A neo-peasant farm in Wessex

Right, no more faffing around. Without further ado, I’m going to describe the layout of an ‘average’ 10 hectare holding in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, circa 2039, as introduced in various preceding posts. The holding, remember, has 10 whole-time equivalent workers, and ten dependents (children/elders). I’m going to play around with those figures in due course, but let’s stick with them for now – so imagine 10 people doing the work implied in what I outline below. As to what energy sources they’ll have available…well, I’ll come to that when I’m ready.

Please shout out if you don’t like any of the numbers I’m about to throw around

1.The structure of the holding

First, I’m going to take out 3.5% or 3,500m2 of the land area on my 10ha holding for houses, outbuildings and tracks.

Each of the five houses on the holding gets their own 250m2 organic vegetable garden, totalling 0.125ha in all.

There’s just under 1.4ha of cropland, farmed organically, which the residents jointly tend.

There’s about 6ha of grass for grazing, comprising about 5ha of permanent pasture, a 0.5ha orchard with fruit and nut trees and grass in between for grazing (the trees may need some protection), and almost 0.5ha of temporary grass/clover ley in the cropland available for grazing.

There’s about 2.5ha of woodland.

2.The cropland

In a real situation, I think people would grow a pretty wide range of crops, a lot of them minor ones occupying small areas. I don’t see it as my job to lay out in exhaustive detail exactly what all these crops might be, so for this exercise I’m restricting the cropping to a relatively small range of fairly obvious crops. I’m interested in any suggestions for refinements, particularly if they come with reasons as to why it’s important to include them.

In relation to crop yields, I have three sources of data. First, my own data back from the days around 2010/11 when I was young and enthusiastic and I could be bothered to keep meticulous cropping records. Second, I have data in the form of a sneak preview from my friend Rebecca Laughton’s fascinating forthcoming study of small farm productivity in the UK. And finally, I have data from my copy of the 2011/12 Organic Farm Management Handbook. If I get a few more donations to the website I might splash out on a newer version, and update the figures. In keeping with my preference to err on the side of under-estimating rather than over-estimating yields, in each case I’ve taken whichever of my three data sources reports the lowest average yield. I think the yield per hectare figures I’m assuming generally are on the low side, but I’d welcome any comments.

Other sources of data I’ve used are further referenced below.

One other point: some people like to stress the yield advantages of backyard scale, labour intensive mixed cropping and might therefore think that the yield data I’m using from commercial-scale single-crop systems underestimates the possibilities. I’ve explained here why I’m a bit sceptical about the claims made for mixed cropping. And in any case, as I’ve just said, I don’t mind underestimating a bit. Where I have made minor allowance for the benefits of small scale is in the issue of edge. I don’t go with the over-mystical enthusiasm for edge associated with the wilder shores of the permaculture movement, but look at it this way: a square 10ha field has a perimeter of 1,265m. You could sow wheat in the field while establishing around 300 apple trees around the perimeter with essentially no loss of growing space for the wheat. A cereal farmer with a large number of 10ha fields isn’t going to do that. But 10 neo-peasants living in a 10ha field probably are. So in that way we can increase the effective growing area of the field using nothing but the magic of human labour and linear planting, so long as we don’t push that logic too far…

OK, so let’s look at what’s in the shared cropland. First up, I’m going to set aside about 350m2 to grow hemp and flax in order to make clothes. Personally I prefer wearing cotton and synthetic fibres and would probably be willing to spend some of my off-farm household income on that if it wasn’t too expensive, but let’s go with the home-grown option. I’ve taken figures for hemp and flax from Simon Fairlie’s ‘Can Britain feed itself?’1 – it amounts to about 7kg of fibre per person per year.

The rest of the cropland is split into an eight course rotation, each course occupying just under 1,700m2. The rotation I envisage is as follows (though not necessarily in this chronological sequence):

1 – Grass/clover ley (available for ruminant grazing)

2 – Grass/clover ley

3 – Potatoes, split between earlies yielding 6.4 tonnes per hectare (25%) and maincrop yielding 12.7 tha-1 (75%)

4 – A short-straw spring wheat, yielding 3.5 tha-1

5 – A long-straw, traditional variety winter wheat with low fertility requirements, yielding 1.75 tha-1

6 – Legumes, split 50/50 between broad beans for the summer and drying beans for the winter (both 2.5 tha-1)

7 – Vegetables: split between cabbages (75%) yielding 35 tha-1 and swede (25%) yielding 24 tha-1.

8 – Vegetables: a third each of onions (19 tha-1), leeks (11 tha-1) and carrots (35 tha-1)

I’ve grown wheat on small scales from time to time with mixed results – the main problem being that the small-scale sowing and especially harvesting technologies I’ve had available weren’t that great. In a society with a lot of small-scale wheat cultivation, that would probably change. Wheat’s co-product, straw, would be in high demand around the holding – one reason for growing a traditional long-straw variety, as suggested by Michael under a previous post.

