Spring 2009
by Diane Schivera, M.A.T.

The 2008 Farmer-to-Farmer Conference, sponsored by MOFGA and Maine Cooperative Extension, had lots to offer livestock farmers. The livestock sessions were some of the best attended, and enthusiasm for livestock is high. Here are some highlights from those sessions.

Integrating Livestock Into Vegetable Operations

University of Maine Extension Educator Rick Kersbergen spoke about the science behind integration. In integrated systems, animal manure is the primary source of nutrients on the fields, and grain fed to animals is usually the biggest input into the farm system. From 16 to 24% of nutrients consumed are utilized by the livestock, and the rest is excreted. Products sold off the farm, including vegetables or other cash crops and livestock products, are exporting some nutrients.

Soil quality, measured as organic matter, improves markedly with manure applications, resulting in increased crop yields, especially in years of drought.

Spreading raw manure on fields has some advantages over spreading compost. Nutrients are rapidly available, since nitrogen in the form of ammonia is quickly absorbed by plants and soil microbes. Raw manure also quickly increases the active carbon content of the soil (the living, carbon-containing organisms). Raw manure, however, attracts flies, and it smells if it is not incorporated quickly; it can make the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio too high; it increases concerns about food safety; and certified organic growers need to be aware that they must spread raw manure more than 90 days before harvesting crops that do not contact the soil and 120 days before harvesting crops that do contact soil.

Paul Volckhausen of Happy Town Farm in Orland has been using livestock to clear land and feed the soil since he started his farm. He and Karen Volckhausen now have 6 cleared acres. Originally pigs were on the ground for one or two years, then the ground was plowed and cover crops grew there for a year, followed by vegetables. Now Volckhausen alternates alfalfa and grain cover crop strips with vegetable strips. The cover crops are mowed once, and lambs graze them three times. These lambs have no parasite problems. At different times, 20 ewes, 50 turkeys and three or four pigs graze the vegetable fields after harvest, cleaning up vegetables that are no longer producing well; and they graze the cover crop fields. The vegetables need little added fertilizers when they’re planted after the grazed cover crops. Grazing animals must be moved rapidly through paddocks to reduce compaction, or pugging, of the soil.

Steve Sinisi farms New Leaf Farm in Durham, Maine, with Dave Colson, who has been certified organic for many years. Sinisi has added more livestock to the rotation at New Leaf. He found that ‘Bella Rouge’ meat chickens performed best in their system, requiring one-third less grain when they were on pasture than when they were confined. Sinisi grew fryers in eight to 10 weeks, broilers in 12 to 14 and roasters in 15 to 18 weeks. Barley, crimson clover and alfalfa were planted in rotation with vegetable fields and were pastured.

Sinisi raised seven pigs on pasture, using 2.5 tons of grain with fermented whey and vegetable supplementation, compared with 4 tons of grain for seven pigs without pasture. The animals spent three to four days in a paddock and were rotated through eight paddocks, so 24 days passed before they returned to the original paddock. Sinisi believes that feeding the pigs heavily with apples 30 or 40 days before slaughter produced sweeter meat.

Sinisi spent an hour chopping enough corn to make two 50-gallon barrels of silage.

He suggested that growers:

Make systems portable so that they are easier to deal with.

Give new animals a very secure area.

Be conscious of manure contamination of crops when planning where to place paddocks.

During the discussion, Farmer-to-Farmer participants said that:
Pasture and grasses add nutrients and organic matter, primarily in the form of decomposed fibrous roots, to soils.

CSA members like to see livestock in the fields.

Poultry help weed and fertilize asparagus beds.

Spreading grain on a board on the ground and letting pigs eat their way along the board can help growers move pigs across fence lines.

A 1500-square-foot plot where 50 chickens spent six weeks had fewer bugs and weeds.

Maximizing Livestock Performance by Understanding Animal Behavior

Clare Thomas of the University of Maine Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences and Jo Barrett of King Hill Farm in Penobscot discussed behavioral and management techniques that improve livestock performance. The key tenet is “Management Without Stress.”

Barrett farms an integrated vegetable, grain, pasture, hay and livestock operation with her husband, Dennis King. To reduce animals’ stress, she said to know two distances: the panic distance (when animals will run away from you) and the motivational distance (how close you need to get to move a group or individual). Knowing these puts a farmer well on the way toward good management. These distances are affected by eye contact; the direction of threat (the direction from which a predator normally comes); the strength of the herd instinct; and the farmer’s ability to take her time and not rush the animals.

Set up the paddocks and barn to help with good management, to simplify operations and to reduce stress. After animals have been moved or engaged in some other activity a few times, they will fall into a routine and management will be easier.

Other suggestions included:

Always have a contingency plan and consider everything that can go wrong.

Take care to see what animals see as a change.

Accustom animals to your presence and touch without looking them in the eye first. Gradually get closer to skittish animals. Stand quietly and then move closer.

Making yourself look larger (by holding up a ski pole, for example) sometimes helps when you’re moving animals.

Slow, controlled, constant movement is much more successful than fast or interrupted movement.

Don’t try to interfere with the pecking order in a group of animals. They have to work this out eventually.

Sheep want to go uphill.

It is easier to let an excited cow run itself out than to try to work with it.

Dairy cows need immediate verbal or physical punishment (such as a smack; not a cattle prod) when they misbehave, followed by fast, calm forgiveness.

Pigs change their minds quickly, and they like to be in a group.

Chickens are easier to catch at night.

Turkeys are particularly afraid of overhead predators, so try not to raise your arms near them.

“Don’t ever freak out, you will pay for that sweet release.”

Thomas also noted some species-specific behaviors:

Chickens do well with five to seven hens per rooster, and chickens like to communicate: Roosters cluck to hens to warn them, to show food and to keep them calm.

Chickens like a roost that is about 4 feet high, and they like to have nest boxes lower and private and dark.

Sheep need at least four animals to behave as a flock. Animals lower in the pecking order usually have to serve as guard animals, maintaining vigilance. If they are in a secure environment or have a guard animal such as a dog, sheep are more productive, because more of their food energy goes into making meat or wool.

Cows need sufficient space to establish their hierarchy easily when new animals are added to the herd. They must be able to get away from each other. One cow can recognize up to 1,000 other cows.

Pigs like to be in a group of five to 20.

Animals learn by punishment or positive reinforcement that immediately follows the act. Reinforcement must be repeated to be remembered.

It is helpful to reward animals that respect boundaries.

Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her at 568-4142 or [email protected].

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