Sustainability: Closing the Circle with Animals

Sustainability > Keeping Critters > Closing the Circle

Closing the Circle: Finish what you start, in sustainable/regenertive agriculture it means supplying all inputs from your own property and handling all your outputs on property as well.

This post is about how we attempt to close the circle with our critters and where we can make improvements. Closing the circle on human needs is impractical for us at this point and not really something we see ourselves capable of doing even in the future. So we make the most ethical choices we can. But that’s for another day and another post.

I talked a little about this in the post on compost. That, more or less, only dealt with outputs. Things like: manure, bedding, weeds, food waste, material, paper products, urine, etc. This post will look at rabbits, chickens, Jasper (dog), and budgies.

Rabbits

Rabbits are one of my favorite farm animals. I spent some time learning about what rabbits really eat and then figuring out how to grow that food here. When I feed the rabbits from our property and then collect their waste . . . That is closing the circle. As a reminder for rabbit outputs: we scoop up rabbit manure every month and add it to the compost piles; when a rabbit dies, their body is buried under a newly planted tree. Thank goodness, we don’t lose rabbits very often, but it has happened and will happen again.

So what do rabbits eat, and what can I grow to feed them?

  • Hay (90% of diet) — Grass, clover, weeds, plantain, wheat grass, sprouted wheat, dandelion, clover (white and red), timothy hay
  • Apple sticks, peach sticks, maple sticks
  • Willow branches with leaves
  • Vegetables & Fruit — leafy lettuce, carrot, apple, garlic scapes, beans plants, beets, parsnip, peas, pumpkin, radish, summer squash, winter squash, tomato, turnip,
  • Herbs —anise, hyssop, arugula, borage, sage, german chamomile, thyme, sorrel, lemon balm, peppermint, rosemary, genovese basil, queen anne’s lace

I have all this on the farm, with the exception of the wheat for sprouting and making wheat grass. We have started transitioning them by feeding them greens, herbs, and some veggies all summer. I have wheat ordered for the sprouts and wheat grass. I’ll get them used to that all fall and hopefully we will be fully transitioned by winter. I am not sure that we will ever grow our own wheat, we certainly won’t even try until after retirement.

Chickens

The chickens we currently have were raised on a homegrown diet supplemented by some scratch grain to train them to enter the ark and leave the ark (what I call their house). We planted several things specifically for the chickens this year in the garden.

  • For keeping clean — dirt, sand, a bit of grit.
  • For housing — to keep dry and shade, add insulating hay for winter
  • Protein — bugs, earthworms, mice (ick!), homemade yogurt, maggots, slugs, snails, ants, sprouted pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, mealworms, and grubs.
  • Calcium — ground egg shells, homemade yogurt
  • Fodder — yard greens (grass/weeds/leaves), leafy garden greens, most vegetable and fruit scraps, hay in the winter, bread crusts
  • We keep scratch grain here for getting them up in the morning and back in at night.
  • Compost— The composting chicken project seems to be going really well. I am amazed at how many bugs and worms I see in their yard. They seem satisfied and not hungry.

Pets: Jasper and Budgies

Our pets are still mostly on commercial food.

Although Jasper (5 year old chorkie) has been on a home-cooked diet a lot. I sort of rotate him. He eats whatever he is fed and is particularly fond of yogurt and carrots. His home-cooked food includes: chicken, fish, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, peas, blueberries, and a dash of oil. His commercial food is a salmon/sweet potato mix.

Jasper’s waste is not composted. It is picked up and put in his own little septic that we made. We call it the “poo pit.” We’ve been using it 3 years and it hasn’t even reach the top of the lowest tire. I throw grass clippings or wood chips in there weekly to keep the smell down.

The budgies can easily be fed with the greens, herbs, and vegetables we grow. The biggest thing we would need to add would be the variety of seeds they love. Right now we feed them a quality food from the pet store. They did not approve of a sprouted food we tried.

The budgie aviary has a tray for droppings. We add a layer of used paper over the tray and that is emptied into the compost every evening.

Conclusions: I am pretty happy with where are right now in our attempt to close the animals circle. Next Spring my goal is to grow enough for the chickens and rabbits except the hay. I’ll get that from Hay Bob. Jasper will go back on a home cooked diet later this Fall. He’s looking a little plumper than I’d like. The budgies won’t have anything changed. They eat just a couple of teaspoons a day. Not worth trying to fix.

