Lately I’ve been reading a lot about companion planting. It’s a gardening technique in which different species of vegetables and flowers are planted together and they work as a group to benefit each other. In the Mother Earth News article Companion Planting With Vegetables and Flowers, the author Barbara Pleasant gives an example of the “three sisters,” a group of vegetables consisting of beans, corn and squash that all work well when planted together. She writes, “The corn supports the bean vines, the squash shades out weeds, and the roots of the different plants get along nicely below ground.”
This idea of companion planting can also be applied to different types of livestock around the farm. The article got me thinking about how our different animals, in particular poultry, help our farm find balance and harmony.
Variety is the spice of farm life
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that farm animals are like potato chips. You can’t have just one. There was a time when I had two chickens and a 2-by-4-foot garden bed so crammed with vegetable plants that nothing grew besides a disfigured tomato and some leggy peas. This was my farm. Now I hear myself saying things like “We need a cow …” and the strange part is, it’s not a joke! We’ve come a long way in the past few years, and looking back, it feels like it’s all happened rather fast.
We get into “go” mode, and one thing leads to another. One experience sets you up with the confidence required to take the next step, and before you know it, you’ve processed your own chickens, milked a goat and planted a field of corn. Our two chickens became 50, which plowed the way for ducks, turkeys, fiber goats, dairy goats, fiber rabbits, bees and a garden filled with heirloom varieties that we’ve grown from seed.
The interesting thing about a farm is that when we ease up on our own controlling tendencies, stop viewing ourselves as the “farm managers” and allow our own domesticated ecosystem to work, we find that it does work, and it works well. With each new variety or species of animal that we integrate onto our property, we wonder sometimes how we ever managed without them. We’ve found that one of the keys to success on our farm is finding a balance of animals that help each other, and in turn help us. It’s not something that will ever be completed or mastered, but complimentary animals do help. The nature of living things is that they are always changing, and so will our farm in that respect. But through the different combinations and varieties, we can find practical, beneficial relationships between the different animals on our farm.
Ducks Helping Goats
When we first moved here, Zach and I noticed that there was an abundance of snails everywhere. Most of them were a small snail with a tubular shell varying in color from tan to dark brown. We would wake up in the morning to a dewy lawn and snails would be everywhere. On the sidewalk, on the house siding. After a rain they would be in the garden, on the bushes, and spotted among the tall grass. We didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until I read the book Goat Song by Brad Kessler, where the snails started to grab our attention. In the book, the author writes about a horrible ordeal that one of his goats experiences. The goat is infested by a worm that attacks the spinal cord and the poor thing almost dies. He writes that the goat must have picked up the worm by accidentally eating a snail amongst the pasture.
I must admit, after reading this, I freaked out a little. I did a little more research on the “snail worm” and found that it is called meningeal worm, a parasite that lives in snails that have passed over deer droppings. The snails ingest the larvae of the meningeal and become carriers. When a goat eats grass, it can easily ingest a snail and become infected. We worm our goats regularly, but recently our Angora does have kidded and we’re not using our normal worming regimen. The girls are still nursing and many of the wormers are not safe for lactating does. This lapse in worming prevention has me a little nervous with snails slithering all over our lawn.
One day I was out watching our ducks forage through the grass and noticed on this particularly damp morning that the ducks were slurping up the snails like candy. I did some research to see if meningeal affected ducks, and found that it didn’t! Needless to say, we immediately moved the ducks to the goat pasture, and I have to say, I haven’t seen a snail since. I know that the ducks won’t necessarily get every last snail, but it makes me feel a whole lot better knowing that the snails that carry this parasite are being eaten by the hundreds.
The ducks, even more than our chickens, are perfect to range on our goat pasture, in that they don’t tear everything up like chickens do with their scratching. Ducks have a minimal footprint on the grass, where our chickens have been known to tear plants out by the roots. It’s a perfect balance!
Goats Helping Turkeys
While this relationship is in reverse, it still provides an example of how poultry can benefit from other animals, thus saving us time and money. Our turkey poults are getting larger now. They’re feathering out and getting ready to be moved to their outside pen. The problem is that our property is an old hay field, and the grass grows with a vengeance. The area where we’ve decided to put the turkeys has remnants of an old concrete foundation where our barn used to branch out in an “L” shape, until a tornado took the wing off in the 1950s. We can’t mow it with the lawn mower or the blades will hit that foundation and break. The grass has gotten so out of control now, that if we were to let our turkeys out, we wouldn’t find them again until Thanksgiving!
A couple Saturdays ago, we decided we would weed whip the area. So, we got out the stinky, noisy weed whipper and started at the tall grass. Then we looked over the fence at the goats munching on the same green grass, and thought, Hmmm … Maybe we should just move the goats? The grass would serve as free food for the goats, and at the same time, the turkey run would get mowed down a bit, without having to spend money on gas and waste a whole Saturday weed whipping. If you take it one step further, the turkey droppings will serve as fertilizer next spring for the garden, and the plants will benefit from the whole system … Full Circle!
