This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
Ah, the long days of spring! I feel joy in the burgeoning growth all around me, the magic of seeds that become seedlings that are planted and become food. Last night as dusk drew down Amber and I were sowing seeds and up-planting in the hoophouse. I reflected on the fact that though it had been a long day, at the end of a long week, I was glad to be working with plants in the calm of evening.
It can be hard to define a work/life separation on the farm. If it’s something I want to do, is it work? If it feeds my family, is that life? The many endeavors of the season proceed, marching out across the landscape as we prep beds, plant crops and raise animals. The work is constant but varied, and it brings a deep enjoyment to see it go forward.
We got two new lambs yesterday, ensconced in a new enclosure of hard panels gathered up from around the farm and ranch. After the mishap of our previous attempt, I gathered up all of the 4’ hog panels, managing to find 10 of them, along with a number of 3’ sheep panels from the ranch. The 4’ panels are on the low side of the paddock, while the shorter ones are along the top of the slope, where I hope it will make the sheep less likely to try to jump over them.
I am learning to be more calm around the animals, to move with a slow deliberateness, and to avoid sudden movements. There is a stout, metal chicken tractor in the paddock to close the lambs in at night, and since yesterday was their first day on the farm, I was nervous to see if we’d be able to get them to go in. As sunset approached, Amber and I went up to the paddock and climbed over the panels with a bucket of grain to offer treats.
Meadow raises sheep and is our friend and livestock mentor. She brought the lambs in the morning, and told us to think of interacting with them as a reverse-magnet proposition; as we move forward, the lambs move away. Walk slowly, speak calmly, be gentle, and don’t ever be in a hurry with them. We set out to follow the advice, taking our time and moving with caution.
I was nervous that instead of going into the confines of the metal box that they might try to jump over the panels, but after just a couple of minutes they went into the tractor and Amber threw in a couple handfuls of grain and shut the door. It felt good to experience a small victory, and I’m glad that after the initial failure with sheep that we are making another attempt. The pasture grass is as lush and green as I have ever seen it, and I’m glad to have animals that will eat the forage and fertilize it for future seasons.
The pruning of the grasses above ground by hungry mouths will cause a similar pruning of the roots below ground as the plants shed excess biomass that is not supported by tall growth receiving photosynthesis. As the grass grows again after the sheep have been moved to the next area, the roots will grow again. This cycling through animal rotations builds organic matter in the soil, which sequesters carbon, holds more water and grows more lush forage over time.
Rotational grazing with poultry is the reason why the slopes near our driveway are so much more vibrant than the surrounding hills. It has been amazing to see the changes over the last ten years, and it is heartening to see the lambs grazing the abundant forage. We are also moving along with our poultry efforts, with one small batch of meat birds already out on grass and a group of young laying hens and another batch of meat birds still in the brooder.
The past few years we’ve done much larger batches of meat birds, but this year it feels nice to work with smaller numbers, 30 or so at a time. It makes the effort of feeding and managing them much less, and I think will make for a steady, more consistent workload over the course of the season. We’re working with the Cornish crosses this year instead of the Red Rangers that we have been used to raising. The Cornishes are much faster, taking only 8-10 weeks to raise, although they don’t forage as much as the Rangers.
Fewer birds, more rotations is the plan this year. We’ve increased the number of chicken tractors and the brooder space, so that we can keep bringing in small batches of birds and moving them along through the process. The goal is to run the birds in the spaces that the lambs have grazed, so that the tall forage will be taken down to a more manageable height for small chickens.
Following ruminants with chickens means less flies because the chickens will look for larvae and eat bugs, and also means healthier chickens with a good amount of protein in their diets. Tubs and tubs of veggie waste and cover crop harvests feed pigs, rabbits and laying hens, as the cycle of the farm ramps up into full speed. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!