Red Gate Farm

A couple of years ago, I stumbled on an idea that was so brilliant, it was almost unbelievable.  Here at Red Gate Farm, we try to house and manage our animals as naturally as possible.  That includes our horses.  As is the case with most horse owners, we had the idea in our heads that the most “natural” way to manage our horses was by keeping them out on our beautiful pastures, and rotating the pastures regularly to simulate the way wild herds move.  We were so excited to finally have such a beautiful pasture to keep our horses.


Within months of weaning them onto the pasture, the problems started.  Fevers, abscesses, sole bruises, laminitis, hoof rings, thrush, and more.  Within a year, my work horses were lame more than they were sound.  We consulted with vets, farriers, draft experts, and draft owners.  I read books, researched, and could not figure out the problem.  At the experts’ advice, we fed expensive supplements and high-quality hay when not on pasture.  We finally resorted to shoeing, just to keep the boys working–we are a horse-powered farm after all.  Mind you, I have owned and/or trained horses for almost 20 years, with a few years off here or there.  In those 20 years, I have housed horses in stalls, dry paddocks, stalls with runs, and almost every option available.  I had never had a single issue of unexplained lameness, never an abscess, and never had to shoe a horse.  For a while, I suspected it was an issue limited to draft genetics, but then, one day, our new mustang came up lame as well.  She was as sound as any mustang I’d ever worked with, so this truly baffled me.  Then, it occurred to me.  In my previous years of owning horses, I had always lived in the desert, on sandy soils, or in the Rocky Mountain areas–none of which had lush, green grass.  Usually, the horses lived in stalls or dirt paddocks, and the few times they had access to fresh pasture, it was thin, short, weedy, overgrazed, low-sugar, rough forages, common to many boarding stables around the country.  I realized the biggest change in our horse management was the new, rich pasture.  Furthermore, it occurred to us that the few places in our nation that do NOT have herds of wild horses include the central midwestern region or states with lush forages.  Even the herds that live along the east coast live on sandy beaches and islands.  We were convinced this was the culprit.  We didn’t want to stall the horses, and I didn’t have a dirt paddock large enough to keep several horses.  Thus, we quickly threw together an electric wire paddock on a portion of our gravel driveway to buy us some time.  The photo shows the horses sporting their ridiculously pricey fly sheets, as one of the downsides of confining was that they could no longer escape the vicious and persistent horse flies here.


Meanwhile, I continued researching the best option for permanent housing.  I stumbled upon a great study of wild horse herds, and the research resulted in a domestic-horse management concept called ” Paddock Paradise.”  Essentially, it was designed by farrier and wild-horse expert Jamie Jackson to simulate the diet, eating habits, herd dynamics, and movements of the wild horses.  First, the horses are removed from free-choice pasture, and put on a diet of low-sugar, high-roughage hay.  Ideally, the sugar content is less than 10%.  Then, rather than stalls, runs, or small paddocks, the horses are given a track to live on.  Similar to a racetrack, the track is designed in such a way as to encourage movement and stimulation of the horse.  Many build the track around the perimeter of their pasture, while some zig-zag  or meander the track through their terrain.  Most tracks are some form of continuous loop, but others dead end into a wide area and force the horses to turn around.  Either way can work.  Most of the track is narrow–about 10-15 foot wide.  It may get a bit narrower in some areas, and wider in others, but for the most part, that standard width encourages forward movement.


Our little herd traveling from their water station to one of the hay stations.  This section of track is 15 feet wide–our standard for most of the track.

Then, “stations” are set up along the track.  There is a water station, a hay station, a mineral station, and in the case of long tracks, there may be several of each.  You can also get creative.  There can be “stations” for rolling and lounging, obstacles, water crossings, different surfaces along the track, and more.  The imagination is the limit, but the idea is to keep the horses moving to meet their needs–just like horses in the wild.


By using a high electric line, it still allows the horses to graze a little, but not enough to cause health troubles. One extra benefit….a nicely grazed strip means I never have to trim around my fence posts!


One of our”obstacle” sections, where the horses learn to pick up their feet to cross over the logs along this stretch of track.


This area of track can be closed off to double as a round pen where I can train as desired. Otherwise it stays open with the track passing through, and the horses selected it as their favorite rest and rolling area. Notice there is no manure in this area, even though they have had access to it for over a year (we have NEVER cleaned the manure in that year!).

In our case, we eliminated the expensive supplements, switched to the low-sugar hay, eliminated the sugary grains (oats only for the working horses), and moved the horses into the track.  The mysterious fevers and sudden bouts of lameness stopped immediately.  Within 2 months, the hooves began looking different, and within 4 months, we were able to remove their shoes for standard farm work.  With regular trims, the hoof flares began disappearing, the cracks began growing out, and the thrush and white line issues became almost non-existent.  After a year, the only issue we really dealt with was occasional sole tenderness when we worked the horses on sharp gravel, which made sense considering most of their track was our wet clay soils (too much moisture results in softer soles and hooves).

Other benefits we have seen include a change in herd dynamics.  The “herd” traveled together along the track, established a predictable routine, designated bathroom areas (known as “stud piles” in the wild) for manuring, and our horse who NEVER laid down previously began laying down to rest on occasion.


Moving as a herd along the track.


In the lower left corner, you can see one of the herd’s designated “stud piles” for manuring. This photo was taken over a year after putting the horses in this track, and we have NEVER cleaned the manure. Notice, however, that there is no manure anywhere else in the photo. The horses can be seen resting in the shade of the trees at the far end.

I had several concerns when we first opted to try it out.  I was very concerned about one of our horses, Bud, losing condition.  He was atypical of most drafts, in that he was a “high-maintenance” horse or “hard-keeper.”  He required almost twice the grain and hay of the other drafts, and it seemed I was always fighting to get him to gain weight.  When our work season really got busy, we had to increase his feed further, and he still looked a bit thin with ribs showing within a couple months.  I wasn’t confident this new system would work well for him.  Boy, was I wrong!  As it turned out, I was always battling adding a fat layer to him.  The increased movement caused him to muscle up, and improved his metabolism.  That’s about the only way I can explain it.  He has looked awesome every since, despite the fact his work load has more than doubled from that first year!