Yield figures for potatoes, wheat and legumes are further corrected for seed input. The other crops aren’t corrected, on the grounds that it’s fairly negligible.

3.The Garden

In the garden, I’m projecting seven crops, though in reality there’d be more:

1 – Espalier apple on the south-facing edge: just over 3 trees on average in each of the 5 gardens, yielding 9kg of apples per tree.

2 – Tomatoes: 30 plants per garden yielding 2kg per plant

3 – Strawberries: about 80m2 yielding 6.3 tha-1

4 – Chard: about 40m2 yielding 30.5 tha-1 (cut and come again)

5 – Courgettes: about 40m2 yielding 40.8 tha-1

6 – Lettuce: about 40m2 yielding 3.3 tha-1

7 – Kale: about 40m2 yielding 35.7 tha-1

Fertility in the garden would come from compost generated from around the site. I’ll write more about fertility in another post.

4.The Orchard

In a 0.5 ha orchard, I think there would be space for:

  • 56 apple trees on MM106 rootstocks, producing about 26kg per tree
  • 47 pear trees on Quince A rootstocks, producing about 17kg per tree
  • 58 plum trees on St Julien A rootstocks, producing about 12kg per tree
  • 47 hazel bushes, producing about 3kg per tree

Yield data here is from Harry Baker’s lower estimates in his The Fruit Garden Displayed – an old one, but a good one. Hazel was a key part of the pre-agricultural British diet, and is one of the few realistic sources of non-animal dietary fat in these parts. Perhaps there’s a case for growing more? Then again, our ancestors didn’t have grey squirrels to contend with…

5.Livestock and Meat

(i) Cows

I have little experience of dairying, so I’m a bit uncertain of these figures and would welcome any comments. But the most efficient way of getting useful human food from grass is via a dairy cow, so there will be cows on my holding. These will be more or less pure grass-fed house cows, not souped up (or at least soya and cerealed-up) champion milkers of the modern kind. They will have preferential access to the clover-rich leys on the cropland and will otherwise be part of a grazing rotation over the permanent pasture. I’m assuming 1 ha of grazing will feed a cow and her calves over the year, and yield 4,000 litres of milk, plus 90kg of meat per hectare per year from the calf (slaughtered at 2 years, and with some kept as cow replacements after 10 years). There’d probably be a need for careful pasture management (and maybe occasional reseeding?) to ensure a relatively high-productivity pasture (white clover, perennial ryegrass etc.)

There would be 3 house cows on the holding. About a fifth of their milk would be kept for direct human consumption, which works out at about 300ml per day for each of the 20 people on the holding. The rest of the milk would be turned into butter and cheese. I’m assuming about half of it will be devoted to butter, with 20 litres of milk producing 1kg of butter (I’m anxious that my neo-peasants have enough fat to eat and to cook with). And just under a third is devoted to cheese, with 8 litres of milk going into each kg of cheese. The butter and cheese-making processes give the co-products of buttermilk and whey respectively (90l of buttermilk per 100l of milk for butter, and 87l of whey per 100l of milk for cheese). A little bit of this will be eaten directly by the people on the holding, but most of it will be used to feed pigs (see below).

(ii) Sheep

I’m assuming that a hectare of permanent pasture could support 6 ewes plus their lambs (and a ram, or part thereof) year round. I think that’s a pretty low estimate, but it provides a bit of extra margin for the cows. The sheep would be on just under 3 ha of the permanent pasture, and there would be about 18 ewes in all, each producing 1.5 lambs annually on average. Ewes would be culled on average at five years, with lambs raised to replace them. On the basis of those assumptions, the sheep would produce 544kg of meat (lamb and mutton) per year, plus some wool and other bits and pieces which would doubtless come in handy. Rotating them around the pasture with the cows would help to keep the worm burden down.

(iii) Pigs

I’ll start with the assumption that I can raise two pigs in the woodland. I know this is cheating a bit, but I’ll have a clearing in the woodland in which I can grow some clover and fodder beet for them. They’ll also get to eat waste material from the gardens and kitchens (there’s no swill ban in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex). This is pretty much what I do now, and I reckon I could easily raise two almost-default pigs this way. But I’m worried that my neo-peasants aren’t going to have enough easily available fat, so I’d like to raise some more pigs. If I reserve all but 5% of the buttermilk and whey from the dairy as pig food, and on the assumption that you have to put about six times more energy into a pig than you get out, I reckon I can raise another four pigs from the dairy. I think there’ll also be a bit of a surplus of potatoes and beans from the field crops, so I’m going to devote something like 650kg of the potato crop and 150kg of the bean crop to pig food, getting an extra three pigs. And that should give us about 400kg of pig meat per year altogether (I’m assuming smaller, leaner pigs at slaughter than the current commercial norm – killing out at 44kg, which was the weight of my default-raised Tamworths last year). We should be able to get a good few kilos of lard out of the pig meat (and a little more from the beef) which, together with the butter, will be our cooking fat. Having nine pigs in the woodland may trash the ground a bit, but on the basis of my current pig-keeping experiments I think it’d probably be OK – the average holding would just be raising weaners during the warmer months, which limits the damage.

