Animals in Permaculture
Integrated Livestock Design and Management
At Oudeberg our animals are primarily used to help us manage ecosystem processes on the farm. They are all kept in a variety of mobile pens or “tractors” that are generally electrically fenced so that their impact can be applied into production systems where needed. In Zone 1 we use chickens in A-frame tractors to build healthy soils in the vegetable beds and to scratch and eat weed seeds and insect larvae, breaking pest cycles and adding their high nitrogen manure to soils.
In Zone 2 we use chickens and ducks in mobile electric fence units to manage the floors of food forests by naturally processing the groundcover systems by mowing them and converting them to nutrients and thus speeding up the mineral cycle. They eat fallen fruit, scratch up pest eggs and larvae and control weeds. We obtain a constant flow of eggs and unwanted roosters are eaten by staff and used to feed pets.
The ducks are muscovies and act in a different way on the systems to chickens, as they do not scratch and their ability to find and consume insects, especially snails and slugs is unparalleled. They have a bath to swim in and the dung water we use to soil drench the food forests with high mineral liquid manures. We keep miniature pigs in mobile electric fencing units to pioneer areas where we want to add new production systems. They do a good job digging up the soil as a natural plow and remove many of the weeds and grasses that we do not want in vegetable gardens and food forests before establishing them.
The natural tendency of pigs to dig is used as an excellent land prep tool and we also run them on pasture and groundcovers to graze them down, recycle nutrients as an effect pasture and food forest floor management tool in Zone 2 and 3. The pigs recycle a wide range of food and crop waste from the systems into dung and during fruit season we run them under the food forests to consume fallen fruit and prevent fruit fly. For the management of ecosystem processes in Zones 3, 4 and 5 we use cattle and sheep and have selected specific breeds for hardiness and appropriateness to local conditions.
Our approach is “plug and play”, meaning that our animals must function in the system without any supplements, inputs such as vaccinations, special feeds, assistance in birthing, or indoor housing and be completely resistant to parasites and diseases. They must gain all nutrients from our veld and pasture systems and breed prolifically. We do not inject anything into them, nor drench them in pesticides as the selection of breeds are resistant to ticks, worms, and other potential sicknesses.
The primary role of the livestock here is to assist the mineral cycle in the field systems, manage the health of the pasture by adding nutrient to the soils, recycling vegetation, controlling weeds in the pasture and converting it into high-value animal products. We run our sheep and cattle in mobile electric fenced camps on intensive grazing rotations whereby we severely graze our pasture by concentrating their grazing action and hoof action into small areas and them move them on to the next area, returning only when there is full recovery of the pasture plants. The results are
Our animals are completely organically and naturally raised and managed and are healthy, vital and live in as close to natural herding and breeding patterns as possible. We do not feedlot at all and they are only confined to kraals when the weather is wet because we do not want the hoof action to compact soils in the pasture. We have selected Nguni cattle and Awassi milk sheep as our main breeding lines. The stock comes from high-quality stud farms as we need the classic characteristics of the breeds that make them so special. O
What makes the Nguni special?
- It is an excellent forager and can browse and graze on steep slopes or in thick bush.
- Their unique pigmentation offers protection against eye and skin cancer.
- It handles heat well, has an excellent resistance to ticks and an immunity to tick-borne diseases.
- They are long-lived and high reproduction makes for low replacement costs.
- It fattens well on veld, even in harsh conditions.
- The bulls have well-developed, muscular, rounded humps.
- Mortality rates from birthing to weaning are very low as Nguni’s are excellent mothers.
- The breed has exceptional fertility, ease of calving, and high reconception rates even under extreme conditions.
- Nguni produce beef at the low cost per kilogram per hectare of all cattle, making them the most profitable and economically sustainable of all cattle.
- Their placid temperaments make them very easy to handle.
- The Nguni is very hardy, are resistant to tick-borne diseases and can thrive under extreme climate conditions.
- They are a highley effective low input for high yield element in a Regenerative System.
