If I had a bird’s eye view, this is how Mint Creek sheep and pigs would look right now. Our farm is small, but for a small farm, not unsubstantial in size. As you probably know, it spans a little over 220 acres of certified organic pastures. We have cows, goats, and poultry as well--and many guard dogs. But in this article, I feel like talking about our sheep and pigs.
It just so happens that currently the sheep are set up in the middle of the farm. Though now our farm is much more diversified, Mint Creek’s first animals were sheep. Head Farmer Harry often says “it was not that I found the sheep--it’s the other way around; they found me.” I am his daughter and when I was a young child in the early 1990s, a friend and neighbor of our family’s had some sheep that they wanted to get rid of. We gratefully took them in, and those were our first sheep. Jackie, Mercedes, & Wild Eyes were some of the names we gave the ewes in our first small flock. Shortly after we got sheep we added a small flock of laying chickens and occasional meat chickens to our family farm, but for many years to follow our farm was always “sheep-centric.” I remember that we even experimented with playing our pregnant ewes classical music one winter in the lambing barn to see if it helped soothe their birthing processes. We all agreed that it was nice, but we weren’t sure if the sheep cared about the music or not.
The sheep’s winter housing is called “the coverall” barn and it’s the central barn at Mint Creek. Clearly the sheep dominate this main barn which lies at the southern end of our largest swath of organic pasture. Sometimes a few of our pigs get to use a little corner of the coverall. Sometimes the goats or poultry get a corner temporarily, too. But the sheep have most of the coverall barn space reserved here for their comfort and warmth on rainy and/or cold days. However, much of the colder weather time, and most all of the summer, the sheep spend entirely outside. Currently they have a “run” setup from the barn to their late winter/early spring pasture paddocks. This run is basically a long hallway from barn access to the pasture paddock. It has been painstakingly created from portable fencing by us and our amazing farm staff. To their delight and as they please, the sheep go to-and-fro from their inner barn area to their expansive winter/spring paddocks (which stretch towards the center of our acreage).
Lately, with the first spring flush pasture growth, the sheep have been escaping pretty frequently through the fence and claiming an even larger section of our farm as their own. We haul water to them with our water wagon twice a day and offer them organic hay (dried grass & pasture greens) each day or so. The hay bales are so heavy on the front of our small Kubota tractor, that we need a counter-weight on the back of the tractor while feeding them the bales. Our water wagon is a large water tank on a trailer hooked to a powerful farm truck. Whoever does the water runs has to become an expert at backing it up every which way as our narrow driveways and paths do not often allow you to just turn around in a circle. If you were a bird flying over the farm, you’d spend a lot of time watching us haul water and backup a giant truck and trailer set-up.
This water wagon hauls water to our pigs as well. If any species is giving the sheep a competitor in farm animal supremacy right now, it is the pigs. They seem to be converging on every side. While our herbivorous farm animals eat leafy greens pretty exclusively, our pigs have a hunger for roots, as well, and they desire a variety of forage. Pigs leave something of a path of destruction wherever they go, like little rototillers. However, pigs continue to be a successful and growing part of the farm ecosystem at Mint Creek. Pigs play a different part. They make use of poorer pastures in a way that the grazers, in contrast, can’t. They love to root up sections of weeds, and turn piles of dirt. Pigs also provide some of the most delicious meat a farmer can raise. The art of multi-species farming on pasture is the art of balancing the strength of pigs into the farm ecosystem without allowing them to root up too many perennial prairie pasture roots. This is important because perennial prairie pasture plants and their roots are at the core of our farm’s environmental benefits. The perennial pastures fix carbon into the soil and support biodiverse plant & soil life.
Right now, we have a whopping six distinct groups of pigs, three of those being groups of a couple sows in an area mothering their piglets together. All pig groups ranging from 7-25 total pigs/piglets. So rest assured that while our pig herds are expanding in general, they are still in very small groups and total less than 100 in pig numbers on our farm. To put this in perspective, some other farmers’ market vendors have a few thousand pigs total. We prefer small groups because pigs have “pecking orders” of their own and it is always risky to combine groups that are not socialized to each other. Whenever the group of pigs gets larger, inevitably a certain small runt or two gets bullied by bigger, bolder ones. Smaller groups of pigs tend to help prevent this.
These two farm animal species, sheep and pigs, are very different (in both function and energy). Sheep started us off and continue to thrive on Mint Creek Farm (as well as lamb being in such high demand at the farmers’ market)! Meanwhile, we are getting to know and love pig farming more and more, as well, as time goes on. Our goal is a symbiotic farm ecosystem where many different species can thrive together.