September 28, 2012

Them Ain't Weeds, Them's Forage

The view of our grain field these days, looks like this...

Photo taken from the path between the garden and the house

In the background, you may be able to make out the field corn, drying on the stalk. It will be ready to harvest soon. In front of that are the cowpeas. These too are beginning to die back, though they are still producing like crazy. On the front right, is where we planted our winter wheat last autumn.

Photo of our wheat field last January

We harvested about half of the wheat we planted. What you see in that top photo, was the section left unharvested. So much of it had lodged (flattened), and was overgrown with weeds, that it was near impossible to scythe. I said, 'let's just leave it and see what happens. Maybe the straw will create a natural mulch and the wheat berries will reseed the area in a new growth of wheat'. Now it looks like this...

Same field, now overgrown with weeds and no wheat in sight

One of the things we're concerned with, is whether or not our five acres is manageable. I'm gradually coming to realize however, that our idea of manageability carries with it a certain mindset about the way things ought to be. Our concept of well managed includes looking like we've got things under control. A near half acre full of weeds, like this one, looks out of control. That isn't part of the definition.

Better view of the corn and cowpeas

Last year after we harvested the corn, we turned the goats and chickens into the field. They feasted! On the corn plants and especially on the "weeds." I had honestly never seen our Nubians look so fat. And healthy. There's a truth here, that often seems to be overlooked, that goats are naturally foragers. Because of that they are often recommended for brush control. Goats thrive on "browse," i.e. weeds, and shrubs, and bark, and leaves; all the things that don't belong in a well managed pasture or grain field. But beyond using scrub goats to eliminate brush, management techniques for modern goat keeping revolve around pasture, hay, and "concentrates" or grain. The problem is, these aren't the things they thrive on. In fact, it seems that folks on the goat forums are constantly discussing health issues related to diet and mineral deficiencies.

In Homestead Master Plan, 2012 Revision, I mentioned what we were thinking about, in terms of rotating field crops, animals, and pasture/ forage areas. That came about because of this very field. It had been neglected for so many years before we bought the place, that sapling trees and perennial vines were well established. It has been a battle to try and grow anything here because of that. Since we don't have heavy duty plowing and cultivating equipment, it makes more sense to partner with animals to do the job for us. It's a win-win, because goats are healthier on weeds, the chickens help with the seeds, and the pigs (coming this spring) will root out and feast on the roots as well as the weeds. Indeed, they will fertilize and till the soil for planting.

All of this is important, because if we are going to raise all our own animal feeds, then it makes more sense to utilize an animal's natural diet, rather than try to replicate a homemade version of a commercial feed system. Our weeds are a ready resource for that natural diet, even in their hay. This is why our  goats deem the pretty, pure grass, boughten hay merely okay, but fight over the weedy hay we harvest from our own pasture.

Dan practicing the technique.
Dan scything the pasture, May of 2010

Weeds will grow. They will take over a garden, a yard, a pasture, and field crops. What we've been needing, is not a way to conquer them as weeds, but a new way of looking at it. They aren't unsightly unwanteds, they are valuable, nutritious forage. There are a few I have to be on the lookout for and eradicate, those poisonous to goats, but all the rest are a valuable resource. And right under our very noses.


  1. Now that is called self-sustaining! Way to go!

  2. This is one of those times when making do is making things better! Brilliant! Btw, do you mind if I post a link to your blog on Monday?

  3. Those will be happy goats indeed. Our always had free reign around the property. No garden but lots of scrub,brush and weeds. The only time I had to rein them in was right about now, when tree bark starting looking good...

  4. Jaclyn, well you know, I think about that term, also "permaculture," which both are good concepts. I've noticed there's a bit of controversy over "permaculture" though and what it means. So much better to just do it and not worry about definitions. :)

    Jacqueline, thank you! And I'd be honored by a link.

    Theresa, I love the idea of goats as part of the natural landscape. Too bad we live so close to an occasionally busy road.

  5. Truer words have not been spoken. Do you have any before and after pictures of the goat-ed areas? I have 100 foot tall weeds that grew up precisely because there was not proper stocking to manage the forage. I have been dropping them, one at a time to prepare for the foragers. What I will have to come up with is a fencing plan that will contain them. Did you and Dan install all new fencing to rotate? How are you storing your hay? I have been reading in One Scythe Revolution about storing hay outside in custom elevated stacks with tarps over them. REALLY clever. I have no barn and do not have plans for one. It is like the cost of a house here.

  6. This post reminds me of the time I had thought I was mowing over weeds in my Moms back yard, well those weeds turned-out to be flowers that she had planted! Richard

  7. Great ideas, good for you! What kind of goats do you currently have?

  8. Weeds are a never ending battle here. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just let them take over. Too bad we don't have anyone who can eat them.

    I'm glad to hear that you can at least use the weeds for your animals.

  9. yes, once parts of our gardens are done we rearranage the fencing and let the goats at it , we grew corn not just for us but for the goats too

  10. I would call this a real Blessing. Now if I could get our dogs to go out back and convince them that 'goats' say that the weeds taste really good. I'll let you know how that works out, haha.