Our Nguni Cattle
Characteristics of the Nguni The Nguni offers a major advantage over other breeds: it is indigenous and is well adapted to the heat, disease and environment of Africa. Nguni are not large cattle and can thrive in most areas. Bulls weigh 500kg-700kg and cows 320kg-440kg. Calves grow at 0,7kg per day and wean at approximately 175kg. Some breeders have problems with Nguni because they look at the size of the cow and calf, not at the stocking rate on the farm. So determine your land size and the total weight of the calves in kilograms (the production) that you sell off that area. This determines the cattle operation’s profitability. More calves of a lighter weight outweigh fewer calves that are heavy. Ngunis are very low maintenance animals. They tolerate temperatures of over 40°C in full sun, don’t drink much water, and are designed to utilise poor quality grazing. Their physical shape and respiration enable Ngunis to keep their body temperatures within limits. Finished carcasses dress out at roughly 180kg-220kg. Marbling is good with a thin covering of fat. Nguni cattle are probably the most beautiful cattle in the world, and their magnificent hides are in great demand as rugs and furnishings. For more information on Nguni visit the Nguni Cattle Breeders Society
Our Breeding Herd
We keep a small breeding herd of stud cattle that meet the Armstrong and Meyer Cattle Description of Ngunis. Our breeding stock was carefully selected at Taflesig to meet the highest standards of the Nguni Genetic Merit. All calves are sold at 1 year and pricing is determined by adherence to classic Nguni traits. At present we have 3 high-quality heifers awaiting sale and 1 beautiful bull. Our calves are all naturally weaned and by the time of sale are completely independent of their mothers. We husband our cattle naturally allowing them to follow natural herding and breeding patterns, which results in very healthy and gentle cattle.
The Herd Sire
Integrating Dexter Cattle into our Permaculture
We sold our Awassi Sheep dairy herd and replaced them with Dexter Cattle. The reason we did this was for efficiency of operations. Sheep require much more management than cattle and milking and slaughtering lots of sheep each year was too much work for the returns we got. This was especially relevant in the mobile electric fence system we use, where a 2 strand, rather than a 4 strand wire system is used to keep the Dexters confined. The Dexters provide more output for forage input than sheep do and it is much easier managing 2 to 3 cattle than nearly 30 head of sheep.
Dexters provide us with unique traits and functions on the farm.
- The breed is a non-selective feeder, highly adaptable, very hardy and easy on the veld.
- Dexters have good feed conversion rates and excellent Average Daily Gains (ADG’s).
- The Dexter is a dual purpose breed with exceptional meat and milk qualities.
- Dexter meat is know for exceptional marbling, tenderness and flavor.
- Dexters have a significant larger Eye Muscle Area (EMA) than other breeds, indicating more saleable meat.
- Dexters have a good temperament, making them easy to handle.
- Dexter cows have exceptional maternal instincts, taking great care of their young.
- Cows calve at a young age and have low inter-calving periods(ICP’s).
- Calves are weaned at 205 days at plus 55% of the mother’s weight.
- There are two recognized types, short legged and non-short. Dexters are black, red or dun.
We currently have 2 Dexter cow and 1 bullock. We have them for their milk and we run a small self-reliance dairy, in which we milk the cows every morning, getting an average of 6 to 7 litres of milk a day. The cows then spend the rest of the day and night on our lucerne based pasture. We separate the calf from the cows in the evening so we have plenty of milk for the morning session.
The milk is rich due to the high quality pasture and we use it to make cheese, butter, yogurt, with a range of other products currently under development.
The Dexter is very docile and trains easily, it took us just a week to get them used to the milk stanchion and the battery powered milking machine we use. They go easily into the stanchion and are very cooperative during the entire milking process.
We collect their dung from the milking kraal, where they sometimes overnight and add it to our worm farms, which forms the backbone of our composting process, that we have located within the kraal area, for ease of operations. They manage our pastures, by adding dung and urine to keep the soils regenerating and the mineral cycle flowing as effectively as possible. We keep them separate from our Nguni herd as their characteristics are different and do not function well together. There are 2 reasons for this, firstly the Dexters need to be moved everyday to the dairy, while the Nguni are always in situ, this meany we do not have to manage the daily movement of a larger herd. Secondly the Nguni are more competitive than the Dexters so tend to bully them away from anything the Nguni want, which adds stress to the beast and will affect milking. We have had our Dexters on veld over the winter with the Nguni and they seemed to hold their weight and health well in the tough Karoo environment.
