Animals are part of all natural systems. On a farm, they provide not only meat, milk or wool; they also reduce off-farm inputs by contributing their waste to the nutrient cycle. In educational settings like the Merry Lea Sustainable Farm, they give students exposure to a broader range of agricultural practices: namely, how to raise chickens, turkeys, pigs, goats and beef cattle.
For all these reasons, a full barn is something to celebrate.
At Merry Lea, it took years of hard work to design fields, improve soil, manage crops and create infrastructure with limited staffing. Caring for animals morning and evening had to wait. Chickens came first; then turkeys; then pigs. The cattle and goats are 2017 additions. Managing the current menagerie will keep the farm crew occupied for quite some time.
Ruth Mischler, an assistant professor in the Sustainability and Environmental Education Department oversees Merry Lea’s livestock. Next summer, she will also teach the Agroecology Summer Intensive’s first course on animal husbandry. Ruth describes this field as the art of understanding animals’ behaviors in order to create environments where they can flourish. It also involves planning for all life stages.
“I think it is important to raise animals in a humane manner because we are the ones who brought them into this context,” Ruth says. Careful observation is the key to keeping animals healthy and letting them express their natures even in a domestic setting. “You can tell how they’re doing by observing the land and their behavior,” Ruth says.
Below is an introduction to the livestock that live at Merry Lea.
Belted Galloway is the correct name for the breed, but they are also known as “Oreo cookie cows”: black, with a broad white band circling from back to belly. Small in stature and naturally hornless, they look friendly rather than threatening. Their shaggy fur enables them to tolerate outdoor living in cold weather.
Belted Galloways are hardy and do well on rough forages like those in the five acres of the farm devoted to woody perennial polyculture (WPP). This area mimics a Midwestern oak savanna, with a mixture of nut trees, fruit trees, vines and brambles. Grazing cattle in the WPP increases the fertility of the land and reduces labor by providing a mowing service. The cattle are confined by portable fencing and moved regularly to help distribute their manure. It is also a way to derive income from perennial plantings that are still years away from production. Starting in the fall of 2018, Merry Lea will have beef to sell.
Two Saanen-Nubian goats named Diamond and Ruby arrived this summer thanks to the generosity of Linda Davis of Ginger Hill Farms. Linda sold most of her herd, but wanted these two sisters to contribute to an educational farm. They each give about a half-gallon of milk a day which tastes best frosty cold. Saanens are a Swiss breed known for high production. They are the Holsteins of the goat dairy industry. Nubians contribute a higher butter fat content to the milk. Ruby’s looks represent the Nubian side of her family tree, while her sister, Diamond, is a white goat like their Saanen relatives. Ruth plans to breed the goats this fall and have kids in the spring.
Ruth has prior experience with milk goats and lightning fingers to prove it. The rest of us are not so skilled and struggled to match our milking speed to the goats’ attention span while Ruth was on vacation. Ruby was patient with the many unfamiliar hands on her udders, but Diamond was not.
Merry Lea’s pigs have been Durocs, Red Wattles and Large Blacks. Ruth values breeds that are good foragers with dark colors and droopy ears to protect them from the sun. At present, the five pigs root in a pen adjacent to the barn, but Ruth’s plan is to open up an area of forest behind the barn and let them forage there. The farm crew also plans to plant the lower field in turnips and let the pigs root for them. Their manure should help with the fertility issues this soil has.
Poultry: Forty-plus Buff Orpington laying hens are the most visible livestock. Their portable coop migrates around the property but is most often stationed in the orchard so that the chickens can eat grubs that might damage the fruit trees. This is a chatty breed known for its consistent production of light brown eggs. In addition, two dozen Thanksgiving turkeys are stationed in the barn and some broilers were recently butchered.
In September, another life form will populate the MLSF: dozens of curious children, many of whom have little sense of where food comes from or how it is grown. The Environmental Education Outreach Team has tweaked their curriculum and is prepared for a second great year of farm programs. Ω