The Places In Between

A maintained pasture is an exceedingly pleasant thing to behold, and a mature forest is also highly rewarding. Its the places in between (a fantastic book if you haven’t had the pleasure) that present our greatest land challenge: the abandoned pastures and the scrub forest that replaced what was logged 15 years ago and is presently impassable in some places.

We have been doing the groundwork to (re)establish pasture on several acres. Its hot work at this time of year, and I am amazed at how slow the progress can be at times. The pastures were abandoned a few years ago, so they are a mixture of patches of grasses, vines (lots of vines, including much poison ivy), and fast-growing trees such as sweet gum. So the first priority is removal of the invasive and unwanted volunteers, some of which have climbed to 20 feet in just 3 or 4 years!

The Bad, and the Ugly: To the left, 3 year abandoned pasture with scrub up to 20 feet tall. To the right, the power company came through last month and bush hogged, leaving 6″ stubble buried under plant matter.

The work is mostly using loppers and a chainsaw at ground level to remove the trees, and in some areas stubble left over from previous bush-hoggings. Back-breaking work to be sure; for my part, I vastly prefer removing the scrub tree growth to the stubble work – at least then you can look back and see progress! We will leave the felled plant matter for several months to dry out, then remove it to windrows around the edges of the pastures. In the old days (a few hundred years ago) when there were less neighbors to worry about, we might have set a controlled burn to clear out the undergrowth and rejuvenate the area. I had the good fortune to meet Johnny Randall at NC Botanical Garden recently, and this is exactly what they are doing at Mason Farm and we look forward to incorporating the learnings (though sadly not the burnings) from that project. Both the NC Botanical Garden and Mason Farm are just a few miles from Dogwood Farms.

We are fortunate in some places to have oak, ash, maple, poplar and other valuable hardwoods and are taking care to preserve those in many places to create shade oases in the pasture, and to preserve the biodiversity of the land and provide nesting for birds and other smaller creatures. Taking the long view, I can envision how it will look in 20 years, a wonderful Piedmont savanna.

Of course, we look forward to supplementing this very manual method with goats, and perhaps more pigs. They will help greatly especially with the woody vines which are virtually impossible to remove by hand. But for now, the larger trees and shrubs we will continue to remove manually to afford the grasses, such as they exist, the best access to sunshine, rainfall and nutrients before we can bring in the goats and other ruminants to help clear and fertilize.

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We finally got some real North Carolina heat today -103 degrees and climbing.  With 17 animals to care for, concern for my own comfort seems selfish considering I can escape to the air-conditioned house.  In hopes of providing some relief we’ll put ice in the water dispensers, build a small wallow for the pigs and treat them to vegsicles.   We collect produce waste from Whole Foods and keep a stash in the freezer.  The pigs seemed thankful for this icy treat on a blistering day.

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Pig Power

I went out of town for a couple of days, after setting out the polywire fence through a section of the forest. When I left, the pigs had just started exploring, so there were minimal signs (to my eyes at least) of their presence. 48 hours later, they had made amazing progress. The polywire runs down the middle of the picture; to the left, pigs for two days; to the right, no pigs.

Tractors you can eat

Three small pigs on an area perhaps a little less than a quarter acre and it has been substantially reconditioned and revitalized in a few short days. Vines removed, weeds and their roots eaten, topsoil stimulated and the composted layer turned in.

Its wonderful to witness the effect, and to imagine how spectacular the Black Forest and other great oak forests must have been with the pigs to help reduce the competition and enable the enormous trees.

After 10 days, our young pigs had turned over most of a 1/4 acre, with no damage or compaction, and were ready to move on to the second paddock. I made the second one larger, roughly 1/2 acre, as the pigs are growing and will require more space, and because they are now adjusted to forest life and I feel better expanding their territory further from the barn.

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Chicks in the house

We’ve had backyard chickens before, but this time it’s different.  We got our first flock of chickens for the farm.  Only 10 of them, a small flock to turn our family’s table scraps into delicious and extremely local eggs.

Chickens on farmOnly 10 chicks on 23 acres?  Pastured chickens need pasture, and of that we have precious little.  But as we break down the forest growth and begin to re-establish the grasses we can greatly increase our flock size.  We will rotate the flock in a mobile coop so they can enjoy the bugs, the weeds, and the grasses while spreading their precious manure. Chicken manure is the hottest of all animal manures and contains the most phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium.  They will give back to the pasture what they take and more, providing a great service to the future ruminants that will be eating the grass.

Spending time with chickens is amusing, calming and even meditative.  Working through the short list of morning and evening chicken chores while hearing them chatter provides a daily connection with nature.  Chickens can be a gateway drug.  As with us, they may get you started down the road to additional agricultural pursuits.  But we think that’s a good thing.

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat

Sometimes doing things in smaller scale is harder, or at least no easier, than doing them in larger scale. What do you do with a few hundred pounds of spent grain, and only three pigs? I guess we should have picked up a few more pigs!

I was ecstatic this morning to be called by a local brewer looking for somebody to take their byproduct. I immediately said yes.  Now I have three large garbage cans full of still-steaming spent grain in my driveway. I gave the pigs a few shovels full, they love it.

I need to figure out how to dry the grain without stinking the neighbors out or burning any fossil fuels. Hoping for a few sunny days, and wishing I had that tractor already.

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Pigs in zen

Yesterday I figured the pigs were adjusted enough to us and their surroundings to venture forth into the pasture. I rigged up some fenced area for them using some chicken and goat electronet we have. First step was training them to it, so a few days ago I ran it around the inside of their temporary quarters in the old chicken coop. They figured it out pretty quickly.

pastured forest pigs

So after let them out, they took some tentative steps, adjusted to it and started foraging.

When we move them to the forest, further into the property, we’ll be fencing with just a couple of strands of polywire so I have another training program underway for that. It was really fun to watch them explore, especially today when they went straight into the bramble that I’m hoping they’ll clear from our land…

I never thought I would see a pig actually frolick. They were visibly happier and showed great signs of healthy behavior, so I’m glad we got them outside quickly.

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A pig step forward

Sometimes, opportunity just knocks. Last week, the day we were moving to the farm, a local farming friend sent a note recommending two reputable sources for weaner pigs with immediate availability. After waiting a few days for some of the boxes to unpack, we decided to go for it.

Charlotte and Peter brought home three Duroc / Hampshire cross weaners today. They’re about 35 pounds, six weeks old, and make a whole bunch of noise when you pick them up. We had a classic farm scene at the pickup as one got loose and chase ensued.

We put them in temporary shelter (chicken coop, with some pallet-inspired home improvements). Soon, we’ll put them in the forest. They are dual purpose – they will help clear the undergrowth while they are with us, and will become a source of income later in the year. Tractors you can eat.

They immediately began rooting in the abandoned chicken coop as the picture shows – presumably long-forgotten chicken food buried under the dirt floor. Awesome.

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