Casey O’Neill cultivates cannabis, vegetables, and fruit in Mendocino County. We will be publishing his weekly newsletter regarding growing cannabis and produce sustainably.
It’s a rare year that we don’t see snow until late January. This was a good year to wait for it because I had some infrastructure things that needed doing before we were ready for the weight that snow adds. We don’t often get that light powder snow, it comes in wet and heavy and ready to collapse the things that I didn’t build sturdy enough.
For years it was the PVC hoop houses in which we grew winter veggies. Every time the snow came we’d be out there every few hours knocking the weight off to keep them from ending up flat on top of the tender greens sheltered within. Over the last three seasons we’ve managed to make the shift to metal hoops and it has been a joy to go out to do animal chores in the morning and just admire the hoops without stress or extra effort.
This year we’re keeping more chickens and ducks through the winter than we ever have before, and we also have 3 pigs. Our animal infrastructure is still in an earlier state of evolution and we are relying on a less sturdy conglomeration of structures than will be the case in the future. We’re making use of all of our light, movable, summer chicken tractors to provide enough sheltered space for the birds during the wet months, but 2 of the four structures were designed for light, airy summer weather.
To make things workable for winter I’ve used a large piece of old greenhouse plastic to cover the entire complex. In conjunction with the randomness of the different structures (designs have changed over the years), the whole thing looks awful but is serviceable thus far in keeping the rain off the birds and the bedding/manure beneath them.
The pigs have a barn to sleep in but their run is enclosed in a pvc tunnel that has been in use for chickens over the past few years. The goal is to keep the straw and waste contained so that it isn’t being rained/snowed on and can’t leach into the creek. We want the waste for making compost to add fertility to the farm, and we don’t want it having a negative effect on the environment.
As the snow fell on Saturday morning, it became clear that I needed to do the work of shoring up some of the structures, which I had been putting off in favor of more pressing efforts. Notched 2×4’s screwed into the pvc pipe and anchored to the bottom boards or dug into the ground at the base provide excellent support from pretty minimal effort. Now I feel much more confident about our ability to make it through the winter without catastrophic collapses.
The whole chicken space is enclosed by electric netting to keep the birds safe from predation and to keep them from getting out. Some have figured out how to get over the top, but such is the nature of winter enclosures. When the land starts to green up the birds want out to go eat bugs and tender shoots. During the wet times they can damage the pasture with their scratching, so from December to the beginning of April we keep them in one location and bring fresh straw and cut greens to them each day. We harvest perennials like mallow and clover along with grass shoots, garden waste from produce picking, and sections of cover crop to keep the birds, pigs and rabbits in fresh greenery.
Outside their sleeping area in the barn, the pigs have a limited enclosure of about 15×25 that we keep well bedded with straw to soak up the urine and contain the manure. We also use a combination of electric netting and two strands of electric fencing to give them a more broad space to move in so that they can get exercise and snuffle around for acorns. Simple, movable infrastructure is the key to giving animals as much opportunity for fresh forage as possible over the course of the year.
During the warmer season from April to the end of November we use about three acres of slope for pasture, moving the chicken tractors from top to bottom on each side of the driveway over the course of the season. I tow the heavy coop with the Toyota and the lighter structures by hand or with the quad. Moving the electric netting and the housing takes up a chunk of time each week and has to be done either before the chickens are let out in the early morning or after they have gone in to roost in the evening.
In the year to come we plan to invest in a dozen lengths of the electrified poultry netting so that we can make semi permanent chicken paddocks. By purchasing the additional equipment we hope to save time and energy during the course of the season, opening one section of the fencing when the birds are hungry first thing in the morning and leading them into the new space.
There have been some amazing changes to the area that we pasture poultry over the last 8 years. While the surrounding countryside is still brown with a bit of green coming through, the area we run birds on is rich and vibrant, spongy and soft to walk on. We are utilizing chickens and garden waste to build organic matter and add fertility to the soil. The growing forage provides food and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere.
Areas that don’t have concentrated animal activity have most of the biomass above ground level, a dry, brown leftover from the past season that doesn’t decompose and remains in stasis. Moving animals over the landscape knocks this biomass down into contact with the soil and adds manure, creating more fertility over time. Rapid rotation is key to avoid concentrating too much manure in one place, which can reduce soil biomass through over-rapid decomposition because so much carbon is required to break down the high-nitrogen chickenshit. Too much manure can also flush into waterways when the rains come, so there is a necessary timing to the movements.
Like all things in life, animal management takes practice and clear goals. We want to maximize the benefit to the land. We want to have high quality meat and eggs, and we want the birds to be able to express their natural tendencies to scratch, peck, eat bugs and green forage. Over time, we refine our practices to produce better results in each of these metrics, while trying to reduce human labor. Such is the life of the farmer and the farm. Such is the same for anything in life; we get better at the things we practice, learning and applying new lessons as we move through the days, weeks, months, years. As always, much love and great success to you in your journey!
-HappyDay Farms, January 24th, 2021