Parts and Patterns

Julie bought me the book Holostic Management 5 or more years ago. We took a stab at reading it at the time but really couldn’t get through the meat. We had a conceptual understanding of grazing but no real hands-on experience…and experience was needed. So we put the book aside.

I am overdue for another stab at the book and as I read it again I am fascinated. This time I seem to be getting it…or, at least, getting more of it. And that’s good since I sent a copy of it to dad’s friend Marty…and I know he’ll breeze through the book.

Chapter 3 kicks off a discussion of Jans Christian Smuts’ book Holism and Evolution, presenting the concept that, though we tend to break things down into individual parts, we need to look at wholes. In a recent post I discussed the loss of native diversity because in our local oak/hickory forests, Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids are a part of the whole. Remove that part and the whole is diminished by the loss…the remainder becomes increasingly fragile.

The book gives several examples of ecological degradation caused by predator removal. If I trap out the minks I will open a void in predation. Minks eat mice. Extra mice may be a benefit to other predators but the loss of the mink makes our farm slightly more fragile. What happens when I kill the mink and disease removes the coyotes and foxes? Can the owls pick up that much slack?

But who cares about mice and minks and owls? We are farmers. We grow cows and pigs and chickens. And minks eat chickens. And owls eat chickens. So why not just kill the minks and scare off the owls and raise chickens in greater security?

Because of the whole interconnected web occurring on the farm. Owls also eat skunks. If there are no owls what will eat skunks? Maybe I could get a big dog? But that won’t eat large numbers of mice. So…barn cats? But those will eat song birds too. I could keep searching for substitutions to force my will on the land but it is not hard to imagine that I would be better off nestling, rather than imposing, my farm into the countryside. To make my farm an enhancement of the natural order rather than a replacement of the natural order. I need to find a pattern of farming that compliments the patterns of the landscape.

So I have to manage for diversity. And that includes making room for my enemy, the mink.

But I also need to recognize and enhance patterns. Hackberry trees grow alongside walnut trees. Gooseberry grows in their shade. Opossums eat gooseberries. Squirrels eat and plant walnuts, acorns and hickory nuts. Hawks eat Squirrels. All of them add manure.

The wildlife can’t begin to eat the gooseberry, nut and squirrel crop. I happen to like gooseberries, hickory nuts and squirrel. I have to find ways to fit myself into the landscape without diminishing the whole. Further, I have to fit cows, pigs and chickens into the landscape while retaining and respecting coyotes, foxes, mink, mice, squirrels, owls, hawks, deer, raccoons, groundhogs, skunks, opossums, rabbits, gooseberries, walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns and Yellow Lady’s Slipper orchids.

There are patterns holding this abundance of life together and my job, as a farmer, is to weave myself into the pattern, not to unravel it.

That only scratches the surface of the chapter but it is enough for today’s posting.

How are you weaving yourself into the patterns you observe?

4 thoughts on “Parts and Patterns

  1. Isn’t putting chickens onto the farm adding a part to the diversity that will cause another ripple in the diversity mix? But what if the chickens didn’t mix with the other animals. If you keep the chickens separate from the mink, fencing to”protect” the hens, then the mink can continue their mouse hunt and the hens can lay their eggs without fear of the minks. Almost two separate systems.

    • There is some degree of separation that works. But minks are crafty killers. Foxes can just jump over the fence. We know we are going to lose some birds.

      Chickens are used to speed biological time. They also add fertility, utilize insect protein and sanitize while providing a small boost to the bottom line. And we will never be sustainable if we don’t pay attention to the bottom line. We will also fail our sustainability test if we aren’t having fun. Chickens are a hoot.

      • Do you plan on losing a percentage of your chickens? The place we’re moving just lost the last of their chickens (5) to a bobcat they have on the property and want to keep. I’m not for eradicating all predators, but their must be a line that after which you don’t give up any more animals, isn’t there? I’m also feeling partly culpable as I built the hen house that the bobcat entered for dinner. I thought I had things sealed up.

        • This is worth a whole post of its own.

          Everything likes to eat chicken. Chickens are going to die. That’s just how it is. The only way you won’t lose chickens is if you don’t own chickens.

          When you have small numbers of birds each bird matters. When you have a few hundred birds you may not even notice that some went missing. As the flock grows you spend less time managing predators and more time planning for it. We are at the point where we have to start pullets every 6 months to keep active layers. If one flock gets wiped out by a predator (or a tornado) we will be back online again quickly. Just roll the birds through. Rotate breeds so you can easily track flock age.

          But for a small back yard or garden flock? Just lick your wounds, learn your lessons and buy more started pullets from CL.

          I have a lot more to say on this topic. I’ll try to write something up soon.

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