Physical condition is excellent to due to the increased movement.  This mustang is a bit on the pudgy side, in fact, but her muscle development has given her a much broader body type compared to most domesticated mustangs.

Our first big “test” of the conditioning came the following spring.  Every spring, we take the horses to an annual “plow day,” where teamsters from several states come together to enjoy plowing fields with their teams of horses.  The downside of spring plowing is the plowing is one of the toughest jobs you can ask a horse to do physically, and this particular event tends to be right at the end of winter, when the horses are in their worst “winter” condition–otherwise known as fat and out of shape!  That spring, however, was different for us.  Due to personal circumstances, we had been unable to work the team at all for over 2 months.  As usual, we saw teams needing breaks after just 1/2 hour, and stopping completely after about 2-3 hours of plowing.  With just quick pauses to catch their breath, however, our team was still going strong after 4 hours, and hadn’t even broken a sweat!  And for those who are familiar with horse-plowing, my team was pulling a 14-inch sulky plow, dropped about 8 inches in!  I truly was surprised and even amazed at their condition.

GPS tracking studies have shown that horses living on tracks situated along the perimeter of averaged sized pastures (roughly 1-5 acres), can move significantly more than when housed on pasture.  Of course, the longer the track, the more that can increase.  Although horses can still be turned out into the pasture for periodic grazing, the time should be limited to no more than 30 minute periods of time, unless your pasture is very sparse or weedy.  Lush pastures should be limited to about 15 minutes.


A sketch of our current Paddock Paradise track, which is situated along the perimeter of our 6 acre pasture. Since we no longer use the pasture for significant horse grazing, it is now used to produce small amounts of hay and to graze our grass-fed cattle and pasture-based poultry.

A few other benefits of track housing is that horses do not get bored, and thus do not develop boredom-related behavioral issues such as cribbing, pawing, pacing, and general crankiness.  I do not have to “lunge” or “get the spunk out” of my horses before riding, as they are already exercised and ready to go, both mentally and physically.

So, with all the good that comes from a system like this, could there be a negative side to it?  The answer is “Yes,” though I have only found one downside.  When horses are allowed to live in a herd setting, with increased movement and natural environments, injuries are bound to happen.  Scrapes, dings, nicks, lumps, bumps, bite marks, and chewed-on hair have become quite normal for our horses.  Think of it like children….you can keep them confined all day and protect them from injury, or you can let them out to play at the risk of scraped knees and elbows.  Same principle applies here.  It isn’t terribly unsightly, but it is a fact that might not go over well in a show-barn.  However, in our case, the mental and physical benefits we have observed in our horses make every little scar totally worthwhile.


Some lumps, bumps, and dings one of our team showed up to breakfast with one morning.

Now that we have used our Paddock Paradise for over a year, we hope to never have to return to any other way of managing horses!  I cannot express to you all the incredible benefits we have seen.  Our Amish friends, whose livelihood depends on their horses, have watched as our horses have changed over time, and they are even considering trying it now.  If you have your own property, I highly encourage you to consider using this system.  If, however, you are stuck at a boarding stable, I encourage you to talk to the stable manager.  Show them this post.  I also wrote an article about it that was published in “Rural Heritage” magazine.  Boarding stables around the world have found success with this system.  It just works.  We purchased an “easy-keeping” little mini horse at one point who formerly ate about 1/8 flake of hay a day while house in a dray paddock, and was still roly-poly fat!  We put him on track, and despite having free-choice access to hay 24/7, he lost the weight and muscled up, thanks to the increased movement!  If you have easy-keeping ponies, hard-keeper horses, geriatric horses, rescues needing rehab, you name it… may have to modify slightly to begin with, but ultimately, I’d be willing to bet they would thrive on this system!  There are just too many personal testimonies out there to suggest otherwise.

We are actually in the process of building our 2nd Paddock Paradise now.  We are moving the track to our back acreage, so we can increase the length and the things they are exposed to.  Our new track will be longer, have water crossings, steep hills, long stretches for galloping, more hard surfaces (and less clay), and more!  We hope to move the horses in before the end of the year.  It requires a good bit of land clearing, which is taking time, but we are making progress.  There you have it!

Last year, we increased our number of layer hens to roughly 100, and plan to increase further over the next few years.  We needed a new coop!  Once again, S returned to the drawing board to come up with a design, while I jotted down my thoughts of things I had and had not liked about the previous, smaller designs we had built over the last few years.

We finally had a plan and set it in motion.  We decided to build a hoop-house style coop, with open ends.  Since we have guardian dogs, we don’t need to close our coop up at night.  Since S had oak available from his lumber mill, that’s what the coop foundation and roosts were built with.  Yes, oak is very heavy, but we had our team to move it, so heavy wasn’t a big deal.  Oak is also sturdy, so we didn’t have to worry about the weight of all the chickens piling onto roosts at night.  We used cattle panel to form the hoop shape.  We had some wood scraps and thin plywood pieces we used to build the nest boxes, which were designed to be removable.  We ordered the cover custom made from a company specializing in tarp-type covers for farm buildings.  It was far more secure and sturdier than standard tarp material.


First, we built a solid, stable foundation on skids, and bolted the cattle panels between wood layers.


Next, we added end pieces and upright supports to maintain the shape of the panels.


Next, we added roosts and the removable nest box sections (4 total, though only 1 is pictured here)


Finally, we painted it all to protect it, and added the custom made cover.

The next step was to build the feed and water station.  We decided to make this a separate structure, which could be attached and towed along behind the hoop house.


The feeder was built out of scrap lumber and plywood.


Next, we installed a linoleum-style cover inside to help the feed slide down the sides into the side openings where the hens could eat. We also built the platform for the waterer, which is a 30-gallon drum with a gravity-style water bowl. We painted it all up and added a roof.

