Free Range Chickens
A few years ago, we started experimenting with free range chooks in the Mango Fundraiser orchards. We had to construct a towable house for them that would allow us to rotate the chickens around the orchard.
In reality, the chooks only roost and lay eggs in their towable house. They spend most of their time roaming the orchard, hunting insects, scratching in the grassy rows, dusting up their feathers under the trees, leading healthy and unconfined lives.
Their mobile home is regularly shifted every few days to a fresh patch of grass for new feed and away from their own droppings. Not only are the chickens fertilising the plantation as they go, but they also work in relation to the cows that are similarly moved about the orchards. They follow the cattle around four days later, and eat the flies from the cow manure when they are pupating. They must be moved at a specific time before the pupa matures into a fly. The chickens get a lot of feed from this and also distribute the cow manure across the field as they go.
As the chickens and cattle improve the soil fertility, we are able to gradually use less mineral fertilisers. And the recycling of grass and weeds through the cattle and back to the soil save a lot of fuel guzzling tractor driving and herbicide spraying that is common practice in most orchards.
Only a month or so ago – Peter designed a new and improved version of towable house for the chickens – this is the Taj Mahal of all chicken houses which has aptly been named Cluckingham Palace.
When people hear the word orchard they automatically conjure up images of fruit laden trees amid manicured green pastures. Hmmm our reality is quite different.
In tropical wet areas, grass grows quickly. After our last wet season, the grass and weeds were at chest height. So what most mango growers do is mow, using tractors and slashers or mulchers, and they may also apply herbicides to the under canopy area where machinery cannot reach. The reasons for this mowing operation are many:
- to reduce weeds which use up nutrients and water and can even overtake the trees
- to make it easier for workers to carry out irrigation maintenance
- to enable machinery to operate efficiently
- to make obstacles and hazards visible ie. irrigation pipes, pumps, snakes!
- to reduce the fire hazard as the vegetation dries out later in the year
- to make the orchard look pretty and cared for – just like the lawn around your home
So does that mean it is good to mow? What about:
- the compaction of the soil?
- the reduction of natural and varied vegetation to a “duoculture” of lawn and trees?
- the destruction of habitat of low dwelling beneficial insects and animals?
- the limited ability of the nutrients contained in the mown grass to improve the soil?
- the effects of chemical application on soil and tree health…and possibly the health of the operator?
- the diesel and machinery use and the old carbon footprint?
So what alternative is there? Instead of mowing, which we somewhat reluctantly practiced for many years, we decided to trial cattle in the orchard.
In 2011, we brought a small herd from our cattle property to our mango orchard. To our surprise it worked reasonably well. On the downside, in very wet weather there was more browsing in the trees and the risk of soil compaction from the animals hooves was increased. There was only minimal damage to the irrigation sprinklers. There was an outlay of capital for fencing equipment and material and the new labour costs of frequent cattle movements and of setting up water points. One morning we woke up to find that the herd had “stampeded” in the night, right through the electric fence, and were grazing peacefully on a farmers river bank 7kms away. Fortunately we have good cattle dogs so that the return journey was accomplished without mishap. Of course once the mangoes were growing on the trees, the cattle had to be moved out of the orchard until harvest was complete (cattle love mangoes).
However, the positives outweighed the negatives. Grass and weedy vines were consumed and as you would expect the cattle produced manure, organic material which allows nutrients to be more easily taken up by the soil. Insect and small animal life co-existed with the cattle or moved to ungrazed areas, and herbicide use, machinery costs and mowing budgets were slashed. We also managed to grow some extra beef.
Since then, once the mango harvest is completed and the wet season deluge abated, we put larger herds of self-propelled maintenance and fertiliser eco units (aka cattle) into our orchard. We wished we had tried it sooner!
Note though, it will never look as tidy as a machine mown orchard. Perhaps we should all adjust our notions of rural beauty to include the health and sustainability aspects of the agriculture.
At The Mango Fundraiser farm we are always trying new growing techniques that reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides and soluble fertilizers.
We have found over many years, that the more natural diversity you have in your plant life, insect life and animal life and soil life, the more resilient and productive your farm can be.
The challenge of course is to develop ways of enhancing all this life while at the same time having efficient harvesting and growing systems.
Our latest practice comes from Mexico where many farmers have been developing systems for soil life enhancement from cheap & simple nutrient sources. Here we have learned ways of culturing beneficial organisms in liquid cultures that we call biofertilizers. We source these organisms from the local forests and grow them in our biofertilizers to be sprayed on the soil, or, in some cases, on the leaves. These are early days but initial responses are encouraging
Of course many of these “biological” sprays are not as potent as “agro chemicals” but they are much more friendly to handle and much cheaper to produce, so you have to apply them more frequently.
We have found with farming, as with most things in life, the more you focus on promoting beneficial life instead of concentrating all your energy on killing the things you dont like, the better the whole system operates.
“Evidence of the dramatic change in the health of the soil after regular application of bioferments at the Le Feuvre’s Mango farm in Giru, NQ. Top Chromatogram is from January 2013, middle is Oct 2014 and the bottom is 6th November after 1 month of intensive applications. From a dead soil to one now coming back to life!”
Quote courtesy of Kym Kruse a permaculture designer from RegenAG® – specialising in regenerative agriculture. Check out their website on http://regenag.com/web/
Biofertilizer “How To” courses are often held by Kym at our Mango Fundraiser farm.
Have you ever wondered why some Bowen mangoes are not as sweet as usual?
The main reason why some mangoes do not reach their full flavour is because they are picked from the tree before they are mature. Notice I say “mature” not “ripe” because if the fruit is allowed to reach full maturity on the tree it can be picked still hard & green but will ripen at room temperature. If the mango is picked before it is fully grown & mature, it will not ripen properly and will taste bland when it eventually softens & ripens.
At The Mango Fundraiser, we go to a lot of trouble to make sure that every fruit is picked mature. For 20 years now we have been using specially modified “cherry pickers” that allow each mango to be picked by hand so the picker gets a good look at the mango before it is removed from the tree. We have to go over each tree two or three times each season to allow all the fruit to develop the plump swollen cheeks so characteristic of a delicious ripe Bowen Mango.
You can tell if a mango was picked mature because as it “puffs up” on the three and skin stretches to become quite smooth. It takes a lot of practice to be able to pick only the mature mangoes skillfully and usually a tree must be picked two or three times to get each mango at full maturity.
Now days, most mangoes are washed in a detergent solution to protect the skin of the mango from the sap that spurts out of the fruit when the stem is removed from the fruit. This is done so the skin doesnt get black marks from where the sap “burns” the skin of the mango. We have sprays mounted on each cherry picker that wash each mango as it is picked.
What is the difference between a Bowen Special mango & a Kensington Pride mango?
Bowen mangoes derived their name from the fact that they were first commercialised in orchards in the Bowen district in North Queensland. It is believed that the seeds came into Australia on ships used to export horses from North Queensland to India.
The variety is more correctly called “Kensington Pride” after an orchard where some of the first “Bowen” mangoes were planted. Apparently the variety was jealously guarded for some time but eventually other growers got access to the seed and it became for a while almost the only commercially grown mango in Australia.
Hence many people refer to and remember this unique tasting mango as the “Bowen Special”, a name that still excites mango lovers to this day!
By Paul Le Feuvre