One of the very first tidbits learned in permaculture design is the importance of efficiency. Whether or not you live on a farm, this concept can be applied to your own life. How do you move through your space to get tasks done in a timely manner, utilize resources with minimal waste, and place elements for ease of access?
This past week our family filled in to take care of the animals on a farm down the road while its owners took a much deserved vacation. We were the backup helpers, so when we got the call we had to scurry into duty with little instruction — a short list, and the words “do what you think is best” for inspiration.
Experience is almost always the most effective teacher. As athletes embarking on a new farming adventure we’ve had our noses deep in books, taken classes, listened to podcasts, and talked to other stewards of the land. However, nothing compares to real life experience, so this opportunity was a welcomed challenge for the four of us.
Our first day on the job took us two and half hours to get all the animals fed and watered! But, with each subsequent day we became more efficient through learning the existing structure and developing our own systems. A week later, we nailed it in about thirty minutes!
Here are the tips we gathered that could be applied to any situation and that we will be considering solutions for on our own farm, and in our own daily routines.
1. Everything has a place
We’ve been trying to teach ourselves and our kids this lesson for years! When everything in your space — whether it’s your bedroom, your home, or your workplace — has it’s place, you always know where to put it and where to find it.
On the farm, there are many elements that need a place so that when it’s time to do the daily chores, the frequent projects, or the occasional tasks you know where to locate what you need.
A few labels, shelves, and designated storage spots can go a long way. We plan to utilize these basic strategies so that when we need people to work with us on the farm and fill in when we are gone, it is as intuitive as possible.
2. Patterns of flow matter
How you move through your space to gather your items and complete your tasks should ultimately be efficient. If you keep your car keys in a far closet on the second floor, is it an efficient use of your time, or a convenient location, if your car is located in a basement garage? Probably not.
The animal pens on this neighboring fourteen acre homestead are spread out to work around growing spaces, tree groves, and greenhouse structures. The feed and water are mostly located at the top of the long narrow strip of property. This farm is working with what it has, but, with a blank slate of our own, could we design for improved efficiency?
Our permaculture design course (through Ecoversity) taught us that using the concept of “zones” to layout space can be a highly effective method for daily, weekly, and monthly flow. The concept of zones can help you position elements within the whole system for ease and prioritized attention.
Zone 1: The center of activity! Most frequently visited (multiple times a day) and contains the elements that need the most attention. Kitchen and herb gardens, greenhouses, and a toolshed are all examples of things you may place in Zone 1.
Zone 2: One to two times a day interactions. Elements such as compost bins, workshops and barns, medicinal gardens, food forests, and small animals.
Zone 3: Visit once a day or a few times a week. Feed storage, resource storage, pasture, cows, horses, sheep.
Zone 4: Most self-sufficient space, with little attention needed. Woodlots, mushroom cultivation, wildlife habitat.
Zone 5: Wilderness!
Accumulating steps is great for exercise, but less ideal for accomplishing a long list of tasks. Considering zones on our farm will help keep movement intentional and consolidated.
3. Consider access to resources in various conditions
It just so happened that our responsibilities at our neighboring farm fell on the coldest days of winter! While we are in the “banana belt” of Montana (average temps are slightly higher compared to the rest of the state), we still hit some negative temps and witnessed the challenges this can present.
Plastic buckets froze and cracked — making it extremely difficult to transport water and soaked grain to the critters. And, the food and water left for the critters froze before they could eat or drink it all.
Balancing energy output with energy input to develop an efficient system is critical.
By adding some heating elements to the water troughs, cutting up big food chunks, and bringing soaking grain buckets inside by the wood stove, we were able to help the animals get the inputs (nourishment) they needed, while reducing the outputs expended on our end (frequency of water and food delivery).
The experience highlighted the importance of thinking through feed storage and frost free hydrant placement on our own farm. How can we create efficient access to what’s needed in the dead of winter and in the peek of summer?
4. Maintain equipment
Choosing materials that will stand up to the test of time and to the natural elements will reduce waste in the long run.
We are on a mission to intentionally refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, repair, and recycle. With that comes a balance of using what’s available, choosing materials that will last, and properly taking care of tools, supplies, and equipment to maximize lifespan.
5. Measure feed
Lastly, although I’m sure there were more takeaways, we learned that keeping track of animal feed is important for multiple reasons. How much food different species and ages of animals get determines their growth rate, their health, and how frequently you need to replenish your stash to avoid running out.
Sounds obvious, but it was eye-opening to witness how quickly the level of grain diminished over the course of a week, AND note which groups of animals went through their food faster than others.
As with all we do; recording what we do, observing the results, and adjusting as needed is key to maintain a functioning operation.
Grateful for the opportunity to farm sit, we can now get back to the drawing board of our own planning. We all agree that we could easily take on more animals, better understand farm needs, and that the “farmers carry” is REAL (not just a torturous CrossFit movement)!