Finally, we put it all together, hauled it out to the pasture, and when the weather warmed enough, we moved the hens from their winter quarters to the new Hen Hut.  They totally approved!


Happy hens!

We now have roost capacity to easily house around 170 hens, and more if they pack in a bit snugly.  When filled, the feeder holds the equivalent of about 2- 50 pound sacks of feed and lasts 100 pastured hens about 4-6 days (depending on bugs and other available feedstuffs).

Stay tuned, and I’ll tell you how we winterize the Hen Hut soon!

We raised 2 Red Wattle hogs in the forest again this year.  This year, however, we raised barrows (castrated boys) instead of gilts (girls) like last year.  Man, oh, man did those boy grow fast!!  The first hog was sold to customers, and we wound up taking it to the processor several months earlier than planned (the schedule being based on the gilts’ growth last year).  At 6 months old, his hanging weight came to 198 lbs, which is roughly 300 lbs. live weight.  The second hog was destined for our own freezer.  Typically, we butcher our personal animals right here on the farm.  In order to do the larger animals such as hogs and beef, we have to wait for colder weather so we can hang the sides in our garage for a cooling and aging period.  So, after the first hog left, we kept the remaining hog as happy as we could.  We supplied him with happy-hog-staples such as mud, fresh forest forage, roots, nuts, kitchen leftovers, milk and whey, hog feed, whatever we could think of.  Maybe we over did it a little.  Just a little.

OK, a LOT.

When it looked as though S’s elbows were not healing, the decision was made to send our hog to the processor as well.  He was getting to expensive to feed, and he wouldn’t stop growing.  One evening, we bribed him with a little milk, got him up into the trailer (you can youtube “elephant seal trying to climb onto a car” if you want a visual), gave him a pile of soft hay to nest into, and let him settle in for the night.  We just hoped our trailer survived until morning.  Early the next morning, S drove him to the processor.  The workers in the livestock area took one look at him laying all comfy-cozy in his hay bed, and said, “uh, how do we get him out?”  They then proceeded to look at each other with each stating his position that he would NOT enter that trailer with that beast.  So, not wanting to hold up the line, S said, “don’t worry, I’ll get him out.”  He jumped up in the trailer, called him, gave him a scratch behind the ears, and bribed him out of the trailer in seconds.  The livestock guys stood there with their chins on the loading ramp.  Guess they hadn’t seen it done that way before.  It’s so much easier in our opinion, but really, what do we know?  It is only our 4th hog after all.


By that afternoon, we had a hanging weight of 289 lbs, which equates to over 400 lbs live weight.  I realize that isn’t a huge hog by any stretch of the imagination.  I’ve seen some approaching 800-1000 lbs.  THAT is impressive!  Nonetheless, he was twice the size of a typical hog at processing time.  As it turned out, not only did he have some impressively large pork chops cut out of his sides, but he also had 3 inches of back fat.  Seeing as how S asked the processor for the fat, which is now being stored in my freezer, I’m seeing a lot of lard-making in the not-too-distant future.

Then, by the time I get that task completed, it will be time to start all over.  We’ve already ordered up 6 hogs for next year.  Believe it or not, we are excited about it.  Hogs can be a lot of fun, but there’s no way I can convince you of that.  You’ll just have to try raising one yourself.

Our little farm has been crazy busy serving customers this spring.  We have truly been humbled by the number of total strangers that have paid deposits for meat, live animals, and classes offered by our farm, all in the faith that we will supply their order.  Considering the fact we just moved here a year ago, and have no “name” or reputation here, we believe that’s a big deal and a huge blessing.  We also feel it is indicative of the tremendous need for healthy, pure foods and good stewardship in farming in our area.

Along those lines of stewardship and farming, as you know, in late March, we brought home our new team of Belgian horses.  We spent a couple of months getting to know them and testing them out in all sort of circumstances.  We pulled logs out of woods, up hills, around pond edges, and even logs stuck in vines overhead.  We had them pull the wagon across train tracks, around fires, on busy roads, gravel roads, dirt roads, and more.  We loaded the wagon with lumber, firewood, hay, and people.  We hooked them to and asked them to drag 1500 lb round bales, fence posts, and our incredibly noisy road grader.  We drove them into our small town several times, tested them on steep hills and around crowds. I had the kids ride bicycles all around them while I drove several times, and even had 3-year-old R squeeze a squeaky toy until the team was OK with the idea.  You get the picture.

Well, all that work is paying off, and we are increasingly thankful for the time, effort, and extra money we saved to invest in a really well-trained team.  These boys have impressed us at every turn.  We were warned on multiple occasions that once folks got wind of our team, the requests would start pouring in.  Boy, oh, boy were they right!!  Our first request was to help pull a log out of someone’s back woods, and we did in exchange for some of the lumber for milling.  The next request was to help demo horse-drawn plowing at a local state park.  We decided it would be a great experience, so we hitched up, drove the team to the park (just a couple miles away), unhitched, and the more experienced teamsters helped us hitch up to a plow and set to work.  We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, but clearly our team had plowed before.  Nick, the off horse, dropped right down into the furrow, both boys leaned into their collars, and they pulled just like old pros.  Considering it was a special demo day for the public, we appreciated that the boys made us newbies look really good!  So good in fact, that we were then requested to come give rides at the state park on a weekly basis.

S on the plow at the state park demo

S on the plow at the state park demo

We weren’t quite ready for that step, but it made us start planning and brainstorming a plan of action.  Another month or so went by and we decided to start offering wagon rides every weekend through summer in our little town–which, by the way, has NOTHING else to do on weekend evenings.  Because our little town has never had such a request, we discovered that there were no licensing or permitting requirements.  They only asked that we put “diapers” on the horses to catch manure.  The city officials were excited, so we got the legalities in order, got the horses’  “Bun Bags” for their manure, and had our first weekend rides.  We decided offering such rides was a great way to stimulate the horses’ mentally, get us all off the farm once a week, and generally give us all a change of pace.  I wouldn’t call it booming business, but considering we only gave folks a couple days’ notice, we were pleased with the turnout.  It will help buy hay for the winter.  That evening, however, we were spotted by multiple other folks.  One was a theater director who has requested us and our team play the “Wells-Fargo” wagon in an upcoming outdoor production.  Another hosts a fall festival and really wants us to offer rides to help increase business there.  A third is interested in having their almost-senior high school student hire our wagon for prom next year.  WOW!  And we aren’t even advertising yet!