(iv) Ducks and/or hens

Personally I prefer ducks to hens – better for eating slugs, the No.1 garden pest in Wessex. Though hens are better with some of the insect pests. And ducks’ waddling is less destructive of the ground than chickens’ scratching. And since I don’t have a TV or young children, ducks are also better at the slapstick humour otherwise missing from my life. But, ducks or hens, my assumptions are basically the same – I’ll have ten of them, each laying on average 285 eggs per year, and requiring about 10kg of feed a week. Half of that will come from their foraging free-range – well, not entirely free-range, but probably a lot more free-range than the ‘free-range’ products in the shops. The other half will come from the wheat. Talking of free-range, that reminds me that at some point I need to discuss fencing. But not right now.

At the end of their laying lives I guess I’d put the ducks and/or hens in the pot. But the amount of meat isn’t much to write home about, so I’ll ignore it. Meat hens/ducks of course are an option, but a less efficient one. I’m not including any here.

(v) Geese

There’ll be five geese, to be eaten at Christmas, or solstice, or whatever Dionysian rites there are in 2039 to keep the winter blues at bay. The geese will fight it out with the cows and sheep for grazing during the year.

(vi) Bees

There’ll be bees, helping with pollination as well as providing honey, wax, propolis etc. But I don’t think there’ll be much honey, because they need it more than us and we won’t be poisoning them with sugar. So let us say we’ll have just 10kg each year to put by for a rainy day.

(vii) Fish

Fish are efficient converters of fish-food into human-food, and before we became habituated to sea-fish and salmonids, fishponds were a ubiquitous part of the farmed British landscape. I’m sure that there would be neo-peasant fish farmers in Wessex. But most fish farming systems I’ve seen are high input as well as high output and quite energy/building intensive, so I really have no idea how to make realistic estimates. Therefore I’m going to ignore farmed fish. Likewise with wild freshwater fish. I’m sure people in Wessex would fish in its lakes and rivers, though with so many people around they’d have to be careful not to fish them all out. So I’m going to leave freshwater fish as another under-exploited margin in my analysis.

Sea-fish, on the other hand, seems like a margin worth exploring, given the historic importance of fishing in Wessex, the hundreds of miles of coastline, and the nutritional excellence of wild fish. But it’s a bit tricky coming up with an estimate of sustainable catch. And perhaps also thinking about fishing technology in a potentially energy-constrained future – though, more than with most things, perhaps the sun, wind and brine of the maritime environment suggests ways that it could be done using mostly renewable inputs.

I confess that I was fairly ignorant about the UK fishing industry until I obtained a copy of the UK Sea Fisheries Statistics and achieved instant enlightenment. Did you know, for example, that 418,000 tonnes of pelagic fish were landed by UK vessels using demersal trawl/seine gear in 2014? Seriously? Well do try to keep up.

I thought long and hard about how best to convert current catch statistics into something that seemed likely to be sustainable. In the end, I plumped for the simple expedient of limiting the catch to that which is currently brought in by UK boats of under 24m, constituting a mere 25% of their total catch. Allocated out on a per capita basis that gives everyone about 2½kg of fish per year each.

My friend Paul has used a more elaborate methodology, looking at estimated sustainable fish stocks from the European Atlas of the Seas, applying it to fishery zones of the western seaboard and allocating it out accordingly to the people of Wessex. He comes up with the much larger figure of 36½kg of fish per person per year (doubtless my figures are biased towards the considerably smaller onshore fishery while his include more distant offshore fisheries). I propose in time-honoured fashion to split the difference, giving my neo-peasants 19½ kg of fish each per year. This, incidentally, is the only source of food they get from off the holding.

(viii) Meat – A Summary

The holding’s pastures drive its meat productivity, particularly through the medium of its dairy cows. So my assumption of 1 cow plus calves per hectare is key. I hope it sounds reasonable. To put it into context, in his ‘restoration agriculture’ system, Mark Shepard proposes to produce just under 20,000 litres of milk and just over 1,200kg of meat from one hectare of his Wisconsin farm2, something that elsewhere I’ve suggested seems implausibly optimisitc3. Here, I’m proposing to produce 4,000 litres of milk and 168kg of meat from one hectare of a Wessex neo-peasant farm. I guess you could call Wessex the Wisconsin of England, only with a few more people and a few less lakes. And, apparently, a lot less meat and milk.

