Partner Animals: Why Variety Works
Most farms are fairly limited to a few species of animal. Some even only have a couple. We were once one of those farms, but as we did additional research, we saw there were advantages to diversifying.
Our main species we work with is horses. Most horse farms have horses and maybe some
pet or companion animals, like dogs, cats, and maybe donkeys. However, there are other species that coexist well with horses and can enhance a horse's natural environment.
A common partner animal to raise with horses is goats. We have several San Clemente Island Goats, a very rare, endangered breed of goat that is naturally very hardy. The reason goats work so well with horses is that they love broadleaf weeds and don't eat as much grass, opposite of what horses eat. Equine parasites also do not survive in goats, and caprine (goat) parasites don't survive in equines, so by rotational grazing, you can get rid of both weeds and parasites. Generally, horses and goats coexist well, even goats with horns. The only real challenge we've faced is fencing: what keeps horses in doesn't always keep goats in. However, there are easy, portable options for goats that can be used within or around a horse pasture.
We also use various species of poultry with our horses. We started with chickens for the eggs, but as we did more research, we found that ducks are actually very effective partner animals to horses. Chickens are good at breaking up manure piles and eating any parasites (in case you didn't know, horses do tend to have quite a few parasites... we test manure twice a year for parasites). They also eat quite a few weeds and other bugs, which helps reduce fly and pest populations. In return, we get lovely eggs with rich yellow yolks that taste heavenly. The ducks, however, are just as effective if not more so. The chickens tend
to stay in a smaller area, but the ducks spread to any of five pastures surrounding the pond and even come into the barn and around the arena. The most voracious foragers we have are Indian Runners and Muscovy ducks, but the others do a good job. Two geese hang out with the ducks for extra protection. We also have guinea fowl and turkeys. Guineas are great at eating ticks and other bugs, and the turkeys do much of the same as the other birds but are extremely entertaining. Our peafowl are still too young to prove themselves, but we are excited to see what they do. None of the birds put up with rodent or snake problems around their territories, which helps even more.
It's easy to forget the role of man's best friend as a partner animal in farming. Yes, we
consider our dogs as partner animals, as they provide a very valuable role in protecting the livestock. The horses feel more relaxed with the dogs around, and the dogs keep predators out of the farm and away from the poultry and other livestock. We use dedicated livestock guardian dogs, primarily the Kangal dog, as they have a low prey drive and don't require much training to know what to do. Even better, having livestock guardian dogs is also considered "predator friendly farming," as using LGDs means you don't have to trap or kill predators that threaten your livestock. We live near coyote packs, bears, bobcats, and many other predators, and they rarely come on the property and rarely threaten us or our animals because of the dogs. In fact, Kangals have been given to poor farmers in Namibia to preserve cheetah populations, as farmers had resorted to shooting cheetahs to protect their livelihood in their livestock. In places where Kangals are used, the cheetah population has exploded while farmer losses to predators have dropped immensely. Talk about doing good for the environment! Find out more about this project at https://cheetah.org/
Cats, to a lesser extent, are partner animals. They control pests in the barn to prevent disease getting into the feed, as mice carry disease and pests such as ticks that can make horses (and goats and humans) sick. We have a few barn cats that keep the mice at bay. Cats are known to go after birds, but we don't have as much of that problem because we don't encourage songbirds near the barn but elsewhere on the property (and the cats are too lazy to go for them). They don't mess with the bigger poultry because some of the ducks (and the geese) have bitten and chased the cats. So, the cats stay in the barns where pickings are easy with mice with the occasional lizard or snake casualty.
Perhaps the ultimate partner animal is bees. Honeybees pollinate hundreds of crops and are territorial, keeping other bees and wasps at bay. We are new to bees but are trying our best to learn.
If you'd like to learn more, come and see how our little ecosystem works! It's still in progress, and we can use all the assistance we can get in getting closer to our goal
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