We haven’t committed to anything else just yet, as we are still plenty busy here on the farm.  We are talking and planning though, looking at our calendar, and I’ve started doing a lot of sensory work with the horses to get them used to more and more activity, just so we are as prepared as possible.  For now, we are focusing on keeping the team working several days a week doing miscellaneous work around the farm, and holding our Saturday evening wagon rides in town.  We are creating flyers to notify weekend tourists in the area and at the local hotels of the event, and we are considering other activities that help get word out about our farm, which will hopefully drum up business in other areas of our farm business.  It has been fun so far, though, and we look forward to seeing how our little farm business morphs as time goes on.  In the mean time, if you are interested in hiring draft-horse services in the central IL region, you can check out our farm website at and send us an inquiry!

Horse-Drawn Wagon Rides

Last year, we installed 4,000 gallon cisterns and connected those to the house.  You can read more about that here.  In addition, we set up temporary drain pipes (the ugly black things you’ll spot laying on the ground in some of these photos below).  We quickly learned that we seriously under-calculated our cisterns.  We calculated our water needs, rather than the potential amounts we could collect.  We should have gone 50%, if not twice, as much capacity.  Oh well.  Our cisterns have proven they’ll last about 4-5 weeks.

We recently took the next step to having a fully functional rain collection system.  First, we had our 20-something year old, rotting shingles replaced with Galvalum metal roofing.  A roofer came out and put the roof on, and then we had our gutter system completely re-designed.  Mind you, the aesthetics of this is still growing on me, but seeing as how we had to work with the house we already had, I think it turned out pretty good.

In order to collect as much rain as possible, we added a few extra gutters on areas of the gable where rain might have a tendency to run over the edge instead of downward.  This outside gable is one example, and thus got it's own downspout as well.

In order to collect as much rain as possible, we added a few extra gutters on areas of the gable where rain might have a tendency to run over the edge instead of downward. This outside gable is one example, and thus got it’s own downspout as well.  The downspout then runs along under each of the windows, with just enough of a slope to make it work. 

The next three downspouts are on the inside gable (to prevent water damage to the siding under the inside gable), coming off the front porch, and coming off the upper level roof.  All 4 downspouts meet on the wall, and run along together to the back-up cistern we added.

The next three downspouts are on the inside gable (to prevent water damage to the siding under the inside gable), coming off the front porch, and coming off the upper level roof. All 4 downspouts meet on the wall, and run along together to the back-up cistern we added.

Back of the house, with a downspout off one part of the main roof, another off the gable, and third off the another part of the main roof.  Those three meet up and run together along the back of the house.  You can the brown diagonal line on the siding here, where the old gutter downspout ran.  There is less slope on these new ones, but they still meet code and look better.

Back of the house, with a downspout off one part of the main roof, another off the gable, and third off the another part of the main roof. Those three meet up and run together along the back of the house. You can the brown diagonal line on the siding here, where the old gutter downspout ran. There is less slope on these new ones, but they still meet code and look better.

The back downspouts come around the corner, and run along the side of the house, where they meet up with a final downspout on this far side.

The back downspouts come around the corner, and run along the side of the house, where they meet up with a final downspout on this far side.

Then there's the octopus of downspouts, all connecting into this new, above ground tank (actually, the tank was leftover from a previous water project--it's just new to this project).

Then there’s the octopus of downspouts, all connecting into this new, above ground tank (actually, the tank was leftover from a previous water project–it’s just new to this project).

Another view of the connection.

Another view of the connection.

This is the part that really is not aesthetically pleasing.  To try to prevent the mess of downspouts at the tank, we discussed adding y-type intersections where gutters could join together, but opted against it.  If we were to have a very heavy downpour (you know, the inch an hour type that Colorado is getting right now, and which is common in IL), then the Y would serve as a bottleneck, and potentially cause a backup of water, which would ultimately overflow the gutters.  Not a good idea.  Thus, we had to find a way to connect each gutter downspout separately to the cisterns.  The gutter guys simply cut 8 holes in the top of the tank, inserted the downspouts just enough to keep them in there, and then put a sealant around them.  That being said, the long term plan is to enclose this area, both to hide the ugliness and the tank, and to shield the tank from the sun to prevent algae growth.

Also in the not-to-distant future, this tank will serve two purposes.  First, it adds about 800 gallons of water storage, which I’m sure will come in handy.  Secondly, S is studying a primitive filter system using gravel and sand, which we will be setting up in this tank.  Therefore, all water going in to this tank will be filtered before entering the main, underground tanks.

Up close and personal, I admit, it’s a bit awkward and odd looking.  From a distance though, it really isn’t too bad.  They did a good job of matching up the gutter color to the house color.  I believe once we get the place landscaped and the side shelter built, it will look SOO much better.  I’m looking forward to that!  In the mean time though, we can now collect every drop of water possible to help sustain us throughout the year.




Abigail….our new Jersey cow.


JR picked the name, right out of thin air, and when I looked up the meaning, it was perfect.  Technically, it means “A Father’s Rejoicing,” but Biblically speaking, there were many Abigails.  The most famous was Queen Abigail, who shrewdly and wisely saved her husband from King David’s wrath.  Over time, the name also became synonomous with “a lady’s maid” or “servant.”  How much more perfect can a name be for a loyal, family dairy cow?