Although the Nguni and Dexter share many traits of hardiness the Dexter is not tick resistant like the Nguni and they need to be regularly de-ticked when they are in the milking stanchion.
Our aim is to acquire a 3rd Dexter Cow so we can get to the ideal situation of having 2 cows that are been milked and one pregnant. We lost one Dexter heifer calf over the winter to a leopard, which was a bit of a blow as we were going to raise her as our 3rd cow. Farming in the Karoo has its challenges.
Our Poultry Systems
Our chickens are the only element on the farm that requires external inputs in the form of grain. As we do not have the room to grow grain for them we have to bring in Oats from the nearby Overberg as their feed as we avoid all maize-based feed as it is all GM. We reduce our reliance on grain feed by rotating our chickens in tractor systems, sprouting grains and developing on-farm protein sources such as worms and other high nutrient seed sources. Our chickens are fed on cut greens and garden waste which is added into their systems through the day.
In the longer term, our plan is to add a chicken breeding program to sell into the market as the Western Cape has a scarcity of available point of laying birds that are suited to regenerative farming and permaculture homesteading systems.
We have 3 sizes of chicken tractor, the mainstay, which is 3.6m long x 1.2m wide, which fits perfectly over a vegetable bed in our kitchen, vegetable, and maincrop gardens. This size tractor comfortably hosts 3 to 4 birds. We also use a smaller more compact tractor 3m long by 80cm wide for smaller beds in the kitchen gardens and this hosts 2 birds, in most cases a mother with chicks. We also have a large 5m long by 2.5m wide land clearing tractor to open up new ground and to run in between tree rows in pasture, which hosts up to 15 birds.
Generally, once we have harvested vegetables from the beds the tractors run along the bed for 2 weeks in each station to prep the soil for the next planting. We find that this duration is perfect to refertilise the soil for the next season and the results are excellent. This saves us weeding, clearing and above all composting. The chicken tractors provide everything the chickens need in our context, namely…
- Security from predators
- Laying boxes
- Movement to new ground (chickens should never stay in one place for too long as this builds up parasites and disease, chickens get bored, and nitrogen toxicity occurs in the soil under them)
- Loose soil for sand baths
- We are able to manage them properly by keeping them confined and out of areas that they would destroy, and also keep different function birds separate (breeding from egg laying).
Our tractors are easy to move by two people so keeping soils building and garden beds prepped and ready for planting is efficient and easy.
Poultry netting Systems
Our mobile poultry netting system is the mainstay of the chicken population. This consists of 50m of specialised electric poultry netting that is setup under food forests or in Agroforestry systems which enables up to 40 birds (numbers are limited by the size of the mobile trailer house) to work an area. Sometimes we link up 2 nets and get a run o 100m if the area needing working is large.
We have a chicken mobile, which is a converted and repurposed trailer into a chicken house. This trailer can house 40 birds, has 4 laying boxes, staggered perches, a solar system to run the netting and an automatic drinker attached to it. We access the laying boxes from the outside of the trailer and we remove the bedding from underneath the perches regulary for use in compost making. Whenever we move the system we can either push the trailer by hand or attach it to a vehicle and pull it to the next station. This system is ideal for keeping food forests healthy, weed and parasite free, for clearing new land in conjunction with pigs (followng them on) and for running poultry on pasture after cattle (spreading the cow dung around and eatling parasites from the dung as well as feeding the birds on pasture). We intend to make more of these in time as we increase our poultry population.
Advantages of Muscovies
- Muscovies are top class foragers,
- provide very large and consistent eggs,
- and can be a source of the best poultry meat available.
- They do not need water as other ducks do and are quiet.
