Bluebird Farm Tour
“Diversified Small-Scale Livestock”
Bluebird Farm welcomed us back again this year for our June CRAFT farm tour. This time the tour topic focused on “Diversified Small-Scale Livestock.” We are grateful to Marie Williamson and William Lyons for opening up their farm and home to us and for their good-natured flexibility when the rain really started coming down. The determination of our CRAFT members to go on with the tour despite the stormy weather is a true testament to how tough farmers can be!
After graduating from Warren Wilson College and testing their farming stamina in Colorado, William and Marie came back to NC to start Bluebird Farm on Marie’s family’s land outside of Morganton. The farm is split between 12 acres of family land and 15 acres of leased land from a long time family friend. The extra leased land has allowed them to experiment with their growing methods by integrating their animal and vegetable productions.
Currently they market at three farmers markets, three restaurants, and a 40 member CSA by raising sheep, pigs, layers, meat chickens, vegetables, and now a few beef cattle. William and Marie are a perfect example of diversified small scale farming using each enterprise in a way that complements and supports another.
We started on the leased property where Marie and William explained that their fields were previously managed for evergreens for several years and the soil consequently is very acidic and sandy. To raise the organic matter in the worn out soil they use a combination of cover cropping, compost, and rotational grazing of sheep, chickens and pigs. William and Marie rely on Allan Savory’s methods for Management Intensive rotational Grazing (MIRG) for their multi-species strip grazing that employs short intensive grazing periods followed by long rests. By combining ruminants and non-ruminants in a pasture they are boosting the quality and quantity of forage by the way each animal grazes and adding fertility via manure. In this case they had sheep and laying hens paired together. The sheep graze grass down to a better height for chickens, and the chickens help manage parasites and worms in the field protecting the sheep flock. William and Marie also pair the chickens with pigs for similar health benefits. The sheep are moved once day, and the chicken “palace” coop is moved every 3-4 days aiming for 30-45 days of rest for a particular patch of pasture before the animals come back.
For predator control with the sheep and layers, William and Marie use a combination of Premier 1 brand movable electric chicken fencing, and an Akbash sheep dog. They also have a roaming Great Pyrenees sheep dog that keeps an eye on the meat chickens, pigs, and the rest of the farm. We even got to see some strip grazing in action when they opened up some new pasture to the sheep by moving a length of fence.
The pigs are used in a slightly different way and on multiple parts of the farm. They keep about 4 acres of woodland in rotational paddocks for some of the pigs, and also run the pigs through portions of their fields where they want to improve the soil for vegetables and/or plant cover crops. For instance, they planted greens in the space where they kept pigs last year, and saw increased fertility levels compared a test section where they did not run the pigs. Pigs, however, are far more destructive to land than sheep, chickens, and cows so you must plan based on your soil types and how much impact you want, William and Marie advise. On 1.6 acres destined for vegetable production, they have divided it into eight pie pieces with a shade tent and water in the center, also known as the “sacrifice space”, and will rotate the pigs around the field.
After the pigs they’ll plant summer cover crops like millet and cowpeas to help with weed suppression and protect the soil until the cover crop dies off in the winter. Since all electric fencing is psychological, Marie explained, they only need one electric line at nose height to keep the pigs corralled. But, ever the adventurous type pigs will test their boundaries as we saw when a pig got out, and William and Marie expertly herded it back into the paddock and located the short in the fence, all while it poured down rain on us. The realities of raising pigs and livestock – animal emergencies always take precedence! In many ways animals can take care of themselves better than vegetables, but just because the animals are alive doesn’t mean you’re going to make money on them. They require a different set of observations and attention than vegetables to be a profitable farm enterprise.
With the rain firmly set in, William and Marie welcomed us into their home, wet boots and all, for another delicious potluck and some of their own slow-cooked pork ribs! Thank you, to those that toughed it out in the rain, and to Bluebird Farm for sharing their livestock wisdom and hosting another great CRAFT event.
CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Assistant at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cameron Farlow is the Farmer Programs Director. Hailing from Greensboro, NC with dairy farming in her blood, she has now made her home in Western NC. After earning her undergraduate degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, Cameron dove headfirst into the realm of sustainable agriculture and local food systems, and later completed her Master’s Degree in Appalachian Studies and Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She also brings experience in the realms of farmland preservation, food security, farm to university, and land access for farmers. She came on board with OGS in April 2012. In addition to her work with OGS, Cameron is a beekeeper, dancer, baker and avid adventurer.