Sweet Jersey face

Sweet Jersey face

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know we have been planning to purchase a dairy cow for several years.  I love my goat milk, but miss my cow cream!  We decided to do both.  Our ideal was a miniature jersey, which you can read more about in a previous post, found here.  After a lot of research, I found a breeder willing to work with our timeline, and was put on her waiting list.  Then, last fall, she found out her entire miniature jersey herd had a bovine disease known as BLV–sort of comparable to HIV in humans.  Obviously not what I wanted to start with.  So, after we got settled in here at Red Gate, I resumed my search, and she put me on her list for a mid-sized Jersey.  Thankfully I  did find another first, as just a few days later, I found out that I made it to the top of her list, a heifer finally became available, and she apparently sold it to someone else before even giving me a chance.  It could’ve been a long wait if I’d stuck with her!


For us, not just any cow would work.  Unfortunately, as modern dairy practices took shape beginning about a century ago, common dairy cows had a protein gene that began to mutate.  You can find more detailed info elsewhere, but essentially, this mutation of the casein protein is often to blame for digestive issues and lactose intolerance in humans.  There are some dairy cows still out there, however, that do not possess the mutated gene, now known as the A1 gene.  The purer, original gene, known as A2/A2, is more desirable.  Interestingly, goats are A2/A2, as are most beef cattle, as they never developed the mutated A1/A1 or A1/A2 gene.  This may well be a big reason why people who can’t handle cow milk can often drink goat milk just fine.  Apparently, the gene is fairly limited to dairy cows like Holsteins, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Guernseys, and others that have been bred more for the large dairy industries where high production levels are desirable.  In any case, regular genetic testing for this gene is a relatively new concept.  As a result,  A2/A2 cows are difficult to find, and if found, they are rarely for sale.  I spread the word to everyone I could think of regarding what I was looking for.  Because some of our children have shown tendencies toward lactose intolerance, we had decided we would only purchase an A2/A2 cow.

Somehow, obviously a God thing, an Amish guy I’ve never met, who lived in a small Amish community several hours from us, found out about our search.  He passed word along, and offered an opportunity we couldn’t resist.  His family had a standard sized Jersey milk cow which had a heifer calf last fall.  They had decided to sell the calf, now 9 months old.  Amazingly (why are we always amazed when God is at work?!), he had just had the calf tested for the casein protein gene, and she came back A2/A2.  There was a problem though.  One day, when she was a young calf, they had put her into a stall to catch her, and she wound up ramming her eye into a bolt sticking out of the wall.  She was permanently blinded on that side, so he was offering to sell her for a steal of a price.  Let’s just say, even with the blind eye, I would have happily paid triple just to get the genetics.

Her blind eye looks a little funny close up, but it really isn't that obvious.

Her blind eye looks a little funny close up, but it really isn’t that obvious.

Now, doing business with Amish can be quite an experience.  To this day, I’ve never met  or spoken with the owner.  At Horse Progress Days, we probably stood within a few yards of each other at some point during the day, but failed to actually meet.  All questions, answers, and arrangements were done through an Amish friend of a his who was allowed to have a phone in his business.  I would call and leave a voicemail with my question.  Eventually, the friend would call back with an answer.  And that’s how it went for a couple weeks.  Through this route, it was arranged for a vet to come check her out for me, as she was far enough away I had to commit without seeing her first.  She got a full health and conformation check, a BVD test, and he checked her paperwork.  Knowing I was a total newbie to cows, the vet was also willing to give his honest opinion of how appropriate she would be for our family.  She passed all tests with flying colors.

We arranged a ride home with another friend, and she’s now been here for a week.  To let her get to know us, I’ve kept her seperate from the other, wilder, beef cows we have, and she has taken to us with no problem.  She adores people, but can get a bit playful sometimes, so I have to watch the kids around her.  She is such a sweetheart though!  Those sweet Jersey eyes and that loving disposition just melts my heart.  She will follow me like a puppy wherever I go, wants only to be scratched (especially on her neck and under her chin), lets me pet her all over her belly and udder area, and is even halter broken already!  I am learning to watch out when I lead her.  She gets so comfortable walking with me, that if she gets me on her blind side, she will sometimes run right into me accidentally.  Even so, at roughly 500 lbs, she’s a lot bigger than I am!   I have to be careful to always know where she is, since she doesn’t always care where I am and so I don’t run her into something.  I accidentally ran her right into a rebar fence post yesterday while leading her, as it was just past centerline on her blind side, and she didn’t see it.  OOPS!  I’ve also given the kiddos special instructions about always talking to her as they approach, to ensure they don’t startle her.


Now, I just have to figure out who to breed her to this fall!  She is a standard-sized Jersey, with her dam being roughly 48 inches tall.  So not huge, but not a mini either.  I have easy access to a Lowline bull, which would create a Jey-lo calf, an increasingly popular, but still widely unknown beef/dairy hybrid.  Then there’s a top of the line Dexter bull, which would give something akin to a large Belfair calf, another increasingly popular, but largely unknown all-purpose breed for the homestead.  I also have access to a standard sized Jersey bull.  By far the most valuable calf (if it was a heifer) would be a cross with a mini-Jersey bull of A2/A2 genetics, which would produce a mid-sized Jersey (around 40-44 inches at maturity).  If it was a heifer, I could also continue to breed down to get my own miniature. Of course, the problem there is I have no clue where to find one of those unless I do A.I. Oh, decisions, decisions!  Guess I’ll cross that bridge when she gets a bit older.  For now, I’m just gonna love her and keep getting to know her.


We are seeing results from our “Forest Hogs” already, and I am impressed.  When they were just 9 weeks old, we turned the pigs out into a roughly 1/2 acre section of woodland, with a small section of pasture adjoining it.  Here is what the land looked like when we turned them out: (Notice the fallen spruce tree in the center to give you reference).