6.Other Food

It shouldn’t be hard to produce 15kg of fresh shiitake mushrooms on logs cut from the woodland each year.

And it shouldn’t be hard for the kids to harvest 10kg of blackberries from the woodland and hedges, along with 10kg of sea buckthorn berries that will have been strategically planted along one of the holding’s many edges. In fact, there’s huge scope for growing a lot more in the way of fruit and nuts along these edges, but I’ll leave things at that low level to create another underexploited margin.

I’m not convinced that there’s all that much scope for bushmeat from the holding. I doubt many people will be raising game birds in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there’s no Duchy of Cornwall, remember), so that pretty much leaves us with deer, squirrels, rabbits and pigeons. Usually, I find it more trouble than it’s worth to go after these creatures, though sometimes either luck or fury at their crop depredations brings some of their meat to my table. Teenagers with guns around the place can help – though remember there’s 20 people in every 10 hectares, so if you’ve got a rifle make sure you aim it downwards. Anyway, I’m estimating a parsimonious 4kg of bushmeat per holding per year.

Doubtless there’s some scope for collecting wild plants and mushrooms, and for developing invertebrate farming with good input/output ratios (mussels, snails, insects etc.) But again I’m going to leave all that as an unexploited margin.

~~~

Well, there you have it. The full dope on the neo-peasant holding. In my next post I’ll plug all of that into my magic spreadsheet to reveal the nutritional consequences of the Wessex way of life.

References

  1. Fairlie, S. 2007/8. ‘Can Britain feed itself?’ The Land, 4, 18-26.
  1. Shepard, M. 2013. Restoration Agriculture, Acres USA.
  1. http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=704

37 thoughts on “A neo-peasant farm in Wessex

  1. Pretty much the way I think agriculture should evolve in an energy-constraint society and pretty much what I try out here. Main problem seems to be energy and resources. Not as much fossil fuels but keeping the whole thing going fertility-wise. My sheep became cobalt deficient after a while on the sandy soils here in Flanders and lacked proteïne so had to much worm-burden. So I had to increase the feed in the winter with beets and corn and buy in minerals from outside my farm. They died of CCN ( a kind of polio but are fine now). When I see how much the cows are fed at my neighbours dairy farm I guess purely grassfed beef or sheep would not be possible here. The vegetable garden is no problem and I would even expand it. The sheep and cows and definitely the geese would bring in more manure than you can handle. Also pigs in woodland go fine, believe me. Nuts (walnuts in particular) and berries require minimum input and give plenty of food.
    The overall picture would work as you describe it but every farm would have to look at is particular piece of land and tweak the numbers or change the farming practices based on their experience with their farm.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Very interesting. As a vegetarian I miss the alternative options of getting fat and protein from rape seed, walnuts (remember climate change) and quinoa. Of course, you did explicitly say that you were not going to go into the full diversity of options, and quite rightly so. And I’m also well aware that the upshot of this comment is that I should be finding this information, not you. But the mediterranean climate is moving towards us at 10 m/d, so I think more talk of olive oil would be a good idea.

      • Clem, I tried to find it back, but couldn’t. My memory said it was in a paper by Scott Doney, but when I searched through a few of those that didn’t turn up the info.

        Eric and Michael, global population is also much higher now than it was in past times when peasant societies used some land that could support arable cropping for animal grazing. But yes, in many regions there is some land that can support animal grazing but not arable cropping, and it’s fine for me to graze animals on that land. I’m not looking for 100% of the population to be 100% vegetarian, but the studies that I’ve seen that suggest Britain can feed itself from British soil do that having us eat less meat, because animal husbandry produces so few calories per acre, so I miss vegetable fat and protein as a significant contributor if not as a be all and end all.

        • I think everyone who cares about animal welfare and the future of mankind should avoid that formula, “eat less meat”, like the plague.
          It does nothing to address the underlying economic relationships between subsidized exporters like Britain and countries armwrestled into allowing cheap UK meat to flood their markets – people may feel better not doing it (eating meat) here, but it still is BEING DONE.

          Secondly, I’d like to expand your comparison between grazing animals and growing vegetable fats/proteins:
          On what British soil types/rainfall areas/climates does the latter produce more fat/protein (extracted, mind!) with less energy input and at least comparable carbon storage results?

    • Erik, I suspect you’re underestimating the labor cost of your alternatives to animal products, particularly in any kind of peasant/neo-peasant context. Do you know any vegetarians that grow their own rapeseed for oil? Grass-fed animal fat, especially butter, is already a reality on lots of small homesteads where the farmers/homesteaders/neo-peasants aim to produce all or most of their own fats. Is there a comparable example anywhere of vegetarians doing the same with rapeseed (or any other annual oilseed crop for that matter)? I haven’t seen it, and I think that speaks to the relative efficiency.

