A farm should function as a cohesive organism—each part working together for the benefit of the community, one by-product nourishing or improving another part of the chain, and each member working toward the smooth running of the enterprise. With this concept in mind, the farm animals should be considered as part of the community and utilized as laborers.
For starters, animals are the great recyclers: reusing spent vegetables, food scraps, food production by-products, or waste from the garden. Every animal has a favorite food waste product, resulting in no waste at all. Pigs love whey from cheese making, cheese itself, bread, and fruits. Sheep will devour squash, leafy vegetables, corn (and all of its typically wasted by-products), cucumbers, and any kind of fruit. Chickens and turkeys will eat anything and everything that’s given to them; they aren’t picky. These ravenous ruminants and poultry in turn give back to the community with manure for the garden. This may be the most obvious of uses for the farm animals; however, it is by no means the end of their value.
Chickens or turkeys in portable living units can be used to eat and kill weeds in a pasture that picky ruminants won’t touch. They can also be used to clear a garden, which they do with great relish. This arrangement provides valuable fertilizer to the soil, reduces human labor, reduces feed costs for the fowl, and gives the poultry a nutritious supply of green vegetation.
Pigs, with their great ability to burrow, can be used to till a garden before planting the spring garden or to clear for the fall garden. In fact, any area that needs to be cleared of vegetation could use the finesse of a pig, like new pasture space for grazers or a pad for a new building.
Sheep and other small ruminants are useful to mow lawns and help clear areas of unwanted vegetation. They will eat the poison ivy, bittersweet, multiflora rose, and other menacing invasive species, as well as trim unruly shrubbery. Use these hard-working animals to reduce the amount of human work necessary to maintain the farm, while decreasing the need for gas powered mowers. Grazers will reduce the need for mowing and weed eating, while filling their endlessly hungry stomachs with fresh grass.
The food waste and added sources of vegetation in turn increase livestock growth; and in some cases, as with whey-fed pigs, and grass-fed poultry, increases the value of their meat, while reducing the need for bought feed. Thus, livestock earn their keep by increasing their in-take of nutrients, waste products are reduced, environmental harms are avoided, and human labor costs decrease, creating a happier and healthier farm for all members of the community to co-exist.
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms has written on this subject of utilizing animals to reduce labor. For further reading, check out his book You Can Farm.