The land before pigs

The land before pigs

Just 2.5 weeks later, I took this picture from the same spot:

The land after pigs

The land after pigs

Now granted, they had a little help.  We turned 2 cow/calf pairs out with the pigs randomly, for a total of 7 days in the forest paddock.  The donkey was out there for less than 2 days, and the goats for maybe 2 days.  Although certainly not necessary, I figured all the animals would create some  “mob” effect, which essentially creates natural competition and encourages them to eat more and faster.  They’re just like my 4 and 5 year old boys, each of whom are convinced it is sole duty to NOT allow the other to eat more of some treat. Because so many different species are involved, their natural grazing/browsing habits complement each other.  After 2.5 weeks, the brush was eaten from the height of the cows’ backs and down.  There is almost no green foliage left.  The next picture shows 2 sections of the 2.5 acre forest lot, with our electric fence netting dividing it into smaller sections.  The right side of the photo used to look just like the left side.  After 2.5 weeks, the pigs were moved into the left side paddock to eat it down as well.


Here is another view from the adjoining pasture area.  The foreground shows the grazed down paddock and pasture, while the background shows a future paddock to be grazed.  Notice the difference in the height of the grass, which shows where the electric fence ran.  The animals graze right to the electric netting.


As you can see, they don’t just eat forage either.  Pretty much everything that grows is considered edible.  This photo shows the electric netting again, dividing the already grazed pasture portion of the paddock on the left, and the new pasture on the right.

Happy pigs!

Happy pigs!

I have seen enough photographic evidence to leave me no doubt that if I left the pigs longer, or if I decreased the size of the pen, or if I fed them less supplements, that they would literally clear that paddock down to bare earth.  I have studied a number of pasture-pig farmers who do it that way, allowing the pigs to tear down everything, and then the farmer rebuilds his pasture from scratch.  I decided I didn’t want to do that, though.  I preferred to have the pigs “massage” the land, clean it up a bit, spread some fertilizer, and then move on.  Then, if I have time, I can go in and manually whack down the remaining sapling and brush stems OR I can rotate the pigs through again in a few months.  Waiting a while gives the slightly over-grazed pasture time to replenish itself while also allowing all the accumulated manure to break down and be absorbed in the soil without being overloaded.  By the time the pigs will move through again, they will likely be twice as big, and therefore eat twice as much in the same time frame.

Feeding time brings the girls running and squealing "wee-wee-wee" all the way to the milk bucket!

Feeding time brings the girls running and squealing “wee-wee-wee” all the way to the milk bucket!

Although it isn’t necessary, I have chosen to supplement their forage diet.  In a paddock like this, they eat not only all the leaves and grass, but also bugs, slugs, frogs, leaves, branches, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, and more.  Pigs are not just vegetarians.  They are omnivores, and require high protein levels to thrive.   If I raised them strictly on forage, they would likely either take longer to reach an ideal slaughter weight, and/or be much leaner and lighter at slaughter time.  Thus, I have decided to supplement with my excess goat milk.  I sour the milk for 24 hours (apparently the extra probiotics are better for them), mix in some organic rolled cereal grains, leftovers from dinner, anything I want to clean out of the fridge or cabinets, extra eggs (complete with shells), and so on.  They absolutely go crazy over the “slop” concoctions we come up with.  This also means they come running every time they hear us call, in the hopes we are bringing that slop pail along.

Looking for a few scratches behind the ears...

Looking for a few scratches behind the ears…or the slop pail I failed to bring this time.

An additional fact worth mentioning is that pigs are great manure spreaders!  I don’t mean they poop everywhere, either, although they do that as well.  I mean pigs LOVE cow patties as much as chickens.  My chickens have stayed busy rotating through the the main pastures, helping us break down cow patties there, as well as waging war on the Japanese beetle crop in the orchard this summer.  Meanwhile, I am loath to pet the pigs lately, as these warm….no, I mean incredibly, ridiculously, HOT….days have driven the pigs to desperate measures.  They absolutely love to roll in those fresh cow patties.  They roll, plow, dig, spread, you name it.  Although disgusting to watch, it does a great service. It helps the manure break down much faster, and prevents fly larvae from accumulating, and subsequently hatching out of the patties.  That’s always a good thing.

For the sake of my non-farmer readers, though, I took a cleaner picture to close with.  Isn’t she cute?!


There is an idea out there regarding grazing animals that is quite literally so old, it has become new again.  This type of grazing has many benefits, both for the land and for the animals.  Think about a wild herd of grass-eating animals….the herd comes through, stops and grazes an open prairie for a day or two, and then moves on.  Think too, on what occurs during this grazing time.

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.  Source: internet stock photo

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.
Source: internet stock photo

Benefits to the land include:

  • Animals “massage” the land, rather than decimate and damage it.
  • Animals manure and urinate all over, thus fertilizing the land.  Since they stay such a short time, they do not poison or overload the land with their nutrient-rich waste.
  • Animal manure contains seeds from the previous pasture, which then grow in that pasture.  Because they generally prefer to eat only healthy, palatable forages, they are thereby distributing seeds from these plants, rather than weedy, less palatable ones.
  • Each time grass is grazed down, the roots die back slightly, and the grass then regrows.  This cycle keeps the grass in a fertile, nutrient-rich, growth state, unlike grass that matures, turns tough, stemmy, and fibrous, and goes to seed.
  • Each time animals pass through, the land is naturally torn up a little–but not too much.  This serves to aerate and churn the soil a bit, making it healthier for all the organisms within as well as the grasses.
  • Between the tearing up, churning up, and eating down of grasses, the pasture is left in a healthy, growing state, which prevents wildfires, flooding, erosion, and other problems often associated with abandoned, overgrown, bare, and/or unhealthy pastures.

Benefits to the animals include:

  •  Animals always have fresh grass and forage to eat, increasing weight gains and access to nutrient-rich plants.
  • Animals do not graze manure-soiled grounds, which prevents re-ingestion of parasites.
  • Wild animals usually graze in groups, which creates a competitiveness among them, resulting in faster eating.  This also increases nutrient consumption.

One study I saw showed that one season of mob-stocking (large-group intensive grazing) a large open area with a large group of sheep  for a short period of time, resulted in a 50% increase in forage the next year.  That’s pretty incredible if you think about it!

