So I don’t know how many readers have actually been able to visit GLR yet, but for those who haven’t gotten the chance…
… It’s a bit hilly, hillbilly.
We have 3 fields/pastures totaling around 40 acres that are relatively flat, but the aren’t all connected. Plus, we’d like to be able to utilized more of the property for food production. So here’s the plan, which is now underway. Barely.
In the Google Earth snapshot above, the green area represents what will become the forage forest. It’s an area that was once clear-cut and turned into pasture but over the last 15 years or so has grown up with all manner of brush – young cedars, oaks, poplars, hickories, and some brambles and berries. When we first moved here I thought we would clear out all of that secondary growth and turn that portion of the hillside below the old-growth forest at the top of the ridge back into pasture for our ruminants.
The problem with that idea is the slope of the land:
I understand that the previous farmers on this property had turned this portion of the farm into pasture, but I also have eyes and can see that all of the topsoil on this slope is not there anymore. It’s probably been washed down into the creek and off to the Green River. That slope is just not conducive to short grass. It needs things with deep roots to hold the topsoil in place.
Those of you who know me know that I like to think about things for long periods of time before taking action. I’ve been pondering that steep hillside for 3 years now. I’ve thought… pasture, orchard, grapes(!), water slide into the creek, leave it alone, etc. Then I came across a book that I think all landowners should read – J Russell Smith’s Tree Crops. It was written in 1929 and it’s still revolutionary and ahead of its time today. It has inspired what our hillside will become – a forage forest using native trees to hold the topsoil, provide forage and shelter for our livestock, and provide a microclimate under the canopy into which we can sow annual and perennial ground-level crops.
Here’s the idea:
- We utilize the pigs and goats this fall to eat down some of the brush (especially the briars and brambles) and root up the thin soil a bit to help loosen the grip the bunchgrass has on the hillside. This part is starting to happen as we speak.
- This winter, when there’s more room to move around after the leaves are off and the goats and pigs have thinned things out a bit, I will go in there and selectively remove trees. Most of the cedars will go away to be used as fence posts or be turned into other useful things. Lindsey likes them to keep moths out of her sweaters. The best oaks, hickories, and berry patches will stay and the rest of them thinned to give the best trees room and light to grow even better.
- After the thinning, we will plant some native forage-producing trees in the gaps created by the thinning process and (for the shade-loving trees) under the canopies of the existing nut trees. These forage trees will include things like honey locusts, mayhaws, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and mulberries to complement the oaks and hickories.
- Underneath the canopy (after the pigs have tilled the soil a little for us) we’ll plant a mix of perennials and annuals that we hope will become a permanent feature of the forest. We’ll have to manage it carefully for the first five years, but we hope to establish clovers, orchardgrass, alfalfa, Jerusalem artichokes, squashes, berry bushes, turnips, rape, peas, sunflowers, and other little treats in the understory of the forest.
- Over time, these planted trees and the existing trees will begin to produce forage that the goats and pigs can self-harvest. Our plan is to combine the understory plants and the fruit- and nut-fall from the trees and actually not have to feed anything other than what the livestock can gather in the forage forest.
The hard work will come in when we plant the trees. Kentucky’s Dept of Forestry at least makes it easy to acquire them. You can order bundles of 100 bare root trees for around $40 from them. Anybody wanna come help dig this winter? The hardest part (for me anyway) will be the patience needed to wait for the trees to grow.
So when this forage forest kicks into full production (in like 10 years, *sigh*) our pigs’ year will look like this:
January-February: piglets born, everybody’s in the warm barn, adult pigs eating walnuts saved from October harvest and our extra corn
March: pigs go into the cattle/goat hayfeeding area to churn compost for us, pigs feeding on the compost and our extra corn
April-May: pigs go onto pasture and start heading towards the forage forest, feeding on grasses & clovers on spring pasture
May-June: pigs go into the forage forest where mayhaws and mulberries are ripe and falling to the ground for them
July-August: mulberries continue to fall, blackberries ripen, ground cover crops plentiful
September: ground cover crops are still going, nut fall is starting, crabapples and pawpaws are dropping off the trees
October: nut fall is in full swing, pigs feast and fatten on hickories, acorns, and hazelnuts
November-December: persimmons and honey locusts drop their bounties, pigs are finished. Pork is harvested, breeders return to barn.
So that’s the plan – to create a forage forest that produces our pork without any off-farm feed inputs. With good management, I believe we can also harvest extra fruits and nuts from the forest and run our goats and poultry through the forage forest occasionally as well. The best part of all of this is that, in addition to producing all of those wonderful products, this plan will actually stabilize that hillside, prevent erosion, shelter our animals, create a corridor to move the cattle through to the back pasture, and provide valuable timber towards retirement time for Lindsey and I.