words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
There’s no time like spring for seeing how bountifully God provides for His creatures, and that’s especially true here in central Appalachia, where young, green grass and blossoming fruit trees are everywhere we look. Our seven dairy cows put gallons of rich, creamy milk in the bucket every day. Their calves race around the pasture or lie in the soft grass and nap in the sun. Chicks in mobile pens scratch and forage, new feathers pushing through their baby down. Pigs are growing fast on skim milk and forage. We’re never more grateful for our small farm lifestyle than now when life is so beautiful and abundant.
The Family Cow?
Not very many folks keep just a few dairy cows nowadays. This is funny because well into the 1900s, more than half of people in the United States lived in rural settings, and most of these kept a dairy cow. After all, a cow turns grass—which grows for free!—into the most perfect food God created: milk. Lots of milk. And she does it day in, day out, year-round, free of charge.
Maybe people forgot how much a milk cow does for a farm. Who else can turn our biggest crop into food for calves, humans, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats—and even for the soil? An all-grass cow costs nothing to feed, and for the trouble of milking her, we get not just milk, but beef, pork, eggs, chickens, pest control, and guard animals—and fertilizer, too. So really, we couldn’t farm without at least one dairy cow.
Finding a Life on the Land
Our farm, the Sow’s Ear, is seventeen acres of trees-up-the-side-of-a-hill that were left when a larger farm was broken up. Unfortunately, most is too steep for farming, even too steep for logging. In fact, the state of Ohio labels our property ‘not suitable for agriculture.’ Frankly, in the beginning, we agreed with them! But we wanted to move our young family—four sons, eventually to be joined by two more sons and two daughters—to a country setting. We knew that the way to build a strong family was to pray, play, and work together.
So we grew gardens wherever we could find a little flat land; we brought in goats and tethered them to browse all the dense briars. We added a dozen Brown Leghorn hens, we began milking our goats, and the children thrived with responsibility as well as freedom. After a while, the place started to look more like a farm.
The food on our table now came less from the store and more from our life together—eggs, goats’ milk, and many garden vegetables. It was all delicious, but there was one thing we weren’t satisfied with: the feed bill. The chickens, hogs, and even the dairy goats depended on sacks of grain from the feed store. Our food ‘independence’ was dependent on purchased feed.
Yet we knew our grandfathers had raised large families entirely on food from their own farms—even during the Depression—and they hadn’t routinely purchased animal feed. What were we missing? How had all our ancestors fed their livestock? After all, there was no Purina on the prairie…
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Shawn and Beth Dougherty live in eastern Ohio, where their home farm is 17 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’. Using grass as the primary source of energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of their food, and feed, on the farm. Concerned that farming is too often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel, and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to discover and test the time-honored means by which farming may be done with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants as a key to whole-farm sustainability. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.