fruit, we hope to see the guineas in the squash chomping our the bugs. They have been a minor nuisance in the home garden --- guineas seem to like lettuce to the exclusion of just about anything else in the garden, apparently --- but it's not a major problem. There are plenty of other, less guinea-attractive, greens in the garden.
If you are thinking about guineas, be prepared. Guineas ARE noisy. REALLY noisy.
Guineas are also very protective of what they perceive as their space. There was a large skunk in the garden a few evenings ago. The guineas spotted it, and literally chased it for about 450 ft by running at it flapping and squawking. The skunk went under the fence and into the woods, but the guineas continued to squawk at it until they could no longer see it. They do similar things with our cats, but the cats don't run away. They simply crouch down and hiss at the larger birds. Face-offs in the yard are routine, but each side rather quickly backs down.
We also brought in a small flock of chickens (only hens) to provide eggs (as well as a modest amount of manure, and a way to use some of the kitchen waste). These young hens (pullets) are just now 18 weeks old and have just begun laying brown eggs. The pullets are hybrids resulting from a cross between Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock strains. In this hybrid, the male chicks are yellow (ultimately maturing to mostly white) whereas the female chicks are mostly brown and red shades. It's a phenomenon in animal genetics called "sex-linked" but it enables us to maintain an all-female flock. Which will ultimately be a positive on a summer's morning at 5AM. Hens don't crow to greet the morning, and guineas on their evening roost tend to simply chirp, rather than squawk.
Bees, chickens, pigs, guineas. Where are the cattle and horses? We're really too small to handle large animals to our satisfaction. Our field space is in research, so that we cannot readily produce the forages needed to do large animals. Purchasing forages for beef cattle, for instance, would make the cost of beef unrealistically high, despite the fact that we'd like to have the manures available. It will be more realistic to purchase locally-produced beef from a grower whose practices we respect. We may even be able to trade pork for beef sometime in the future.
We considered fencing in the fields, and using the aisles and paths for pasture. That would provide us with about 4 A in total area as pasture --- not an unreasonable acreage for a few head of beef. However, fencing in the research plots makes plot management much less convenient. We need about 30 ft around all sides of the plot for tractor access and turning, and when we factor that into our plot spacing, we just don't have enough space for our research and raising large animals like beef cattle or horses.
Anything else? How about our mobile rodent control devices? Doesn't she simply look terrifying? But she is a good mouser, and we need good rodent control in a breeding greenhouse. It is amazing how quickly field mice learn to eat seeds in the developing pods.