Because God has designed nature to work a certain way, to the benefit of all, we wanted to model after the natural order of things.  One of the big plans we had in mind for raising grass-fed animals on Red Gate Farm was the concept of rotational grazing.  We studied Joel Salatin, Alan Nation, and other livestock managers who practiced intensive grazing and rotational grazing techniques.  Everyone we studied did it a little differently, ensuring there was no, single, “right” way to do it, but there were some points to consider that were pretty standard to get the most benefit:

  • Animals eat the best, most palatable forages the first day, and each day thereafter the quality of the feed decreases a bit.
  • Animals graze best with competition to push them.  We needed more than one animal.
  • Forage is most evenly grazed with a selection of animals, as each species tends to prefer different plants.
  • It takes most fly larvae about 4-7 days to hatch in the manure.  It takes most intestinal parasites 1-3 weeks to hatch and need a new host in order to continue the life cycle.  Therefore, if possible, the animal should be moved from a grazed area before 4 days to avoid the worst of the flies, and preferably not return until after 3 weeks to prevent re-infestation of parasites.
  • Grass takes 2-4 weeks (depending on the season, temperature, and rainfall) to go from an immature (freshly grazed) state back to a healthy, nutrient rich, “adolescent” state.  Re-graze too early, and you risk damaging the plant permanently because it is too immature.  Re-graze too late, and the plant may reach maturity and be less palatable.

Based on what we learned, we came up with a plan.  Again, everyone does it differently, but the following is what we do.

While cows, horses, and hogs can be fenced in with a single strand of electric wire, this is not the case with goats.  Due to the fact we were planning a variety of animals of all sizes and some with reputations for escape (i.e., goats!), we decided to first fence our perimeter with a solid, 2×4 woven wire fence with wood fence posts.  Good fences make good neighbors, and we do live in a neighborhood of mostly retired folks looking for the quiet life and a nice garden sans the neighbors’ loose livestock.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

Then, inside our roughly 7-acre pasture perimeter fence, we subdivided.  Now, this was our biggest concern.  We weren’t sure (and still aren’t) how to best graze our limited acreage with as many animals as we plan.  Of course, it forced us to get more efficient with our animals, as we had absolutely no room for extras.  To get an idea, we first used electric poultry netting to train the animals, and moved it around for a couple weeks to get an idea how much forage they ate in a 24-period.  We then calculated their consumption, averaged it for almost-year-round grazing, and set up semi-permanent paddocks that are roughly 80 feet x 90 feet.  This gave the animals room to move around and frolic a bit, avoid bullies, and still have plenty to eat.  After more experimenting–mostly in an effort to figure out how to keep the goats in the paddocks (little escaping stinkers, they are!), we settled on 3 wires.  The top strand is a highly visible white poly-rope, while the bottom 2 strands are standard galvanized electric wire.  You can also see the portable shelters here.  I will do another post on those later.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up.  It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up. It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

Once the paddocks were set up, we stocked one with animals.  Talk about a variety of complimentary species!

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves.

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves share a paddock.

Our goal is to rotate every day by next spring.  Right now, however, we don’t have all the animals we intend to have next year, and we are at the end of the spring growth, so the paddocks last my animals 2 days.  I am literally building a paddock on each move day.  Some graziers roll out a line and set up a new paddock in about 15 minutes.  With our setup, though, I don’t have time to do that long term, I’m not able to move my electric wire charger around as much, the goats don’t pay attention to a single wire anyway, and my watering system is not set up yet.  For those reasons, I decided to set up more permanent (but easily removable) paddocks, with a 10 foot alleyway down the middle of rows to make moving critters and water easier.  This setup actually gives me an extra paddock in the alleyway itself.  Whether the grass will continue to grow there long term, I don’t know, but for now, it is very useful.

A single cow grazed about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

A single cow grazed down about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

One of my favorite parts of this whole system is looking back at “yesterday’s” paddock when we move the animals to a fresh pen.  Moving is simple.  I simply drop the wires between pens, call the animals, and they have already learned that fresh forage awaits!  The next photo was taken after the animals had been on a paddock for 48 hours.  The brownish line down the middle is where I used a trimmer to remove growth under the wire.  The short grass on the left is the grazed paddock, and the long grass on the right is the new, ungrazed paddock.


Joel Salatin always says that if it’s done correctly, you will see a “quilt-square” type effect, where each square of paddock is in a different stage of growth.  I think we’ve almost got it!

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

If everything goes correctly, then we will raise all our cows on this lush grass, which should be become healthier, less weedy, and more nutrient-dense with each passing season.  The goats are also grazed on this, supplemented with only a bit of grain at milking time.  What I didn’t go into here, but you can see evidence of in the 3rd and 4th photo is that our portable chicken layer coop follows about 4 days behind the other animals, so the birds can pick through all the manure, scatter it into the soil, and eat all the bug larvae and hatching parasites.  This is such a neat system, and so far, I am really liking it.  I will be tweaking it a bit here and there over the next year or so, I’m sure, but this gives you an idea what we are doing now.

Boy, when people ask what we farm, I am trying to come up with a good answer….”I grow soil (or grass)” just causes more questions.  “I raise livestock the old-fashioned way” just gets a mis-understanding nod.  “I use a polycultural symbiosis to raise a myriad of species on lush silvopasture” sounds like I’m really smart, but results only in blank stares.  Thus, “We have a little God-sufficient homestead, where we grow what we can for our family and sell the excess” is my current one.  It seems to be widely accepted so far.

We finally have our first rabbit barn!  Actually, that was not really the plan, and I hope it is very temporary until we get my “ideal” built, but that may be a year or so yet.

In any case, our 5 bunnies, brought with us all the way from Colorado, finally have some decent accomodations.  It took me a few weeks to get everything assembled, but they seem pretty happy with the accommodations for now.