Chickens Helping the Garden
This is our first year having a garden at this house, but at our last house, we would let the chickens into the garden area in the fall to take down any remaining plants. They would churn up the dirt and their droppings would act as fertilizer for the plants the following year.
This year, we’ve started our large compost pile at the back of the property. It consists largely of chicken bedding and droppings. We are letting it break down a bit over the summer so that this fall we can spread it over the garden area to decompose further and work it into the soil the following spring. The nitrogen rich compost will fertilize the plants and add organic matter to our clay-laden soil.
We’ve also started bagging our grass clippings when we mow our lawn, and using it in the chicken coops as bedding. The green grass layers well in the compost heap with the straw and pine shavings. (For more great advice on how chickens can help in the garden, read Rebecca Nickols’ series Gardening with Chickens.)
Geese Helping Chickens
If everything works out, we are due to get some goslings from our neighbor. When he offered them to us, my first thought was, “If we don’t want to eat them, what good are they?” Until one evening we were on our way home from the store when we approached our neighbor’s fence and saw that his geese were chasing a raccoon out of his yard. Like us, he raises some adorable little bantams and game birds, which would serve as a tasty snack for a raccoon, but that poor critter didn’t stay over the fence for long. The geese charged, and squawked and opened their gigantic wings and flapped the raccoon right out of the yard. It was quite an intimidating spectacle, and I would challenge any predator animal to go against a gander of geese.
Guineas Helping the Dog
Any time you free range poultry in your yard, there is going to be the benefit of insect control. Our chickens pluck insects out of the air and gobble up grubs they find under leaves. But guineas are known to be the champions of insect removal.
I started thinking about raising guineas a couple of years ago when our vet recommended the Lyme disease vaccine for our dog. Lyme disease is a disease spread by deer ticks. Both dogs and humans can get it, and it is a very painful and debilitating illness. When we lived in the woods, we would vaccinate our dog every year. But I still had an unsettling feeling every time I would have to remove a blood-swollen tick from our dog’s skin.
I started reading about raising a flock of guineas and found testimony on different poultry forums that a flock of guineas had wiped out tick problems for many families. We’ve since moved to an area where the ticks don’t seem to be as prevalent, but we do have deer, so it’s not out of the question. And with our new puppy Oliver, a flock of guineas might be in our future.
Ducks Helping the Dog
At our other house we also had a large pond, and it was surrounded by woods. A beautiful setting to be sure, but in the summer, a perfect combination for breeding mosquitoes. The mosquitoes were TERRIBLE at our old house. We couldn’t be outside after dusk without soaking ourselves in some sort of bug spray that smelled like gasoline and left your skin feeling like slime. I always worried about our dogs, as it’s not healthy to spray bug spray on animals. Our dogs would be covered in mosquitoes, and I would have to bring them inside every evening to escape the swarming. I was diligent about heart-worm prevention, and needless to say, we were constantly trying to reduce the mosquito population. We would turn over wheel barrels, 5-gallon buckets and any other vessel that might hold standing water as to not attract mosquitoes, which lay their eggs in stagnant water. But I always felt as though our efforts were rather pointless … What’s a 5-gallon bucket when you have a pond the size of a small lot?
One year we decided to raise some farm ducks. Going into it, we really didn’t get the ducks for pest control, but after having them ranging around the yard, and swimming in the pond, we did notice a decrease in the mosquito population. The bloodsucking pests never disappeared completely, but when it comes to ducks, they are a multipurpose mosquito-battling animal. They will eat the larvae in the water and adult mosquitoes in the air, making our yard a more comfortable space for both ourselves and our dog.
Variety Among Chickens
Even if some of you are only able to raise chickens, sometimes it’s beneficial to raise more than one breed. If you spend some time on the Mother Earth News Pickin’ Chicken App, you’ll find that each breed of chicken was bred to serve a particular roll on the farm or in the backyard coop. Weather it be prolific egg laying, broody tendencies and the ability to hatch new chicks, or heartiness in winter climates, each breed helps to round out the other. For even more information on picking a breed of chicken that’s right for you, check out Jennifer Burke’s post The Best Breed of Chicken for Your Flock.
Ask any poultry keeper and they can attest that fowl make great companions. Their quirky little personalities and set-in-their-way habits are as reliable and steady as an old friend. And while entertainment, and the joy that farm fowl can bring to a backyard is enough for some to go “chicken crazy,” any keeper of chickens, ducks, geese or guineas can see that poultry can bring so many different and helpful additions to a home.
Do you have an example of companion animals on your farm? I’d love to hear about it! Feel free to leave a comment below, or on the Community Chickens Facebook page.