Organic farmers know that healthy soil means healthy plants. At Good Heart Farmstead, everything we do is based in the soil. We even named our farm in honor of it—when soil is “in good heart”, it is alive and healthy. But organic farmers will also know that the name itself doesn’t transform depleted, acidic soil into living, healthy soil overnight. So this past spring, as we began our first season, we also began building our soils. We split our one acre garden plot in half, cover cropping side “B” and growing veggies for our CSA on side “A.”  Along with growing vegetables, raising livestock is an integral part of our farm. Since we don’t own a tractor, we decided to use our livestock to help spread and work nutrients into our soil.

Advantages of Livestock Integration

Integrated livestock offer many advantages to crop operations:

  • Create a closed-loop on the farm: vegetable waste to animals, manure into compost for the crops
  • Increase nutrients in the soil
  • Improve soil organic matter
  • Enrich biodiversity through multi-species rotational grazing
  • Work the soil at different levels without the use of heavy, soil-compacting machines: pigs furrow and till, sheep/cow/goat hooves aerate, poultry scratch at soil surface

Our 2013 Livestock Rotation

Vegetables were planted into side A, and we kept the animals out and applied amendments and compost by hand. Side B was cover cropped with winter rye the previous fall, and oats and peas in the spring.

The sheep were the first to graze there, leaving the barnyard in spring and munching down the winter rye. Sheep offer multiple benefits: mowing down pasture, dropping manure and working seeds into the soil with their hooves.

Later on in the summer we brought the pigs in and let them do some natural tilling on the west side of the garden where we envision a greenhouse going. In order to get them to turn the ground more evenly, we kept their space small and moved them every 2 to 3 days, re-seeding behind them.

The sheep passed through part of side B one more time before the turkeys moved in to forage and add plenty of nitrogen through their manure. Going into the winter, side B was nicely mowed from the turkeys and had received three different kinds of manure over the course of the spring and summer. The only work required of us was the moving of fence. Next season, we’ll till side B and expand our crop plantings.

Considerations of Livestock Integration

There are some important considerations to make when integrating your livestock and crops. When applying raw manure to an area, organic standards require you to wait 120 days before harvesting any food that is in contact with the soil, or 90 days before harvesting food that is not in direct contact with the soil.

It is also important to identify your integration goals, as different animals have different impacts. Pigs will have a bigger impact than chickens, depending on the available forage and amount of time they are in an area. Chickens will increase the amount of available nitrogen, while sheep, goats and cows will increase phosphorus through the spreading of their manure.

Make sure you’re getting what you need, and not too much of it, by doing a soil test before integrating your livestock. Also keep in mind that you could be spreading weed seeds on your fields as well as nutrient-rich manure, particularly if the manure comes from animals like horses, chickens, and pigs, which do not have rumens to digest weed seeds more fully.

 

Animal Manure Types & Effects on Soil

Manure Type

NPK Analysis*

Effects on Soil Tilth

Chicken 1.1-0.8-0.5 Shallow; scratching kills surface weeds; eats insects
Cow 0.6-0.2-0.5 Medium; hooves aerate soil
Duck 0.6-1.4-0.5 Shallow; grazing/scratching kills weeds; eats insects
Horse 0.7-0.3-0.6 Medium; hooves aerate soil; adds many weed seeds
Pig 0.5-0.3-0.5 Deep; rooting tills and creates deep furrows
Rabbit 2.4-1.4-0.6 Shallow; grazing and scratching kills surface weeds
Sheep/Goat 0.7-0.3-0.9 Medium; hooves aerate soil

* From Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Increased nutrients and organic matter bode well for your soil, and in turn for your crops. Whether you rotate animals through the garden during the summer or let them in to clean up and put the garden to rest in the fall, livestock can take on the job of soil building, decrease human hours spent tilling and spreading manure or compost, reduce soil compaction, and help keep us all “in good heart”.