    Have a happy weekend! xo

  11. Barb, yes, I do have some before photos. I haven't forgotten your question about our fencing, and thought it would make a good subject for a post.

    Thanks for the book recommendation! Barns are really expensive here, so we are looking at alternatives. We did try storing hay under tarps (we used branches and sticks to keep it off the ground), but had trouble with either the tarps leaking, or the hay sweating, I reckon from not being dry enough. Anyway, a lot of it mildewed and couldn't be fed to the goats.

    Richard, LOL. I think I accidentally pulled all my seedling eggplants this year as weeds. I didn't know what eggplant leaves look like!

    DFW, if ya can't lick em, join em, right? ;) We currently have 1 Pygmy, 1 Nubian, 1 Kiko, and 3 Nigerian Dwarfs. Quite a mix.

    Renee, I blame Adam and Eve. :)

    Anonymous, I've recently read about how folks who raise pigs will plant rows of corn or beans, and then let the pigs have them one row at a time. They just move the electric fence back to let the pigs have the next row. I am really interested in trying that.

    Sherri, it's all in perspective, isn't it? I suspect your dogs will come to the same conclusion our cat did. :)

  12. That sounds like something I say on a weekly basis to the Lithuanian Lawn Guy. Between the sheep and the goats, they love every bit of weedy, stemmy, seedy stuff. It looks like your have a good, flexible plan - and some nice acreage to use it on.

  13. Here! Here! This is what I believe, too, but have never been able to state at wonderfully as you just did :) Our goats forage for all their food - no grains of mineral blocks provided - and they do very well. The only time we feed hay is in winter, whenever the ground is completely covered in snow. In fall we give them leaves we've raked up, and they love it. Also, trees/branches that we've had to cut down. Which reminds me - if you have any trees in that field you want to save, be sure to protect them from the goats! (you probably already knew that ;)

    I'm thinking of trying to breed our two gals next month, but am wondering if I would then need to supplement their natural diets - I've read some conflicting info - any thoughts on that?


  14. Susan, well that's it exactly. If this works, our only problem left then is the front yard!

    Jaime, after reading Pat Coleby's Natural Goat Care, I try to focus mostly on making sure they have the proper minerals available. We live in a copper and selenium deficient area, so these are important to me. Plus since mine get alfalfa pellets, they all seem to want plenty of kelp. The more I read, the more I conclude that grain can be problematic. Mostly I watch their rumens and coats, to make sure they look healthy. Right now our Pygmy buck is in rut, so he is not interested in eating and has lost weight. So he is getting alfalfa, grain, BOSS, and garden produce. Anything else he ignores. I love your idea of feeding yours raked leaves. Mine eat them off the ground, but most of my leaves end up as mulch.

  15. Down here in New Zealand our farmers used to spray the pasture to eradicate "weeds ". Some research was done and it concluded that as you have found, valuable forage was being removed from the fields. Now many of those former pest plants are actively grown for their nutritional value to stock.
    Really enjoying your blog. My wife and I have just built a home on a 4 acre block that is all pasture at present but with lots of sweat will be a productive garden soon ( I wish !)
    regards from the bottom of the South Pacific

  16. Good for you growing for your own feed! Animals generally know what to eat when given a chance...

  17. Leigh, your blog is on my daily read and I have been following you for quite awhile.
    Cattle can also be taught to forage - take a look at Lowline Angus. They are good for small properties.
    Pigs - check out the Idaho Pasture Pig developed by Gary and Shelly Farris in Rigby, ID.

    I think you and Dan are doing a great job. We have 7 acres and it is WORK.

  18. Gary Brown, thank you and welcome! I love hearing how others come to the same conclusions. Congratulations on your new home. It is work to garden like that, but it's oh so worth it.

    Nancy, I agree. It's exciting to see things coming together. :)

    Anonymous, thank you! I reckon you don't have a blog? I'd love to read about what you're doing with your 7 acres.

    I've not heard of either the Lowline Angus nor the Idaho Pasture Pig, but I will definitely research both. A lot of folks are wanting Red Wattles, though they don't seem easy to find. I'm not sure what kind of pigs we'll end up with, especially our first go round.

  19. Such ambition you have, I love reading about it. Looks like if you'd just call your field of weeds "a crop for the goats" . . . it would no longer be a field of weeds! :)

  20. For an interesting perspective on weeds, look at Peter Andrews and his system called 'Natural Sequence Farming'. He is Aussie and as such his books focus on the unique nature of our landscape but he has some really interesting stuff to say about weeds and their role in nutrient cycling and soil regeneration etc.

  21. Janice, well, my ambition is to make all this as easy as possible, LOL.

    Em, thank you for the book recommendation. I've read some articles in Acres U.S.A about how innovative Australians are in this realm. This is definitely a topic I am interested in.


Welcome to 5 Acres & A Dream The Blog! Thank you for taking the time to join in the conversation.