Story of a Livestock Farm

April 1, 2010 at 8:41 am

In 1973 Linda and I were living in an apartment (flat) in Chicago.  Tired of the big city, we were wondering what to do next in our lives when we learned of a chance to spend the month of August on a friend’s small farm while he and his wife were on vacation.  Having been raised in cities, we knew nothing about farming.  They assured us they would tell us all we needed to know to care for the milk goats, chickens, horse, and the large garden.  We left the apartment and moved to the farm.  They even had to tell us which plants were the weeds and needed to be pulled out.  We enjoyed the month there and stayed for another five months, until we found and bought our own farm, just 40 acres at that time.  We now have 198 acres with 120 acres of open land that can be farmed.  The rest is woods and wetlands.

Sheep on pasture at Rivendell Farms

Sheep on pasture at Rivendell Farms

We had become interested in eating good, organically grown food, so we planned to have a garden, plus raise all our food, including meat, milk, and eggs without chemicals.  We expected to find work off the farm to earn money, but soon discovered few jobs were available nearby.  This led us to try to make a living farming.  We made a lot of silly mistakes in the beginning, but gradually learned how to farm.  We are still learning.

In 1990 we bought a work horse to use for some of the farming.  Again we knew little about farming with horses, mostly what we’d learned watching our Amish neighbors.  After a few years, and more silly mistakes, we had five working horses for plowing, discing, spreading manure, planting, cultivating, mowing hay, etc.  We still used tractors for some work, like baling hay.  We’ve continued to the present time using both horses and tractors.

Over the years our farming practices have varied a lot, but one thing we’ve always done is rotate crops in the fields.  For instance, we might plow under a hay field and plant corn, then the next year plant oats, then winter wheat in the fall.  After the wheat it is seeded back to pasture or hay for two or three years to help rebuild the soil before returning to corn.  The legumes in the hay provide the nitrogen for the corn that follows it.  Rotations also help with weed control and keep pests and diseases from building up in the soil.

We do grow some crops just to plow under for soil building as well.  Buckwheat is our favorite for this, because it is excellent for controlling grass weeds and improving soil tilth.  Today we plant buckwheat in the spring, then plow it under before planting forage turnips in late July to feed our sheep.  The sheep graze the turnips in December, saving the expense and trouble of feeding hay.

The manure from the livestock is essential to this type of farming.  Without livestock to return nutrients to the soil, organic farming is not sustainable.  It is important to achieve a balance between the number of animals, and the number of acres farmed.  Ideally, our farm will sell only animal products, recycling the grain and hay through the animals, back to the soil.  The only thing we buy for soil improvement is some limestone to adjust the pH.

At present we have four work horses, 4 steers for beef, 130 ewes (female sheep), plus lambs, 25 chickens and three goats for milk.  As much as possible the animals spend their time on pasture, spreading their manure for us.  The ewes stay out all winter.  Most of our land is used for hay and pasture.  We do raise 5 or 10 acres of barley to fatten lambs and feed chickens and goats.  We plant a few acres of oats for the horses.  The land we have could support more livestock, but more animals means more work, and we aren’t getting any younger.

Our farm is tiny by U. S. standards, but because it provides most of our food, a house for shelter, and firewood to keep us warm in winter, we don’t need so much cash income.