      Replacing grass with tilled crops raises other problems, too, which Chris has already discussed.

      • Yea, a question of Holistic Context, methinks.
        If you’re in a mediterranean or even warmer climate, rapeseed is not needed because tree crops can be the primary source of fats.
        If you’re in a cold climate, vegetarianism is not needed because the only oil sources are annuals while good pasture goes to waste or is stocked with doomed hobby horsies.

  3. Excellent! I might have missed this in an earlier post, but is the idea that each 10ha unit would be self-sufficient in food and fiber, or would there be specialization and trade? Trading with professional fishermen seems a better route than trying to run a small fishery on your own. I also think that sugar beets (sugar for jam as a sweetener but mostly as a preservative) would be appropriate, but that technology doesn’t scale down to small size. So maybe there would be a regional sugar mill. An alternative for sugar which I highly recommend would be sugar maple (Acer saccharinum) which has been for centuries a sugar source in boreal North America. It’s a forest tree; you tap the rising sap in late winter and boil it down for a delicious syrup, or dehydrate further for crystallized sugar. After 80 years you cut it for timber.
    No barley? In his classic work on East Anglian peasant economy (The Common Stream) Rowland Parker cites data of nine pints of ale per day for farm workers. I assume this is a low-alcohol, live ale. Good for social cohesion, probiotics, escape from reality. On a similar note, how about grapes? In ‘Soil and Civilization’ (1952), the author (Edward Hyams) claims that English wines are the world’s finest (which got a good laugh here in California). Grapes could give you wine, raisins for your chutney, and grape seed oil. A bench-top expeller press would let you make grape seed oil, hazelnut oil (delicious, and similar chemically to olive oil), walnut oil, etc.
    The post above mentioned (in jest?) olive oil. Totally the wrong climate, and yet, in Japan, on the island Shodoshima, there is an expanding olive oil industry in a place that gets two meters of rain in summer (totally wrong for olives), and they’re producing a very nice, delicate olive oil. Many possibilities.

    • “Rowland Parker cites data of nine pints of ale per day for farm workers. I assume this is a low-alcohol, live ale. Good for social cohesion, probiotics, escape from reality”

      In Somerset farm workers were part paid in cider – not a low alcohol drink. I’ve been told (although I have no source I could reference) that when scything flagons of cider were left at the ends of the field. Not only was the cider potent fuel but rough cider also dries your mouth out and the only thing that cures that feeling is more cider – so on a hot day there was a little more incentive to get to the end of the field.

  4. The numbers come out similar to historic peasant agriculture. Old villages on good land are about a mile apart. A square mile supported 150 – 200 people, including village, church and manor. The surplus produced was sufficient to equip one knight with outfit, battle horse and two squires, which gives an idea of the potential tax base. The land included woodland for fuel and timber as well as pasture land for draft animals. You have described a miniature version of the old open field system, which consisted of two or three great fields of as much as 10,000 acres each, worked jointly and in rotation.

  5. As noted above, the old style peasants had barley in the rotation. It takes 9 kilos of barley to make 20 liters of strong beer. The mash was used again, to make a weak beer for breakfast, and then fed to animals. Barley is less finicky than wheat, ripens earlier and yields half again as much from the same area. Sprouted and malted barley is a source of sugar for fermenting fruits, raising the alcohol percentage. I make barley wine with apples. Barley (5-10%) is also used with wheat to make those big fat peasant loaves of bread. I have grown small plots of barley and wheat, hand harvested, and processed the grains with various contraptions. Works, and demonstrates both the potential and the limitations of hand growing grains. One aspect that is both is that harvesting and processing grain is best done as a communal activity. Also, all those fallen fruits, wormy nuts and unripe ears of grain that fall on the ground during harvesting are just pig fuel.

  6. Thanks for those comments. A few brief replies:

    Rudy – indeed I’d envisage a lot of individual tweaking. The outline above is really just a crude picture of what the ‘average’ farm might look like.

    Erik – a more vegetarian approach could of course produce more food on less land (though I’d still keep some pigs & hens to clean up). Oil would be a problem – nuts are one obvious way to go there, though our climate is still a bit marginal really. No doubt rape has its place (I’ll be talking more about it in future posts) though personally I’m dubious about it nutritionally. Olives – well, if it was feasible to grow those then I’d have to rethink the whole crop cycle. Really, I’m focusing on what’s feasible now despite casting it forward into the future. Who knows, if climate change kills the Gulf Stream we may have to turn to reindeer herding…if we’re lucky.

