I often hear farmers complain of having too much work and not enough time. We, like many, have made farming a hobby and eventually hope for self-sufficiency. One way to minimize time expended on work is to take advantage of wild behavior, and work with nature instead of against it. We have often been amazed at the difference in behavior among “farm” animals as opposed to “wild” ones. It always seemed like it would be easier to have wild animals that can fend for themselves. For us, this has been the case. It takes only about 20 minutes in the morning and evening to tend to our animals, since they can fend for themselves and really only get treats, instead of “feed.”
When I started with pigs, I was told to have a farrowing pen, to separate each sow from the boars and each other, and the piglets would need a heat lamp or the parents would eat the piglets, etc. When you watch a nature show, the pigs behave very differently-they cooperate. Man has, by selective breeding for rapid growth, weeded out the wild instinct and produced “farm animals” that require too much work to maintain, and could never survive on their own. In the wild, any mother or father that attacks its own young would very quickly eliminate its own genes from the gene pool.
We have raised pastured potbellied pigs to cooperate, by culling based on behavior. The mean pigs are the first to get invited to dinner. Our boars play with the piglets, the sows make a common nest and share nursing. One sow who delivered in 15°F weather lost her litter, but adopted several piglets from another sow who delivered two days later when it was above freezing. The mothers slept in a ring with the piglets in a pile in the middle. The obvious advantage to us-less work.
Another advantage of potbellies is that they can compost in about 12 hours what would take a compost pile a season to break down. They eat virtually anything organic, from garden waste and peelings, to the leftover parts of chickens after butchering.
Because of their small size, the meat can be stored on the hoof, and processed when convenient by a single person in about four hours without any special heavy equipment. They also act as our plow, so I can farm without a tractor. Starting a few weeks before planting, they are fenced into the garden area where they turn over the soil, eat all the weed roots and grubs, and fertilize it all at the same time. When it’s time to plant, I only have to fence them out and start planting-no need to till-only mulch. Since they are pastured, they are leaner and have a flavor more akin to wild boar, rather than the bland “other white meat.” We don’t castrate or have farrowing pens, or any of the other conventional things that “pig farmers” do. We get good quality, good tasting pork with minimal effort, all by selecting for wild behavior. It is also fun to watch two boars do their dance of dominance where they try to flip each other over. So far, I’ve not noticed much of a market for potbellies, but they pay for themselves in meat, cut down my farm work, and provide entertainment.
Soay are considered a landrace animal which means they are essentially wild. They look rather like miniature bighorn and were a common domestic breed about 1,500 years ago. They were forgotten on a few islands off the coast of Scotland, mainly the islands of Soay and Hirta. What survived to breed were the heartiest little sheep (less than 80 pounds), that could survive on scrub and have no lambing problems, and grow fast-about four to six months to reach adulthood. Again, they fit the wild type of animal that doesn’t require my presence to thrive. The saying about Soay is that “the only tool you need during lambing season is a pair of binoculars,” and so far that has been the case for all the Soay breeders I’ve talked to. When they lamb, I find out the next day, when there’s a lamb running alongside its mother.
Their main job is to bushog the fields. They require fallow hay or adequate pasture, occasional treats of grain or loose salt (to train them to come when and where you want them), access to water and shelter from sleet and heat, but not from snow or cold. They can basically take care of themselves. They do not do well with rich feed, like alfalfa or commercial sheep feed. To them that would be like a human trying to survive on cake. I fenced a corridor lined with rock going to the watering pond so they regularly are walking over crushed rock, and I have not had to trim their hooves or do any foot care. If you wanted to collect their wool, you could, but you’d have to shear them early, or they will simply scrape off their wool on the closest tree or fence post as soon as it warms up in the spring. Again, they are raised to be wild, no tail docking, shearing or castrating needed. I have also observed in my herd a behavior reminiscent of wild musk ox. When our Pyrenees guard dog got too close to the lambs for the liking of the parents, the mothers formed a line with the babies behind them, and the ram chased the dog away. The market for Soay is so far strong enough that I actually have yet to eat one, but I’m told they taste like elk. Most breeders take orders a year in advance. They are an excellent choice for the homesteader with a day job and have been in my experience, the easiest animals to raise. Think of them as goats in terms of what they eat, but are much easier to fence.
We have birds doing work, too. The guineas and chickens perform tick and fly control, and the geese mow the lawn. They are all also a source of meat and eggs. In Kentucky, coyotes have been known to be a problem with smaller animals. So far we haven’t lost any to them, but before we had guard animals I know my biggest boar, Lucky, fought off some and protected the piglets who took care of his wounds after the fight. He has since been promoted to guard, and is not on the list for a dinner invitation.
Now we also have a burro and a Pyrenees dog. I know of at least one coyote who lost to the dog, and since then all the coyote tracks stop about 50 feet from the fence. Hunters talk about coyote tactics to draw a guard dog away from the flock, but that hasn’t worked since we also have a burro who works as a defensive guard. She rounds up the sheep and leads them away from danger (if they haven’t already done it on their own), while the dog attacks.
The Pyrenees were raised to defend against wolves and mountain lions, and are four to five times the size of a coyote, so have little problem with them. They are otherwise friendly with the other animals with whom they are raised. They are also people friendly, but do bark at strangers.
With different types of animals of varying sizes, the fencing I’ve found to work best for us is the standard 16-foot welded mesh cattle panels. They can be attached to six foot T posts with the same clips that you would use on barbed wire. The final price is around a dollar per linear foot, so all you need is a large bolt cutter, a post pounder, a standard pliers and a fencing pliers. At corners I cut off the last vertical rod and wind the tines around the last rod of the other panel. That produces a corner as strong as you would normally see with a six-inch wooden post, with a lot less work. The result is a galvanized steel fence that requires almost no maintenance, should last for decades, will hold all the above animals except the smaller birds and piglets, and can be readily moved, if needed. You can also cut them down for use as gates by either bending exposed tines into a loop around an adjacent panel or use spring clips as a hinge, and latch.