Managing the Herds

Last week I recounted my potentially perilous adventures managing our cattle herd. I got feedback that some people were not impressed with my cowboying adventures because I don’t have a horse anymore, and our herd consists of two steers, (technically calves, but big for their age.) My unimpressed friends being typical Americans equate importance with bigness.

O.K. you guys, you want to play the numbers game, you’d better sit down for this. We also have another herd of over a hundred head. Not impressed yet? We have still another herd approaching 2,400.

For those of you who get hung up on terminology. In the interest of full disclosure, our 100 head herd is technically referred to as a brood, clutch, hatching, nest, parcel, peep, battery or flock. Chickens actually, but they do have heads.

The other herd may not qualify as 2,400 head since the heads are pretty much indistinguishable from the tails. In a group they are known as a bed, clew, bunch, or a clat. Common name is worms. As of last Wednesday, we are the owners of two pounds of red wigglers. One pound is in a commercial wormery we purchased. The other is in our own construction, a worm high rise made from four stacked tires.

Before you dis these humble contributors to our ranch, farm, grove and garden operation, know that we paid $1.28 a pound for our steers on the hoof. The worms were $23 a pound on the stomach.

Not too many “Yipee Ty Y Oh” songs about the romance of herding worms. On the other hand, even the great Aristotle mentioned worms in his writings. He called them the earth’s intestines. We call them our garbage disposal. They eat table scraps, leaves, dry grass, newspapers, and, according to Job in the Bible, eventually us. (Job 19:26) They pay their dining check with “castings”, a polite term for what they leave behind when they crawl away. Castings create gorgeous rich compost that is gourmet dining to vegetables, fruit trees, and pastures.

All these are part of the mini ecosystem we are working on. It’s an old idea being dusted off. Find out what Mother Nature wants to do, and plug into the natural order rather than trying to force her into doing things our way.

With the steers we are building movable paddocks so we can simulate how cattle graze in the wild. They don’t eat everything in a given spot. They munch their favorite plants then move on. By moving them in the paddocks we hope to keep them doing their natural thing rather than penning them in until they have eaten the vegetation down to the dirt.

With the vegetables we are covering the weeds with cardboard we get free from a furniture store. By the time the cardboard disintegrates most of the weeds have died out for lack of light, and their vegetable matter and the cardboard work into and loosen the soil.

The chickens pay their tab with eggs, meat, and by kicking around the cow pies looking for insects thus fertilizing the pasture and helping to feed the animals.

We’re not experts yet. We have had some tasty successes, and some frustrating failures. But we like the direction we are going. If you have questions or advice, we welcome both.