Farmers have understood for centuries that animal manure helps return vital nutrients to crop fields. Many farmers pull mechanical spreaders behind fossil fuel-burning tractors to move manure into fields, but at Polyface farm, livestock spread their own manure. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley advocates rotational grazing; they blend livestock and pasture species to puzzle pests.
Well managed grazing concentrates livestock in one area for a short period and then move them on. At Polyface farm, portable electric fences contain grazing beef herds. Farmers move the fences and livestock daily. Salatin said his animals look forward to their fresh “salad bar” each morning. The cattle graze forage at a sustainable level. They trample their manure patties ensuring good soil contact and starting the decomposition process.
Within a few days, Salatin’s chicken tractors or “Eggmobiles” move across the same pastures. Chickens spread the cattle manure patties, eat flies and larvae and protect the larger animals from diseases and pests. Breaking up the patties speeds decomposition and nutrient cycling back into soils. As an added bonus, the chickens offer exceptional eggs. Pastured chickens thrive on insects and forage and they produce nutrient-dense eggs with bright orange yolks.
Polyface Farm also produces eggs using a second model that Salatin calls Millennium Feathernet. In this model, a portable nest-box structure surrounded by electrified poultry netting keeps layers in and predators out. Tractors haul the Millennium to a fresh quarter-acre yard every three days. Guard dogs and guard geese help protect all of the farm’s poultry. Polyface Farm uses “Roostmobiles” with electric netting for pastured turkeys. The Roostmobiles are made of scissor trusses on flat trailers with a cover/roof. Like Eggmobiles, Roostmobiles rotate after cattle.
Broilers are roughly a 6 months on – 6 months off seasonal enterprise. The farm raises broilers in 10 ft. x 12 ft. x 2 ft. floorless, portable shelters and moved daily to a new spot. The farm does not raise any broilers in the winter. Large freezers maintain a winter inventory from summer excesses.
For the 100 days of hard winter, the farm shuts down the eggmobiles and millennium feathernet and all those birds go into hoop houses. Electric netting around the insides protects the poly from damage by chicken scratching. After the chickens move to pasture each spring, vegetables grow in the fabulously fertile hoop house soils.
Pastured poultry save farmers money on feed costs. With reduced or no bedding needs compared to indoor poultry, pasturing poultry saves on bedding materials and labor costs. When poultry spend so much time outdoors, they need one-third the shelter they would need if they spent all day indoors, saving on infrastructure costs.
Salatin likes to let animals “express themselves” and share farm chores. In the coldest months, cows spend time in a hay-feeding shed at Polyface Farm. Farmers regularly add whole shelled corn to the woodchip sawdust and hay bedding that creates an anaerobic bedding pack as deep as four feet. For two months each spring, the pigs root after the corn and aerate the pack. The pack then warms the barn, as the compost turns aerobic. All this action speeds the composting process and makes spreading the loosened compost on pastures much easier. Salatin said using “Pigaerators” instead of tractors or front-end loaders saves the farm money on fuel, equipment wear and farm labor.
After about two months in the hay shed, Polyface pigs enjoy one-month rotations through pastures (savannahs) and forest glens. Under the trees, pigs and enjoy acorns while controlling invasive species and rooting for fleshy tubers. Forests rest for 11 months between pig rotations.
Diversity increases productivity for livestock, plants and people. Regular livestock rotations build soil nutrition and health. Salatin describes his salad bar pastures as “perennial prairie polycultures.” These pastures include blends of timothy, white clover, red clover, plantain, orchard grass, dandelion, chicory and wild carrots. Between their grazing rotations (one day, three times a year) pastures rest and rejuvenate for 362 days.
Salatin delights in diversity. He believes that ‘nature is well.’ When humans disrupt natural cycles, they put things ‘out of whack’, he says.