When we go on trips, we try to have a purpose behind the trip. When we went to Yellowstone, we wanted to have fun and see all the mountains and animals. But we also wanted to make it educational for all of us, get some photography to sell, and enjoy time with family. When we went to Virginia for the Homesteaders of America Conference, our purpose was purely educational and they knocked it out of the park.
Homesteaders of America Conference: Day 1
Prior to leaving for the conference, we made sure to look at the schedule and see which classes/ lectures we wanted to take. We put those into our Google calendar so that we weren’t having to scramble to figure out where we wanted to be.
Planting Fodder For Livestock
The first class we took was Shawn and Beth Dougherty about planting fodder crops for livestock. Let me tell you, this couple is extremely engaging. If you haven’t heard of them, check out their website at the link above. Their lecture, and their entire philosophy, is to reduce input onto the farm, increase soil fertility and become more self sustaining. They talked in depth about planting crops that preserve well and that animals can eat.
This was fascinating. While I knew that we could plant food for animals, I hadn’t really thought much about it. In my head, I planted my garden for my family and the animals got any excess. I figured, animal food came in the form of grain from the feed store. Again, I knew that we could grow their food, but didn’t really think much beyond that. But with a $600/mo feed bill, I’m starting to see the draw to growing their food.
We walked away with more information on rotational grazing, increasing soil fertility and how to use livestock for more than just enjoyment.
Homestead Security Class
The second class was for homestead security, and to be honest, I tuned out most of it. This was a class for Jared. While I 100% believe in homestead security, it’s just not something I’m interested in. I didn’t take a single note. Not to mention that within about 10 minutes, I was bored out of my mind. I actually left the class and went to walk around to the different vendors. Jared really enjoyed the class, but I don’t know that he took any notes. Mainly because the class covered things that he/we were already doing.
Farm Set Up and Checklist
This was put on by Daniel Salatin and one I enjoyed almost as much as the Dougherty’s. Daniel talked about how to set up farms and how livestock should be the last thing brought to the homestead…. oops. But the biggest take away that we needed to work on getting water capture and stop relying on hoses and buckets to transport water.
Another thing that was interesting was pasture rotation. Now, we knew pasture rotation is extremely important. But one of the things that we struggled with was the idea of permanent fencing for that rotation. We want our animals to free range, this by itself will reduce worm load. But there are a ton of other reasons to rotate pasture. And at the top of that list is soil conservation and fertility.
Homesteaders of America Conference: Day 2
We were extremely excited about day 2. There were a lot of good speakers lined up, but really it was the day we got to go home. I loved the conference and we will definitely go back, but I missed my goats…. and kids.
Sustainable Broiler Breeding
This class was enlightening because we had raised meat chickens already and weren’t a fan. We wanted to move away from buying broilers and move towards hatching our own. We didn’t necessarily want hybrids or other crosses like the Cornish X. The biggest reason was expense. If I have to buy chicks every year to feed my family, then what I am going to do when I can’t buy them?
Tom from McMurray Hatchery explained that while there are birds that are dual purpose, they are not really meat birds. For example, a Brahma is marketed as a meat bird, but it takes 1-2yrs for it to reach market weight. That’s a lot of feed for a big bird. Not to mention that once it hits market weight, the meat will probably be very tough.
Tom’s suggestion for a sustainable bird was a New Hampshire Red. They grow quickly but not so quick that they suffer from the major health problems that a Cornish x will. He also suggested Rocks and Sussex due to their fast growth and good market weights at young ages.
Shawn and Beth had another class that we were excited to sit in on. This one was similar to their fodder crop class but focused more on how to grow your SOIL and reduce input to the farm. Their idea is to stop bringing input onto the farm and let the farm grow and nurture itself.
The big thing with a lot of these well known farmers like the Salatin’s, Dougherty’s, Rhodes’, etc is that you want to create an environment where the soil is protected, encouraged and treated like the most important thing on the farm.
The idea is that you want to use animals to do the work. You put goats/cows in a pasture and let them eat the grass, browse and other tall material. This will allow the plant to kill off roots which will leave carbon in the soil. Then you bring in the chickens. The chickens will peck through the manure, eating bugs and larvae, spread the manure and lay their own. They will eat the low lying grasses as well. After the chickens you bring in the pigs to eat any left over grains, manures, and break/till the soil.
When it’s done, the pasture has a chance to soak up all that carbon, nitrogen, etc. and have a chance to take off. It will improve the soil. New plants that couldn’t grow in impacted soil. But when these creatures come in, they are able to rework the soil and increase the fertility of it. Soil, sunlight and water are the keys to good farming.
Daniel Salatin’s class on pastured livestock echoed the same things from his previous class on setting up a homestead, as well as Shawn and Beth’s class on setting up a sustainable homestead. But it was much more in depth on the HOW. He talked about the 4 R’s of pasture management: Rotation, Rest/Recovery, Removal, and Recon.
Rotation is pretty obvious. Rotate the animal onto new forage daily, or weekly depending on the animal.
Rest/ Recovery- allow the plants, soil, etc. to recover. When plants in the area have reached mature potential you can allow animals back onto the pasture.
Removal of nutrients- we want the soil to pull nutrients back into the ground. If that doesn’t happen, then the manure should be removed. Having multiple animals move through the same pasture but eat different things is paramount to creating not only good soil but healthy animals.
Recon/ Observation- Did it work? Daniel said to take a picture of the same pasture during all 4 seasons and do it every year at those same times. Why? We want to see if we are improving the soil and plants in that area. If we are making it worse and it is not recovering, then we need to do something different.
Catching Free Bees
This was my favorite class of all because I want honey bees so badly. Unfortunately, I am the only one that will take care of them because everyone else is terrified of bees. So until I am ready to take over that chore 100%, I am putting them off. Plus the cost is huge. You’ve got boxes, frames, paint, bees themselves? I’m not totally ready yet.
But listening to Kaylee talk about catching a swarm and how to do it, got me thinking. If we can set up our farm so that everything they need is here? Maybe we can do it?
We learned about how to catch bees and how to work with them, which will decrease your cost for getting bees by 100%.
Our Thoughts On The Conference
I think that anyone could learn something from this conference. It’s a great place to go and learn, to ask questions. Every single speaker that lectured also answered questions and were so passionate about it. We were able to talk with Shawn and Beth about free ranging our goats. They not only answered our questions but gave advise on how to do it effectively within our own “ecosystem” of animals and plants on the homestead.
We walked away with new products to try and books to read.
But most importantly, we walked away realizing that we are not alone. There are thousands of people out there just like us. Just trying to live in harmony with nature, to get back to the land. Raise our children and animals in a way that Mother Nature would approve. To get dirty, be wild, and have fun. These people are a wealth of knowledge and they are willing teachers.
If you have the opportunity to go to next year’s conference, I highly recommend going. Even if you don’t have a homestead yet. Even if you are just dreaming. It is absolutely worth it.
If you can’t get to the conference, here are some books that I highly recommend based off what I learned while I was there.