Written by Doug Crouch
If one was to do a functional analysis of ten different animals within the domestic livestock category, one would find some pretty consistent crossovers on the pattern level in terms of inputs. Thus we will cover those similarities so that when we get to specific animals, the
details can come through rather than repeating constantly. Ultimately caring for domesticated livestock is a very large responsibility and to meet the ethos of permaculture we really need to be sound within our animal husbandry. However when we know our inputs and outputs combined with the intrinsic characteristics of the breeds and combine that with the principles of permaculture and patterns of nature, domestic livestock can bring resilience to the system. It is on us who take that responsibility to treat them with respect and care, mimic natural systems, and encourage ecosystem restoration.
It is basic yet paramount. Thus the higher the quality of the water we deliver, just like humans, the better the health will be for our animals. It mandates us to bring fresh water to troughs or water bowls, either via piping or manually, and to keep the drinking troughs clean. This is one of the hardest parts/ decisions of keeping animals because setting up infrastructure to deliver water to the drinking locations can be costly especially with rotational grazing systems. That is why you often see ponds built and rotational grazing not happening and the animals having free access to the water. However this diminishes the water quality and increases the chances of the animals getting parasites, a detrimental health threat to the animals and if chemicals are used to treat it then also to the ecosystem. So water must be planned well, because you will want to keep the water topped up, unfrozen, and also to wash the water bowls out from time to time. This can be lessened by correct placement to keep fecal matter out of the troughs as much as possible, which is a challenge honestly. For example, I switched to a water bowl that attached to the walls of my semi movable goat pens at Treasure Lake in the summer of 2018. Before that they were on the ground and always a mess to clean because of the animals defecating in them. It still happened from time to time because I had to keep some of the water bowls low because of the baby goats. However this small change represented a lot less cleaning and cleaner water. At a farm I worked on in California, where water is precious, we would clean the water bowls outside the chicken yard underneath a mulberry tree effectively watering and fertilizing it each day (energy cycling). Furthermore, you can add a probiotic, organic apple cider vinegar being any easy one, to help keep gut flora good. If chlorinated water is given to animals, the consequence of this anti-microbial agent will also trickle to your animals. Animals need good gut flora to maintain their vitality just as humans do.
Food comes in so many different forms at so many different times of years for all the different domestic lifestock. They fit different niches so there will be crossover but
specifics for sure. Balanced nutrition is important and keeping certain animals away from certain poisonous plants is vital as well. Our designs are strengthened by realizing this diversity and matching inputs and outputs together such as the oak tree giving acorns to a pig, yet only at a certain time of the year. There are different systems like planting tree crops and also the cut and carry system that are discussed in other articles. The real design influence is there, how to feed animals, a function, with as many different elements as possible. Our job is to orchestrate the animals to be biological resources, thus building soil instead of polluting. We want our animals to have great nutrition so they gain weight quickly and survive those fragile periods of young age and when times are hard during food shortages. And we want them to gain weight or have nutrition levels high for their outputs of meat, eggs, dairy, them simply being alive, and the literal livestock part (animals have value in sale).
This part of the animal design addresses several needs. It is often a place where the above two needs are delivered and stationed for a certain amount of the 24 hours of day. Its other main functions are creating a predator proof zone and keeping weather away/ giving regulated temperature. Each animal will have different predators with crossover. The chicken is faced by an enormous amount of predators, both sleek and slinky like the weasel and fox or stealthy from the air like the hawk or eagle. The shelter must be built with this in mind. Some predators will dig under a structure so it’s not even enough to simply have walls and a roof.
The shelter should also be able to keep rain, wind, and excessive heat or cold off the livestock as much possible. Animals expel a lot of energy maintaining their body temperature, which decreases their conversion of what they eat into weight or other outputs like eggs. It also creates stress which reduces their immunity just like if humans are in really hot humid buildings or freezing breezy ones. Sickness can come easily when living conditions aren’t great. Thus structures might need to be altered for differing season conditions. Keep that in mind within the design phase of a shelter or an existing ones retrofitting.
The structure in which animals are kept will need regular cleaning. This represents one of the main tasks of keeping animals but also an opportunity to use the waste of the animals for various soil building techniques or even biogas production. Animals are bedded down with a high carbon resource like straw so that their nitrogen rich manures and urines when deposited are balanced. When they are not balanced, smells become intense with ammonium, which is unhealthy for the animal. Overtime they will go anaerobic causing other stenches and pathogens wafting about. By removing this organic matter, manure and bedding, frequently, greater health is achieved. Flies are attracted to the manures which spread pathogens and are just a general annoyance for the animals and humans. In Costa Rica, we would clean the animal houses twice a week and spray EM afterwards, which dramatically lowered the fly count by putting probiotic lactobacillus in the bedding.
Structures will also need to be designed with outputs in mind such as a dairy milking stand or egg laying boxes. Other infrastructure cascades from there whether it be refrigeration, equipment for processing, or possible delivery to the market.
Below is a bulleted list, with quick points on many topics. The prominent pattern behind this is observation and making judgement calls and design alterations.
- Childbirth Assistance– Even if it is fowl raising eggs, you may have to become involved in childbirth assistance. With mammals like a goat, you may have to reach elbow deep into the birthing canal to assist on say a breach birth (I have heard the stories). This is a large responsibility just like humans, childbirth can be dangerous for the mothers.
- Child raising– Stuff happens on a farm and sometimes you have to take a more paternal role in the life of young livestock. Extra care and attention is devoted in these times whether it is bottle feeding or making shelter alterations so that older animals don’t pick on younger animals.
- Injuries or sickness– There are times when animals get sick and injured and you have to call in vets, often at quite an expense, or assume the role of the doctor. Bandaging an injured leg or trying alternative therapies might be a role you take on. There are also preventive measures that most holistic farmers will take on to certain degree.
- Putting them down– Just like with pets (livestock luxuries), you may have to make the decision to take an animal’s life. A sick, injured, or elderly animal might be suffering so much that you may have to make this decision. Even if you are vegetarian or vegan carrying for animals, killing them might have to happen.
- Allow the animal to express its instincts despite being domesticated– Domestic
livestock are the descendants of wild animals that lose some forms of their instinct in return for their relationship to humans. The permaculturist tries to allow the animal to be quite natural in their behavior so that they can care for themselves more instinctually. Animals will find better nutrition and less outside inputs will occur while the outputs will be more holistic.
- Predator proofing not through shelter– Shelter is important to combat the predator prey relationship that our livestock face but it goes beyond this. Some employ other animals, such as guard dogs, donkey, or lamas. Tender sheep maybe protected from a coyote by these animals. Also with fowl, having overhead protection from birds of prey is important because I have seen populations dwindle from this predator pressure. Electric fencing is another tool people employ.
- Temperature regulation– Outside of the shelter as well we must think of temperature regulation with certain elements so animals have more vitality. Windbreaks and shade trees are a couple of elements to help with this whether it is hot or cold.
Having worked with a variety of animals all over the world, the choice to bring domesticated livestock into your system is a critical choice. They can help or hinder the ecosystem, the economics of the farm, and even your social life. Animals are a 7 day a week, 365 day a year job. So make sure they fit into your holistic context. Time and energy might be the greatest inputs when raising animals holistically. If you cut corners because of time, all systems will degrade. However robust designs, including the social and economic part, will bring abundance and having animals around can bring immense joy as well.