    Mike – I’ll talk some more about trading in future posts. At the moment I’m just trying to think about what an individual holding might theoretically furnish. Sugar beet – well, there’s another substance I’m dubious about nutritionally, though I don’t deny its usefulness, or the temptation. There’s no sugar beet currently grown commercially in the southwest, though there is in the southeast. Not sure that sugar maples work here either – winters aren’t cold enough. There’s birch sap, I guess. Grapes – yes, I’m sure people would grow them for themselves. They’re scarcely a commercial crop in present-day Wessex but the beauty of the peasant lifestyle is that you grow to suit yourself (hence we also have figs, kiwis etc for home consumption here at Vallis Veg). Barley – yes perhaps I should consider that. Though in my part of Wessex the peasant drink is cider rather than beer, and we have a lot of apples on the holding for people and pigs.

    Hamster – thanks for those interesting observations. But surely the open fields weren’t as big as 10,000 acres – that’s 16 square miles! Current conventional barley yields in the UK are only about 75% that of wheat, but maybe they were higher historically?

  7. Chris, thank you, I stand corrected. Off by two orders of magnitude, whoops!! Make that 100 acres in the old open field system. It’s still a big field. 640 acres per square mile, so two large fields or three smaller ones occupied a third of the land in a holding. I grow heritage barley and speciality wheat. The barley always outdoes the wheat. Sooner ripening, fewer disease issues, higher yield. I haven’t tried it with modern commodity wheat.

    • Then you are of course still correct in saying that barley outgrows wheat – as a peasant, that is.

      The shifting baseline of “establishing a scientific consensus” that modern wheat outproduces other cereal grains comes about by growing every commodity where every variable can be manipulated to achieve high to very high yields, and then moving those commodities to wherever prices are highest.

  8. I’ve milked 1-3 Jersey cows at a time for about the last 10 years, almost all strictly grass (and seasonally hay) fed. My North Carolina location is very different from England or Wisconsin, but it’s a pretty good location all the same, good enough that my county has dozens of viable commercial dairy farms, some that depend substantially on grazing. The best 300 day average I’ve achieved with any cow is probably around 900 gallons. I’ve read of low-input commercial organic farms further north averaging less than that. I would consider 1200-1500 gallons (~10,000-13,000 lbs) a high end estimate for a herd average of all grass-fed organic cows, even larger, higher yielding breeds. I figure I need about 3-4 acres to comfortably maintain a high yielding (by my conventionally very low standards) cow on my pastures, and that’s with lots of temporary fence moving. More frequent fence moves might be reasonable with much larger herd sizes, but for the sake of just a few head of cattle I feel like I probably spend more time than it’s worth rotating cattle already. It varies a lot according to time of year, but on average I’m probably rotating my milking cows every 3-4 days, often with separate/additional rotations for dry cows, heifers, steer, calves, etc. I can typically go 10 months/year on fresh grass and stockpiled fescue. I purchase all my hay for the other two months, and I’m not accounting for that land in my 3-4 acre figure. If I go with the high end 4 acres to adjust for including hay, that would be a high end figure of 900 (average more like 600) gallons from 4 acres per year, and that’s not including any pasture for raising a steer. Averaged out over a 2 year life — although I normally butcher a little younger than that — I’d say that would require at least another acre in my circumstances, possibly closer to 1-1/2 acres. I’m also using AI breeding, so I’m not accounting for feeding a bull. Adding it all up and converting to global-imperialist measurement units, I’d be coming pretty close to your 4000 liter per cow per year figure as a realistic goal (comparable to the high end of what I’ve actually achieved with any cow), but I’d need substantially more land, close to 2-1/2 hectares for that cow and one calf. (If I’m keeping that calf to 2 years old, I probably should be accounting for 2 calves, though.) On average England or Wisconsin probably has better quality grass than I do, which would make higher yields per cow and higher stocking densities possible, but based on what I’ve read about low-input commercial organic farms in areas like Wisconsin, I still think you’d need at least half as much land for the same output. So I’d say your estimates strike me as pretty close to realistic but probably a little on the high end. The nearly 20,000 liter/hectare figure strikes me as wildly unrealistic.

  9. Given my experience, I wonder, too, if you’re accounting for any learning curve and time to select and breed for cattle well suited to the whole management system. I think it could take any given farmer 10-30 years to get pretty close to what might be a reasonable long-term average.

  10. Another curiosity on your numbers. Your butter yield seems to be about 4.8% by weight of your milk yield. 4.8% is a reasonable fat content for a high butterfat breed, so that makes me wonder if butter yield is the same as fat percentage. In other words, if you make butter from 4.8% butterfat milk — this may be a dumb question — do you get 4.8% of the weight of the milk in butter with 100% efficiency? Does it perfectly correlate like that? Is butter pure fat by weight? If you make ghee from butter, what are you removing? Perhaps you’re (at least implicitly) figuring less than 100% efficiency on a butter yield that exceeds 1 lb of butter per lb of butterfat. In any case, hand skimming cream to make butter I don’t get anywhere near that kind of yield (2.2 lbs of butter from 5.3 gallons of milk). I don’t have much use for 0% butterfat skim milk anyway, so the efficiency isn’t an issue for me, but I wonder what kind of skimming efficiency I’m attaining with hand skimming/ladling. I figure about 1/4 lb of butter per gallon, maybe a little less.