- Their large size makes them relatively difficult for small predators to hunt and provide decent volumes of meat.
- We use their rich eggs to feed our dogs, which adds a healthy site based element to their diet.
- They can function as free-range elements anywhere in the permaculture outside of the vegetable systems, where they can eat leaf vegetables.
- They are very docile and easy to handle and breed very well, laying plenty of eggs and have great mothering ability.
- The females can fly so their wings need clipping.
- Muscovies generally require less water (read: pond depth and surface area) to be happy and healthy when compared to other breeds. They do very well with just some large water tubs. At a minimum, they need the ability to fully submerge their head to clear food particles out of their nostrils and eyes.
- Muscovies are known as the “quackless” duck as their vocals are usually more like a soft goose hiss, rather than the loud “quack.”
- They are really a blend of a duck and a goose and hold the advantages of both with none of either’s downfalls (noise, aggression, excessive size, needing lots of water).
We use our Muscovies in the mobile chicken netting systems, along with the chickens, as they complement the action of the chickens, eat a lot more slugs and snails than chickens do and can get their beaks into places chickens cannot. We provide a bath for them to swim in, which we empty regularly into the gardens and around trees as a liquid manure. They can be let out to free range in vegetable systems at the end of a growing season to clean up weeds and pests and the volumes of the manure way exceed that of chickens so they are able to fertilise an area faster than chickens do. Their biggest advantage, which is why they compliment chickens in a Zone 1 and 2 system is that they do not scratch, so can wander around the food forests and main crop systems, fertilising the soil and keeping the systems clear of pests.
Pigs in Permaculture
Pig Tractor Systems
We keep miniature pigs in a mobile electric fenced camp system. This enables us to use them to tractor land before we develop it into plant systems, eat fallen fruit and so prevent fruit fly, recycle kitchen and garden waste as well as graze pasture and manure it.
We only have sow pigs as we do not want them to breed as we do not wish to slaughter pigs or have to send them to the abattoir. Pigs are very intelligent and can make great pets. Our’s function purely in the above land management roles and they do a fantastic job. Our pigs are a Pot Belly and a cross between Pot Belly and Tea Cup, “Apple” and “Cool” respectively. They are mainly deployed in our food forests and agroforestry systems to manage fruit fly by recycling fallen fruit, converting perennial cover crop into manure and urine, and thus preventing weeds. As long as there is something for them to eat, they will not dig and so by moving them around as soon as they have grazed off the groundcover, they will not dig up the food forest floor.
Our pigs thrive completely off what the farm produces and require no external feed inputs or any form of innoculating, they are pure “plug and play” animals. They live in a mobile trailer which sits in a 2 strand mobile electric fence. If you want them to dig then the ground needs to be wet, otherwise, they cannot get into the soil and there should be little surface material for them to eat. We have found them effective in reducing invasive grasses but will not get rid of grasses like Kikuyu, which some people will have you believe. We find the reduce the amount of Kikuyu by about 60 to 70%, which makes your follow up task a lot easier.
The pig tractor needs to be followed up by chickens in a electric netting system. The chickens scratch out the pig dung midden and spread it all over the area, working it into the soil, eating any fly larvae that might be in the dung and of course adding their own dung to the mix. They 2 systems are the ideal companion animal tractors.
They are easy to train and work out quickly that you want to move their camp on and will willingly walk into their house for you to lock them up while you break up their camp and hitch them up to the tractor for their next station. Despite misinformation, pigs are clean creatures and tend to manure in a midden, they make nests in their house and will never roll in “shit”. Because they do not sweat they need a mudbath in summer to keep them cool or a place in deep shade to lie in.
Pigs are easy to keep in two or even single strand electric fencing once they are trained. Pigs tend to run through things when they are startled rather than away so they need to be trained to back off when they hit the wires. This is relatively simple, all you have to do is set the electric fence up in a permanently fenced area, with the electric wires just inside the permanent fence. So when the pigs try and run through the electric wires they hit the fence behind it and have to back off. It takes a few days of this and they will not try running through the wires again and your pigs can go out foraging in mobile systems.