The sheep and their new lambs.
We have our first new lambs on the farm. Gander and Sesame arrived just before temperatures dropped, so they were safe and settled for the winter weather. Emmy and Ethan were dry with full bellies when I found them this morning. Moms are getting extra rations and the babies are avidly learning about their new world. Seeing them play in the snow brings an instant smile.
Most people who visit the farm are smitten by the cuteness of the baby animals. When school groups come for field trips, we also emphasize that all the animals on the farm have a job. They earn their keep by helping us grow better vegetables. The animals eat what crops we can’t sell (weeds, culls, cover crop), and turn it into products that we can sell (wool, meat, offspring). And they poop. This fertility output helps make healthy soil in which we grow nutritious plants.
Here at Welcome Table the sheep eat grass. They are also good at eating broadleaf weeds, which our horses avoid. They graze in pasture for much of the year and are fed alfalfa hay the rest of year. We shear in late winter and they lamb in February, before veggie tasks pick up in the spring. By the time the grass greens, the lambs are ready to eat it. In late summer the sheep eat a lot of the farm’s carrot and beet culls, and in the fall they eat the ugly potatoes.
We sell the sheep as whole animals for custom slaughter in the winter. Those checks are well-timed to fill in the gap of the produce income. We don’t currently graze the sheep within our veggie fields. The fencing and rotations would be too difficult. However, in a few years we’ll start growing veggies where the livestock were grazing and plant pasture in the old row-crop area. In this way we can rest ground, renew fertility and break up some pest and disease cycles.
Raising pigs has been a harder puzzle for us to solve. In a small farm system pigs are the ultimate recyclers of waste. Pigs turn the squishy tomatoes and overripe sweet corn into the best bacon and chops. We rotate drifts of young pigs through fallow sections of our vegetable field, letting the hogs weed, turn and fertilize sections of the farm for next year’s planting. In summer the pigs make mighty mud wallows that we must go back and level. We supplement their foraging with a grain ration and veggie wastes.
Daily chores include hauling the soaked feed and water, and every few weeks setting up a new paddock with electric fencing. Every so often the electric fence will short out and there will be pigs on the loose. I thought I lost a pig this summer, but found her hours later napping in the shade under the cosmos flowers. Suffice it to say that our farm system is complicated, and raising pigs makes it much more so.
For several years we raised broiler chickens, and plan to do another batch this year. Buying the high-protein feed for these fast-growing birds by the bag is prohibitively expensive. Last winter we bought a grain grinder that is powered by a single horse walking around in circles. We’ve been mixing local wheat, garbanzos and field peas with supplements to make a more affordable feed. The process of grinding is good conditioning for the horses as well. We also plant cover crops for the birds to graze in mobile “chicken tractors.” They eat the cover crop, weeds, bugs and larvae in the soil, and leave a well-fertilized strip in their wake.
The horses are big poopers too. We collect most of their manure and compost it with chips that Andy brings home from his arborist work. These compost piles are turned and watered, and allowed to mature, before the horses spread the finished compost onto the fields.
We choose not to certify as an organic farm (a topic for another article) but with all these animals around we keep our produce safe and clean by abiding to the USDA Organic Standards. No manure or compost is applied to an area less than four months before harvest.
In many cases the raising of livestock is challenging and expensive. Fencing, equipment and animals are not cheap, and the losses are felt hard, especially if it’s due to our own inexperience or mistakes. We’re motivated to create a farm system that recycles waste products to create more food and fertility, rather than a system dependent on costly synthetic additives.
We believe meat plays a part in a balanced diet and animals are fundamental to a balanced farm system. But, if you asked me on a morning like today why I raise sheep, I might just answer, “because the lambs are soo cute!”
Emily Asmus and her husband, Andy, own and operate Welcome Table Farm, a small, diversified farm in the Walla Walla Valley. They can be reached at 509-529-0772 or firstname.lastname@example.org.