  11. Thanks all for those additional interesting comments. Some feedback from those who are out there doing it is especially welcome! I’m heading away for a few days and I can’t respond right now, but I’ll come back to this next week. ‘Til then…

  12. Eric, thank you for comments about cows. Now we know why traditional peasants insisted on using fragile sheep as dairy animals. Sheep cheese was prized for its keeping qualities. They relied mostly on goats for milk and counted wealth in cows. In “10 Acres enough”, written just before the US Civil War and republished last century, the author paid a premium for a dairy cow that gave an astonishing 5 gallons a day. She would be hamburger by today’s standards. Your discussion of the pasture requirements for cows provides insight into other traditional peasant practices. There just wasn’t enough room for everybody to have a cow. The square mile had to provide grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, pasture, woodlot, fish, water, fiber and surplus for taxes. That surplus went to either direct provision for one knight and one priest (almost cashless manor system) or as taxes (later monetary system.) Detailed analysis by scholars has figured out that the surplus was about 20%, oddly the same effective percentage as most of us pay today.

    • Hamster, I think there’s a much better case to be made for cows than you’ve implied. Butter is a huge advantage of cows over sheep or goats. I don’t think there’s any comparison when it comes to fat. Fencing, especially electric fencing, is much simpler with cows than sheep or goats. I have a couple dairy breed goats, too, and I get by with two wires for the goats, but one of those wires has to be slightly below knee high, which means the grass grows up and shorts it out very easily, and even when the fence is good and hot the goats still jump out or run through the fence when they want to. One wire almost waist high will keep my cows (at least mature cattle) in better than Trump’s border wall, and it doesn’t have to be very hot at all. Predators also are much more of a concern with smaller livestock, although perhaps not in England. Sheep and goats often require full-time shepherds or guardian animals (which would have poor economies of scale on this hypothetical 25 acre farm); cattle are mostly big enough to be immune to most predator problems. And on a 25 acre scale, things like tethering each animal individually or leading each animal individually to the milking parlor, etc. can be very practical with cattle but entirely impractical with larger numbers of smaller animals. And in my location (North Carolina), I really can’t achieve any higher stocking densities with goats or sheep than I can with cattle: if I want to keep them organically, I have to keep stocking densities extremely low and rotate very carefully (generally 2 week rotations and then not returning to that rotation with sheep or goats again for at least 6-12 months) to avoid devastating parasitic worm problems.

        • I’m west of Winston-Salem. My little brother married a girl from Knoxville, and my parents just moved there a couple months ago. From what little I know, it seems like Chattanooga has a very interesting local food scene.

      • How do you manage cattle internal parasites with an organic approach, Eric? Do you use anything beyond the long pasture rotations you mention above?

        • The long breaks between rotations I described are just for my goats. If I don’t rotate my goats very carefully with a mind to barber pole worm life cycles, particularly in the warmer months, I pretty quickly run into obvious problems. I have few enough goats per acre that I can afford those long breaks, but instead of once per year with the goats I’ll rotate my cattle over the same grass typically 3-4 times per year, sometimes with larger, longer rotations. I know the internal parasites that affect cattle are different from those that affect goats and have different life cycles, but I really don’t know much about them. I basically don’t think about internal parasites with cattle at all, and I can’t tell that I necessarily have problems (but maybe I do.) On average, I do rotate very frequently, though, and I also have lower stocking rates than conventional pastured cattle, I think owing mainly to not using conventional fertilizer (and my organic sources of fertilizer mostly winding up on my tilled ground), so my grass just isn’t as thick (and probably doesn’t rebound as quickly) as if NPK weren’t limiting, so I think it’s just not possible for me to achieve the same stocking densities. I’m sure not using conventional fertilizer also affects the balance of species in my pastures, too, and that could theoretically have an effect on parasites, too. I know there are plants — I’m thinking particularly of sericea lespedeza — that help to limit parasite problems in goats.

  13. About fence moving. Shepard, cowherd, and goose girl were all traditional occupations once. Often it was teenagers, unburdened by family responsibilities or work tithes, who were responsible for moving grazing animals and keeping them out of the arable. We squander the work time of teenagers and deliberately kept them out of the labor.

  14. Thanks for keeping the debate (and the recipes) flowing while I’ve been away.