 

Sustainability: Compost

Sustainability > Compost

Whenever I am asked for sustainabiltity advice, I always say compost. Compost is the answer whether we are looking at your garden, your lawn, or your home. Compost is the answer because it should be the end of your consumer cycle.

Compost works by ways that are chemical, biological, and magical. I tend to just think of the whole process as magical and ignore the science. This is not a science blog and I am not a science teacher. I am a gardener/farmer . . . By the way is there a word for a gardner/farmer? Farmner? Yeah, no . . . Probably not. How about a female farmer? Farm-her? Yeah, I like that.

Kim’s magical compost rules

  • Pick out a spot to be your compost pile/bed. For beginner gardeners I often recommend making it the same size your garden beds will be.
  • Lay down a thick layer of cardboard or twigs.
  • Dirt: Cover that layer with a bit of dirt. Even old potting soil will do, especially if you use the organic potting soil.
  • Food Waste: Fruit, vegetable, grain, egg shell, coffee grounds, tea leaves, etc. NO meat, cheese, oil.
  • Plant Material: weeds, plants removed from your garden or landscaping, wood ashes, shredded paper, grass clippings, and fallen leaves.
  • Animal Bedding: If you keep animals on bedding (and you use organic bedding) this gets added too. For instance: we keep budgies over dirt or scrap paper, that along with their seed hulls and greens goes in the compost. Example: we use a mix of grass clippings and wood shavings for chicken bedding, it goes in the compost when we clean out the chicken house. The rabbit manure gets added once a month when we clean under their hutch. NO dog manure or cat litter please. Human urine is fine — in fact, I often encourage the guys to leave their deposit out there.
  • Other Additions: You can add all natural fabric scraps, unvarnished wood scraps, untreated lumber, grape vines, blackberry brambles, silk dental floss, bamboo toothbrushes (althougth I prefer to use those as plant markers), etc. Basically if it grew and hasn’t been too processed, you can add it to the compost.
  • Cover it: We keep a fresh layer of greens (grass clippings, garden weeds, etc) over the pile at all times. This really helps keep the smell down.
  • Turn it: After the autumn equinox, turn the pile over into a new space. This can mean simply turning into the space next to it, into metal trash cans, or into a new garden bed. This is the compost you will use to feed your gardens. Anything that hasn’t broken down goes back on the bottom of the compost pile for the next year.
  • You will see lots of worms. Try to be gentle with them. They are making their own compost to add to yours.

I am experimenting this summer with something I am calling the composting chickens. We have layered grass clipping about 6-8 inches deep in the main chicken yard. Every morning I go out and rake it all back into a neat pile, hollow out a bowl shape in the center, and add the food scraps from the house. As I am working, the chickens are making happy noises as they look for bugs left behind under the grass clippings I have moved. Then they get really excited and start scratching through the compost/grass clippings. This turns the pile — and scatters it a bit — and they leave behind some poo as they do it. As we finish their yard expansion, I am planning on adding boards around the bottom to keep the compost in and make the whole yard one big compost bed. Due to the size and shape of our little farm, our girls can’t free-range. So a static yard is the best we can do for them. I think this will really add to both their happiness and the job title. In the winter we will add hay bales or straw bales in the place of the grass clippings.

The Septic System:

We have a 22 year old septic system that works perfectly without any intervention. So I am pretty content to leave that system in place. If it ever fails, we will transition to a dry composting toilet. That will mean a separate humanure compost that will not be used around food. That is a whole other project and will require a lot of research.

In the meantime, we practice “Safe Septic.” That means, potty cloths for urine, a bidet and small amount of tp for feces, or a bidet and potty cloth for feces — for the brave at heart, just me so far, no chemical cleaners, no bleach, no regular shampoo, body wash, dish soap, or laundry soap. In my bathroom, I collect the shower water using a bucket and I have another bucket under the sink drain. I use these for flushing urine. Any water left over at the end of the day either waters indoor plants or gets tossed in the compost. This keeps the amount of water entering the septic much lower and allows for better biological breakdown of the feces in the tank. It has also dropped our water bill by 40%. We are pretty frugal with our water usage anyway and this made a huge difference.

Sustainability: Gardening

Sustainability >Gardening

Our approach to gardening has evolved over many years. We tried it all: row gardening, square foot gardening, bio-intensive (Jeavons), permaculture, and no dig. Each of these has informed our philosophy, practices, and principles. Each of these has also been practiced under the umbrella of organic/natural.