First, I custom built 5 cages (I’ll add a 6th as soon as I get some more wire) that are each 48″ long x 30 inches deep x 18 inches tall.  I like the rabbits to have the ability to move around, and since we lost our play yard when we moved, the cage has to suffice for a while.   Each cage has 2 doors, so we can easily catch the rabbits or even have the option of dividing them in half if need be.  Each cage is equipped with a pellet feeder, a free-choice hay feeder so the bunnies can satisfy their desire to chew, a water bottle and mineral salt lick, and a large square of wood to rest on and prevent hock sores.  I also added urine guards to these cages to prevent the messes we had at our last place, and since the cages are NOT equipped with permanent nest boxes yet, the urine guards act as a bit of a privacy barrier I’ve noticed.  When they are laying down and relaxing, they are not able to see the rabbit in the cage next to them, which seems to keep them much calmer then when they used to see each other.

The cages are suspended from the barn ceiling, in one of our roomy stalls.  There is just enough space all around that we can walk and work on things as needed, but it’s a bit tight as big as those cages are!  The chains are connected to recycled trampoline poles, and the cages just sit on the poles.  I use 14 gauge wire on the bottom of my cages, so for the short term, they do not need a middle brace as long as the weight is limited to the weight of one or two mature rabbits.  There are 2 levels, with 3 cages on each level.  Between the 2 levels, we used PVC corrugated roofing to catch the droppings and urine from the top cages, and direct it off, behind the bottom cages.  It seems to be working well.

One problem we had back in Colorado was caused by that center roof directing all the upper level waste into a big, smelly, mess of a pile behind the cages.  It was, by far, the most difficult part of our rabbit area to maintain, clean, and control odor (I love animals, but HATE odors!  In my book, unpleasant odors = bad farm management).  So, this go around, we are trying a technique I’ve come across several times in our research.


Like Colorado, we start by putting lots of absorbant carbon material (pine shavings, in this case) under the cages to lock in the nitrogen (odor-causing substance) from the urine.  This begins a composting process when handled properly.  In addition, however, we divided our prolific vermicompost worms into several bins, and placed under the parts of the cages where the majority of the manure and urine spilled off.  To protect the worms, we gave them plenty of good soil and dirt, and covered that with a layer of old straw, followed by a layer of pine shavings.  The straw and shavings ensure that the nitrogen doesn’t get too intense and burn the worms, while at the same time, locking in the nutrient-rich liquid until the worms are able to break it all down.  If you look closely, you’ll also notice that the pellet and hay feeders are strategically located on the rear of the cages.  I did this so any wasted food and hay would also fall into the worm bins, which feeds the worms as well.  Oh, I do love to recycle and prevent waste whenever possible!!

So, my “ideal” future plan actually involves building an outdoor vine-covered trellis to allow lots of shade, fresh air, and natural light during spring, summer, and fall, and then move the bunnies into the barn in the winter.  Maybe.  I also plan to build 3, 4 foot by 3.5 foot vermicompost bins that will go under the entire cages and ensure the entire manure area is collected by the worm bins.  I hope to get that all done as soon as possible, but I am assuming that this barn set up will be it at least for this year.

So far it is working out great, though.  The rabbits seem happy.  Our oldest doe, Hope, is due to kindle (birth a litter) any minute now with our first Red Gate Farm litter.  The shavings and worms have done a good job preventing any bad smells, and the barn stays surprisingly cool on our hot summer days.  When it does get a little warm, the stall is equipped with a fan on one end and a window on the other, to get the air moving a little.  I’ve actually had only 2 issues with this setup.  First, it’s a bit darker than I would like, but there isn’t really much I can do about that.  The other fault was discovered when our new pigs were temporarily housed in the stall next door to the rabbits.  We walked out one morning to discover the pigs had dug under their stall and into the rabbit stall, dumped over a worm bin, and were happily munching on all the worms their happy little snouts could find.  Oops.  That fault was remedied when the pigs moved out to the forest paddock a few days later, and the worms can now compost in peace.  They’d rather eat manure than be a part of it.

….and LOTS of it around Red Gate Farm.



Meet Tiffany (the white cow), Holly (the black cow), and their bull calves, Rib Eye and T-Bone.  Holly is a purebred Lowline cow, though on the larger side.  Tiffany is a registered Lowline, but she is part of the breed-up program, so in fact, she is 50% Lowline and 50% Charolais (pronounce “Shar-lay” for you city folk).  That’s where her white coloring comes from.  The brownish calf is hers and the black one is Holly’s.  Both calves were sired by a purebred Lowline bull, and the previous owner kindly banded them for me so we will have steers rather than bulls as they grow.  None of them are friendly, though they tolerate my presence nearby.  I can get within about 3-5 feet before they run, but I have never touched them.  Just when I get the chance, I always suddenly envision a hind leg flying up and knocking me in the thigh, and that is something I can’t afford right now.  I have managed to scratch the cows’ backs with a stick before, but they didn’t seem too thrilled about the idea.  For the most part, we have an agreement.  I simply ensure they always have fresh pasture, and they are happy to let me stand and look at them all day in return.

As if I had time to do that.

Our intent at this point is to have the cows re-bred later this summer, as part of the deal when I bought them.  In the mean time, the cows and calves will be used to graze our pastures and help clear our dense brush in the far paddocks with the pigs.  Next year, about the time the cows are ready to calve again, we will finish the boys off on the spring lush, and then they will become dinner. We are planning one for our family, and are hoping to sell the other one as a custom slaughter to help pay for our little herd and any expenses that might be involved over the next year or so.   Whether we will stick with these larger lowlines long-term is yet to be decided.  They aren’t what I had originally planned–they are quite a bit larger than I wanted, but they were literally the only cow/calf pairs available that I could find.  The herd was also a show herd with a lot of disease and genetic testing, which I liked, and the farm was a natural, grass-fed, no hormone or antibiotic type place, which I liked even more.  So although these were cull-cows, they were fine for a newbie like us just to raise a little beef on.

Thus begins our adventures with cattle.

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