    The animal vs vegetable oil issue is interesting. Indeed it’s hard to produce enough animal fat when acreage is constrained – vegetable oils are higher yielding – but cropland is environmentally worse than pasture and animal fats are more versatile, more compatible with small-scale production and probably healthier. As previously mentioned, the only viable oilseed here is canola which is a recent industrial product. Might there be any possibilities for small-scale growing and processing? Otherwise I think we’d have to be looking at hazel (also quite a lot of processing), alongside Brian’s squirrel recipe.

    On dairying, thanks Eric for your detailed analysis. My butter assumption is 87% fat, but I checked my calculations again and found that I had more fat summed across the various milk products than in the original milk. Oops. I’m thinking of patenting my spreadsheet and selling it to the dairy processing industry. Anyway, I’ve run some recalculations which will be in the next post. As you suggest, in a sense it doesn’t matter how you split the milk down in terms of overall nutrition, though it does matter in terms of available fat and what/who you feed the milk products to.

    What also matters very much is realistic assumptions about milk per hectare, so thanks for your thoughts on that. I need to talk to some local dairy farmers, though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get a clear figure for non-supplemented cows. The OFMH has a higher figure than even me for forage-fed cows, but I don’t want to over-estimate here.

  15. Here in the Pacific Northwest (US) there are some farmers growing/experimenting with camelina sativa seed for oil. I don’t know too much about it, but do know that it is a traditional oil seed, brassica.

  16. I’m not sure how much the comments in this section will be read, as I’m posting this over a week after it was published, but I’m trying to make sense of this 10 hectare parcel.

    6 ha of pasture, including orchard and lay.
    2.5 ha of woodland.
    1.4 ha of field crops.

    That’s 9.9 ha, leaving a slight shortfall of land available for housing and vegetable plots. You’re going to need another third to half hectare.

    • The 1.4 hectares is for cropland. 0.5 hectares of that is for grass/clover ley, so you’ve counted that land twice, once with the pasture and then again with the cropland.

      • Yep, Eric is correct. To be clear, the figures I’m now working to after corrections in the subsequent post are:

        0.35ha buildings, tracks etc
        0.125ha gardens
        1.37ha cropland
        1.9ha woodland
        0.5ha orchard
        5.75ha permanent grass

        (with the permanent grass totalling 6.6ha when you add in the orchard and the leys)

        And that comes to 10ha in all.

  17. Not that it would necessarily matter much for your over-arching purposes in developing this vision (which I continue to enjoy seeing you paint), but while most of your estimates seem pretty reasonable, I think your honey yield is really much too low. Granted, beekeeping as it is practiced now is very dependent on sugar, and it’s a huge competitive disadvantage for a beekeeper to try to compete in the current marketplace without feeding a lot of sugar, and there is also a substantial labor cost to making honey (and making splits to replace losses, raising queens, etc.), especially without sugar, but in a neo-peasant context I think people would find it worthwhile to produce a lot more honey than you estimate. Perhaps it’s not reasonable to assume that every 10 hectare farm would have a beekeeper, but every second or third or fourth might. And I think 5-20 production hives is a reasonable number for the median sideline beekeeper. Of course, there are more and less labor-intensive ways of keeping bees, such that some beekeepers make substantially more honey per hive but not necessarily more honey per hour, but considering labor as the limiting factor, I think each experienced beekeeper spending 100-200 hours/year on beekeeping and extracting, bottling, etc. (but assuming he’s paying someone else to do most of the work of producing the woodenware), could reasonably average 200-1000 lbs/year in an average temperate location without sugar. I haven’t fed any sugar to my bees in over 3 years (or purchased any queen or replacement bees or really any other inputs besides hardware), I’m in a well below average honey producing area, none of the last 3 years, in particular, has had a very good combination of weather and honey flows — the susceptibility of our short, concentrated nectar flows (almost all from flowering trees, in contrast particularly to pasture plants) to a spell of poor flying/foraging weather is perhaps the main thing that makes my area below average for honey production — and I’ve averaged about 700 lbs/year from about 200 hours/year.

    On the subject of dairy, I think you gave me far too much credit, by the way. I was just trying to understand your numbers and assumptions. If you made a mistake, I didn’t realize it, but I’m glad if my questions proved helpful anyways.

    On another random subject, I wonder what you think of the potential for mostly free flying domestic pigeons. From what I understand, there were traditionally a lot of domestic pigeons raised in England.

  18. Thanks for that Eric. Well, you’re probably right about the honey. Perhaps if everyone was keeping hives on every 10ha parcel there’d be an issue about the nectar flow? Though there’d also be a lot more flowering plants than in the average agricultural landscape. If I plug your high and low estimates into my spreadsheet, 200lbs of honey increases the energy surfeit from 10% to 12%, while 1000lbs increases it to 18%, so it is significant. Though with the high estimate we then fail Proposition Paul (discussed in the next post). I’m inclined to up the honey assumption and go with your 200lb estimate.

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