Here are some of our guiding principles. I would like to explore these more in separate posts. Our gardening principles are just that, principles not rules. We have experimented enough to know what each plant likes, doesn’t like, and where we can “fudge the edges.” The only time we use rules is if we are planting something for the very first time or trying again after repeated failures.

  • Compost
  • Grow what you eat
  • Eat what you grow
  • Plant perennials and things you can save seeds from
  • Store your surplus wisely
  • Stay out of the growing beds
  • People power not petroleum power
  • Close the circle

Time in the Gardens:

In March and April, we tend to spend a couple of hours a week in the gardens. Our gardening season begins in earnest on the Spring Equinox. This is when when we prune the blackberries, thin the strawberries, clear out the stalks in the pollinator garden, move manure and bedding to the compost, and start harvesting asparagus. Michael begins mowing the lawn and we use it in equal parts for compost and chicken bedding.

May and June are the months when we spend the most amount of time in the kitchen garden. There are beds to prepare, compost to turn, compost to spread, seeds to start, and then the near constant weeding. Our last planting day is the Summer Solstice. After that we tend the plants that are already growing. During these months it is not unusual for me to spend a couple of hours doing garden work each morning. Kelly then spends most of Saturday doing the jobs that he is better at than I am. Michael is still cutting grass for compost and chicken bedding. This is also the time for building projects.

By July and August, we are simply weeding for about a half an hour on weekdays and maybe a couple of hours on Saturday morning. Kelly takes over the primary Saturday weeding job because I am harvesting daily and processing the foods. Harvesting hours in the kitchen garden are hard to calculate because I do it as I move through each bed weeding, checking for bugs, and diseased plants. Somedays I bring in huge baskets of food, somedays a small container. The orchard and herb garden begins to fourish with herbs hitting their peak just about the same time that the blackberries are ready. It is utter chaos at times.

September, October, and November are the months when my enthusiasm wanes just a bit. I’ve been weeding for 5 months and there are 3 more to go. Some garden beds begin to look empty as the plants complete their lifecycle and die back. Some beds have huge flowering stalks that will become next year’s seeds. By the Autumn equinox we cover the compost so the winter rains don’t wash all the nutrients away. The chicken house gets cleaned out down to the bare earth in late October and the bedding added to the new compost pile. The rabbit manure is collected and added to the new pile too. This is also the time for more building projects.

Late November is the time to make sure all the produce is out of the garden, the seeds are safely stored, and all the pots are clean and waiting for the start of another gardening season.

Sustainability

“If Harmony is my Abbey, then simplicity, stability, and sustainability are my vows.” — Me

Sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level and avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. *source: Oxford dictionary

So, maintain or grow, but don’t deplete — balance. A couple of things to note here, I don’t think we can buy our way to sustainibility and I do not believe in commodifying that which should be free. That about sums up my definition, but what does it look like in practice here on our farm? Stay tuned. I hope to have a whole series of posts about how we strive to live sustainably.

Here are just a couple of examples where you can see how principles and questions lead to our practice.

A Sustainability Practice: We do not till or plow our garden.

  • Why? It requires petroleum. We prefer people power.
  • Why? It kills organisms in the soil. We prefer strong healthy soil.
  • Why? It requires nearly perfect weather. We prefer to admit that Spring in southeastern Indiana is wet and deal with it.
  • Why? It requires packing down the soil as it turns the soil. We prefer loose, crumbly soil.
  • Why? It requires a purchase and maintanence. We prefer a cheaper solution and maintanence that can be done on the front porch. IE: a spade, a hoe, and a pitchfork.

A Sustainability Practice: We do not buy commercial cleaners.

  • Why? It requires petroleum. We prefer to use less non-renewable resources.
  • Why? It pollutes the waterways. We prefer our water clean and drinkable, not just for us, but for all those downstream too.
  • Why? It kills organisms in the soil. We prefer strong healthy soil. (See above, the soil has a lot to do with most of our reasons.)
  • Why? It is hard on a septic system and/or a grey water system. We prefer not to replace our current septic — the cost is prohibitive and the concrete is not a renewable resource.
  • Why? It requires a purchase that can only be used for one purpose. We prefer to use multi-purpose ingredients.