How Your Support Is Changing Animal Welfare
A few miles off of Route 22 in Johnstown, PA, is Blue Dolphin Rd. The street name evokes an oceanfront cul-de-sac, but it’s a countryside gravel road. Turning onto the road, Tim and I see a collapsed barn that is feebly survived by its silo, but reaching the final bend of Blue Dolphin Road reveals a charming nook of farmland with a house nestled against the hillside. The home gives a clear view of the pigs ambling around their pens searching for roots, their noses pressed to the dirt like bloodhounds. Chickens and ducks strut and waddle, respectively, across the grass. They stalk grasshoppers around the legs of the family trampoline, while others settle in the shade of a mature tree. Right on time, their caretaker appears over the crest of a hill on an ATV, a young woman with tattoos and a brown bob.
Farmer Janelle Streets and her husband Shane raise hogs, poultry (turkey in addition to the free-spirited chickens and ducks) and goats. They’ve run a successful meat CSA and Janelle turns some of the goat milk into soap through Shine, her line of homemade, natural beauty products. Our business, however, is with the animals. The Streets Family Farm is the awardee of the Ethical Farming Fund’s first Farmraiser Grant, a program set up through donations to fund local farm projects that improve animal welfare. The Streets are using the grant to build a permanent rotational grazing structure.
The structure itself is a permanent fence that outlines a new pasture. The pasture will be divided into smaller enclosures called paddocks, a simple practice that has an almost magical effect. A pasture that is not partitioned into paddocks eventually comes to resemble the felt of a pool table as the grazers eagerly nibble growing blades of grass before they can get to a healthy height. Short grass means short roots that cannot grip the soil, leaving the land vulnerable to erosion. By dividing the same large pasture into paddocks, the land receives something it desperately needs in order to thrive: rest. Just like an athlete’s muscles, grass that does not get time to rest will not recover, let alone become stronger. (Imagine an athlete that never stopped exercising and you can understand the stress experienced by a perpetually grazed pasture.)
The solution is to graze the pasture one paddock at a time. By the time the animals return to the first paddock, the grass has had time to rest, regenerate and is ready to restart the cycle with a new trim. The recovery of the paddock is also encouraged by the deposits of manure the grazers leave behind. In addition to boosting the health of the land, rotational grazing also provides a constant supply of fresh, healthy grass that the animals relish. As a third benefit, farmers that rotate their animals can increase the number of livestock they can raise on a given area.
Naturally, implementing rotational grazing accomplishes goals in both sustainability and animal welfare, which makes it a perfect application of the Farmraiser Grant. Unfortunately, the construction process had more bumps than expected: equipment logistics, the learning curve of DIY fence-building, and an injury pushed the completion of the fence back a few months. But there were no hard feelings from the goats, who were presently enjoying their new quarters, along with a new family member: Teddy the cow is a transplant from another farm where his mother rejected him. On the Streets Family Farm, the goats embrace him as one of their own, resting their heads on his curly fur and squabbling with him over buckets at feeding time
This isn’t the only interspecies interaction at the Streets Family Farm: the ducks cohabit peacefully with the chickens, who occasionally flutter over the fence into the pigpen to hunt for insects or maybe just for the fun of it. On our first visit, a heritage breed male turkey—which is indistinguishable from a wild male turkey to the untrained eye—followed us suspiciously, maintaining an inflated plumage that would impress even the most exclusive nightclub's security guard. Evelyn the goat also shadowed us, more like a stray kitten than a guard dog, occasionally stopping to check in with the turkeys in their moveable pens.
On a diversified farm like the Streets Family Farm, the rotational grazing may involve multiple species synergistically: goats, sheep or cows will graze the grass and drop manure and when they leave for the next paddock, the chickens take their place to exterminate parasites and pests that would otherwise thrive in the cowpat. Sometimes pigs are thrown into the mix to turn over the soil to prepare it for regrowth. Such is the plan at the Streets Family Farm. Incorporating chickens into the rotational grazing system is the next phase of this project to begin in the spring.
Despite the unexpected struggle of completing the fence this past season, to look at the Streets Family Farm is to notice how every living thing appears at ease: livestock that are not afraid of humans, that can move freely and express their natural behaviors. A trio of ducks shuffles resolutely across the farm and I shamelessly anthropomorphize that they are headed to a favorite spot. This farm encapsulates the standard of animal welfare that the Ethical Farming Fund supports, striving for a vision that one day all meat comes from farms like this one.