And they came in two by two... Integrating animals into an agroforest system

Animals are a very important fertility component in our agroforest system. For five months out of the year our hot, dry sandy conditions impede decomposition of organic matter, which dries into straw and blows away. The stomach of the animals does what the soil normally would do : digests the organic matter, enrichening it with beneficial bacteria and decomposing the plant material so that it can be used by the plants.

We are not vegetarians, so the addition of eggs and meat to our diet helps keep the bills down and gives us variety. In our village one animal (beef or lamb) is slaughtered a week and sold to the neighbors. As we have no refrigerator the meat is salted and dried, and consumed in tiny portions over the week.

Over the last three years seven different animals have been tested here: chickens, ducks, geese, goats, sheep, rabbits, and our “housecow” Lisbela. We no longer keep sheep- they are a bit complicated to manage under our conditions. Our systems are by no means definitive, but our results until now could be useful for other startups.

The Chickens

We originally had a mobile chicken system, to help kick-start the poor sandy soils. Although the results were very favorable, the hens did not like being moved about. They preferred laying their eggs under the bushes, and when the pens were moved, they jumped the fence to go back to the old place. We finally built two chicken pens for them, which have been quite successful. Today they are our feathered composters, producing enormous quantities of high-grade organic material, full of beneficial seeds (tomatoes, peppers, horned cucumbers, papaya) which we use directly in the fields or build into compost piles.

Their pens are round, 12 yards in diameter, surrounded by chicken wire and covered with coconut fronds, giving them very comfortable conditions even in the heat. We throw enormous quantities of ground elephant-grass and sawdust, and all organic residues from the kitchen are added to the bed. The chickens are happily busy the day long scratching the material, and eating whatever it is that they find to their liking.

Each hen pen has a paddock of approximately 1,000 square feet containing fruit trees, elephant grass, and weeds. We let them into the paddocks at the end of the day to supplement their diet. The short time is to prevent them from drying out the system by their scratching. As soon as we bring them the buckets of the organic refuse from the kitchen (their favorite moment of the day!) they come running back and the doors are closed.

In the mornings they receive corn and cowpeas with a bit of calcitic lime and from time to time fresh green grass. They seem to be healthy and happy, although we consider the egg production a bit below the desired. The advantage of this system is that if a hen becomes broody we can fence off a corner of the pen for her to hatch her eggs, thus introducing the next generation into the family without major conflicts.

The idea of two pens is to be able to alternate renovation of the families. Each pen has 8-10 hens at the moment, but the capacity would be closer to 15, which we intend to build up.

The ducks

Surprisingly, ducks are better for our system than chickens. They eat the weeds and insects, producing enormous amounts of very fresh manure. We have discovered that they do very well here during the seven months of cooler weather if we offer them a large dishpan of water for drinking and bathing.

They are let out early in the morning and offered leftover rice and beans, or corn. They then graze for a time in a moveble pen in the new agroforest. In the evenings they are returned to their resting area around the chicken pens, where there is a small cement pool for their bathing. This pool is high enough to have an outlet for draining off the highly-fertilized water which is used as a sort of liquid manure. There is a faucet beside the pool with a length of hose for refilling. This system works very well. The whole area is covered with a blanked of ground elephant grass, and also becomes part of the compost pile.

Roast duck is a favorite meal here, and we normally don´t try to nurse them through the dry season, buying ducklings every year. The first area where we kept ducks is the most fertile part of our property today.

With time we will divide the whole property (23 acres) into paddocks with live fences to rotate the ducks around. For the time being we use portable fencing.

They help manage the weeds, and give the young trees of our agroforest a chance to dominate the weeds.

The “house cow”

We have one cow, Lisbela, who produces a calf once a year. She can be milked over a period of about six months, after which we used todo without ( there are no children in residence) or buy milk from the neighbors, until we bought our milk goat.

Lisbela has her own pasture in a 12-acres plot we have recently acquired. During the day she comes into the neighboring 20 acres of annual crops, where she has a pen, and is milked. She spends some time with her son, Jordgi, before they are let out into another pasture. The pen is a wonderful source of manure , which is spread over deep litter, producing compost for the corn and pumpkins.

We consider the investment in this pen next to the planting fields one of the best investments we have made. In 2007 the rains were a bit erratic, and most of the neighbors had poor corn production. Our corn fields were tall and healthy, thanks to Lisbela and Jordgi.

Besides the two different pastures ( both still of rather poor quality) we offer cut elefant grass, mineral supplement, and from time to time some bran, fed to her at milking time.

She spends the day with her son. In the evening he is taken back to the pen and she is returned to the other pasture, where she spends the night.

Although we are having good results with the cow, it is labor-intensive in that someone has to go every evening to separate her from the calf ( so there will be milk in the morning!). As she is big and has horns, this is a fairly daunting task for the women of the house, being left to the men!

The goat

In order to have milk while the cow is dry we have one milk goat, Heidi, who gives about a quart of milk a day. She lives permanently in the agroforest area, tethered by day, sleeping nights in a small but comfortable roofed area.

In the future we intend to work with only milk goats. David Holmgren pointed out that the advantage of having goats in the rotation system integrated with annual cultures ( rather than a cow) is that they forage the trees on the edge of the paddocks and transport that fertility into the planting area through their manure, whereas the cow only eats what is already in the paddock. Goats are small enough for women to handle, and we can always keep two milking goats in the agroforest area near the kitchen, leaving the rest to circulate through the planting area. Goats also are more drought-resistant, needing little water. They produce twice a year and their offspring have a good market value in this region.

The rabbits

Rabbit raising has been so successful that we can barely keep up with them! Fortunately the natives in this part of Northeast Brazil are hunters, so they know how to clean and prepare rabbits. (They are scalded, roasted a bit over the charcoals and then cooked in coconut milk. Hmmmm)

It is part of the Permaculture ethic to give animals comfortable conditions and to permit them to maintain habits natural to them. Thus chickens scratch and move in herds, the cow stays with her calf, and the rabbits are permitted to live in holes in the ground.

We built a little house roofed with palm fronds and inserted into a four-foot deep hole which was cemented ( with drainage hole) to prevent escape. Three feet of dirt were thrown over the floor and the rabbits permitted to dig burrows and live in families. They have been quite happy with the arrangement, having their babies underground to the point that we know about them only when they peep out of the holes, half-grown.

From one couple we now have fifteen rabbits of all sizes. They were getting ahead of us because we were having difficulty catching them before they scooted back into the burrows!

But now some openings have been made in the tunnels so that problem has been resolved, and we can easily eat two rabbits a week at the rate they are going.

They are really easy to keep: in the morning they receive a bit of ground corn and cowpeas and greens especially leucena, tree cotton, moringa, and some favorite weeds. In the evening they receive the same, but in larger quantities, as they are nocturnal.

We scrape and sieve the top layer of sand from time to time to remove the manure, which is composted for the vegetable garden. Once a year we clean out the house, renewing the dirt layer. The rich dirt which is removed is used in the nursery.


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Marizá Epicentro

Tucano - Bahia - Brasil

Marsha Hanzi

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