The Importance of Animals in Permaculture Landscapes
Our agrarian past reminds us that farming without animals is like trying to drive a car without gasoline. While crop rotations, cover crops and periodically maintaining the land fallow were some strategies our grandparents used for keeping the farm productive, the dairy cow, the flock of chickens, and the few hogs were the guarantee of the continued fertility of the fields.
When done on a correct scale, raising animals on a small piece of land offers balance and sustained fertility while also offering quality food products. Animals eat from pastures and other waste products from the land while offering fertility and numerous food products for us humans. The function of animals in an industrialized concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is simply to produce protein as fast as possible. On a small, permaculture landscape, however, animals (as an element of the overall system) offer several functions, including:
– Natural Cultivation/Tilling of the Soil
– Weed Control
Raising small animals around the world is often listed as a primary cause of deforestation, erosion, and a whole host of other ecological problems. When designed correctly, animals do contribute to overall system health.
A good parallel from the natural world is the bison herds that once roamed the Great Plains. The Native American population lived in harmony with the buffalo population which was estimated to be several million strong. The buffalo provided the native peoples as their primary food source and a source of clothing and shelter. Buffalo bones were even commonly used as kitchen and cooking utensils.
The buffalo, however, didn´t only contribute to the health and well-being of the local human population but also were the principal caretakers of the ecological balance of the prairie ecosystem over which they roamed. Through their nomadic wanderings, the buffalo herds added needed fertility to the prairie ecosystem. Through periodic “mowing” caused by their grazing, the Buffalo allowed the system to naturally recuperate from necessary intermittent disturbances.
Once white settlers and invaders killed off the buffalo herds, the buffalo were replaced with cattle which were kept inside fenced pastures. The native prairies and grasslands which were both diverse and resilient were replaced first with monocultures of grasses and then with annual grain crops for animal feed.
The result was the ecological degradation of the Great Plains prairies exemplified by the Dust Bowl of the 1930´s. Top soil was washed to the sea and the rich diversity of resilient prairies was lost. Excessive grazing by huge numbers of cattle on restricted, fenced in areas also led to massive erosion and land degradation. Where lush prairie ecosystems used to thrive, and support a huge buffalo and Native American population, desertification is advancing rapidly in some areas of the Great Plains.
Though permaculture landscapes are developed on areas much smaller than the entirety of the Great Plains, the contributions of animals to the resiliency and overall health of the system can follow the example of these buffalo herds. While our industrialized minds have come to believe that machines, by default, are the best and most efficient way to get any job done, learning to observe the natural tendencies of animals and guide those pattern behaviors towards the overall, holistic functioning of our places is an essential aspect that all permaculturists must learn.
The Barn as an Element with Many Functions
The barn is perhaps one of the most conventional images of what rural, farm life entails. It has long been the semblance of rural farmers and their livelihoods. While barns have always played an important role for farmers throughout the years, permaculture seeks to discover all the possible functions that a barn can play on a piece of land.
Obviously, a barn is a place for animals to be housed during the night and during cold (or dry) times when pasture is not readily available. The design of your barn will largely depend on your climate, the amount of time you plan to house your animals and certain predator concerns. In places with long, cold winters, the barn will need to be completely closed to protect animals from the cold. In more temperate or warm climates, however, it´s best to leave part of the barn open to help improve air flow. This will keep animals healthier by limiting the harmful odors and potential pathogens that come from closed, stagnant areas.
While barns do offer housing and protection for animals, they also offer a number of other functions. The barn floor is a natural fertilizer machine. While some people may enjoy the morning ritual of shoveling manure to add to the compost pile or less labor intensive practice is to create a compost pile directly below you animals. Since animal manure and urine is extremely high in nitrogen, simply adding a high carbon content material such as sawdust, hay, leaf litter, etc. will allow for an aerobic decomposition. The high carbon content material effectively neutralizes any sort of potential pathogen buildup that comes from excess nitrates in manure. Furthermore, it will give your barn that nice, rich smell of fertility.
To compost in place, you simply need to add a layer of high carbon material every couple of days depending on the number of animals that you have and the amount of manure that they produce. Once you have a fairly good sized pile on top of your barn floor, you can simply set your animals out to pasture one day and shovel the buildup on your barn floor directly on to your garden beds or around your orchard trees.
Barn roofs can also offer rainwater harvesting functions or a space for solar panels. On one small farm in rural Kentucky, a small permaculture farmer built a small barn for her two goats, 15 chickens, and 20 ducks. The rainwater from the roof was directed to a small pond that was dug adjacent to the barn. Every morning upon opening the barn doors, the ducks simply took a few steps into their pond where they spent the majority of the day.
For any type of barn that you are planning on building, it´s important to take the time to consider all the possible functions that a barn can offer towards the overall functioning of the system. Besides the obvious of housing animals, barns can offer several important functions that aid in the resiliency of your overall landscape.