You might want to keep the kids at home for some relatively cheap labour if you plan to switch your 200 or 300 head beef cow-calf operation to a fairly labour intensive livestock production method that’s part of what’s known as the
However, for smaller, mixed farming, multi-species operations looking to produce specialty livestock for a premium natural or organic meat market it may offer some potential.
First, permaculture is a systems approach to farming — i.e. one enterprise, benefits the other. For example, pasture-raised poultry clip off the grass as their rearing pens are moved across a pasture. Pasture-raised pigs follow along, eat sod and root up the soil; that’s followed with seeding an annual crop or more perennial pasture. When grass is ready cattle come along and eat the forage — then come the chickens, then the pigs and the cycle repeats itself. And of course as each livestock species passes, manure is deposited back on to the soil adding to fertility. Two Australians — need I say more — were credited with developing the “Permanent Agriculture” or Permaculture” system back in 1970s.
Fast forward to 2018, and Nancy and Chad Hewlett who farm near Airdrie, just north of Calgary are one young couple
running Sage Creek Permaculture farm — producing pasture-raised, organic meats. Their operation, started four years ago, was one of the stops on the Alberta Farm Writer’s Assoc. tour earlier this summer. Nancy Hewlett was tour guide.
One of the first farm tour stops and anchors of Sage Creek’s permaculture operation was another new-to-me system called fodder production. Along with forages grown on pasture, the barley fodder they produce serves as main ingredient of daily rations for all classes of livestock — chicken, pigs, cattle. The fodder is just a mat of sprouted barley that grows to about four to six inches in height inside a hydroponic chamber. The feed contains between 16 and 18 per cent protein.
At Sage Creek they bought a Fodder Works fodder “machine” that from the outside looks very much like a 20-foot long white shipping container. But inside it is completely outfitted with shelving for trays, lighting and a watering system. You put trays of barley seed (about 100 pounds of seed at a time) in one end, close the doors and six days later you are ready
to harvest the barley fodder mats out the back end. It is a continuous flow system that produces about 750 lbs of fodder per day.
Fodder Works has smaller cabinet type systems that produce 110 lbs of fodder per day right up to building-scale units that can produce tons of fodder per day. The equipment isn’t cheap. A fodder-making machine similar to what the Hewletts use costs about $50,000. But they say it has a very good return on investment. They don’t have to spend money on crop input costs or harvesting equipment. One Fodder Works spreadsheets on a similar sized equipment says with the savings on feed, inputs and other machinery costs the Fodder Works machine pays for itself in one to two years.
Hewletts’ daily feeding routine is to move pasture-raised livestock to new grass in the field and then she also delivers several of the 18-pound mats (roughly 15” by 24”) to livestock as needed. As their cattle for example, are intensively grazed on pasture, she also feeds one 18 lb mat of fodder per head per day as well. Hewlett estimates her daily feeding cost for cattle at about 29 cents per head for fodder, compared to 95 cents to $1.45 per head per day for hay.
From their whole permaculture system they produce premium-value, organic meats sold through their on-line store. For an idea on retail prices, roasting chickens (2.5 to 3.5 pounds) cost about $17.50 per bird, while larger chickens up to 7.5 pounds range from $25 to $37.50 each.
Half a Berkshire pig, cut and wrapped, 65 to 70 pounds of meat retails for $440, while one-quarter beef, cut and wrapped, 75 to 95 pounds retails for $650.
I have to be honest I can get a bit jaded sometimes — if you’re not producing livestock under a traditional or conventional system (what ever that is) — are you really farming? But here’s a young couple willing to put in the labour and management to produce meat products for a specific clientele and they appear happy and proud of what they’ve accomplished.
So I think, hey it is all agriculture folks, it works for them, and if there is any industry
that has been open to new ideas and concepts it is agriculture so carry on permaculture producers. (Now if you head down the highway a bit from Sage Creek Permaculture there is another new venture that’s investing $30 million raising black soldier fly larvae to produce protein. I’m not quite there yet, myself, I’ll stick with a good old beef burger anyway that it is raised.)
Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary. Contact him at 403-592-1964 or by email at [email protected]