Training Diversity

I am working through ways to best use our farm now that retirement has taken hold of my life. I have moved away from traditional row crop farming and am transitioning to a grassland approach. It seems appropriate for a farm named “Riceland Meadows.” We have raised grassfed beef for years. As the beef cows left the farm, I added a few more draft horses. Our fencing and infrastructure, put in place over the years, makes this a good fit.
healthy pasture
The playground before its transformation.
It is my plan to sow oats and turnips into the “infield” part, while still using the racetrack place to drive with the forecart or wagon, pulling a tire or not. The oats and turnips will be grazed off by the sheep starting Thanksgiving and through the winter as they want. The oats will be eaten off or freeze out. The turnips get grazed all winter. The freezing winter weather makes them sweeter, and the sheep eat them down into the ground. In early spring, I can lightly disc and plant a cover crop or reseed the area, renovating it for future hay or grazing.

My mind is a blur as I study all the ways to make my playground an actual work area. In 2024 I plan to plant an acre of dent corn for the hogs we raise. I should be able to fatten what we need on that amount. It will allow me to plant with an old one- row walk-behind planter, cultivate as needed, hill and then pick the corn ears. So along with all the playing around, I get the benefit of the work. I will still practice crop rotations in my paddock; I will just do it in a smaller way. For instance, the harvested corn fodder could be grazed a bit before fall plowing, followed by a spring cover to build soil.

Our paddocks are all 3 or 4 acres each. I can take one out of the current pasture/hay rotation to use as my playground. I can split the area in half so that I have some spring and summer work on one half and fall and winter work on the other. The possibilities are endless. All this work/training will take place on about an acre to and acre and a half of ground. The work follows the seasons and it lets me use all sorts of equipment, introducing the horses to many things.

My current playground is out back away from the road where crooked plow furrows and crazy figure 8s don’t rouse too much discussion from the neighbors. However, as I refine my efforts in the name of training and working horses, nobody will wonder what I’m up to if I plant several rows of sunflowers to be harvested for chicken feed or a few rows of pumpkins for area kids and grandkids and their friends.

It is still farming. I am introducing and training my horses to all sorts of equipment, beyond the manure spreader, wagon and hay equipment. I can do it in a small intensive area that will benefit from the soil stirring, weed suppression, cover cropping and animal grazing. These small areas also will let me grow things like marigolds, sunflowers, oats, turnips, radishes, buckwheat, vetch and other soil-building crops. I can journal my findings, feed my animals and build soil all while working in a playground.

On a small homestead, space is a premium and ground must be utilized as efficiently as possible. So, think about making a racetrack around the garden. Just being there will keep the garden in view, helping to keep weed pressure and harvest in the forefront. That racetrack makes a good place to work animals on a stone boat, a tire, a forecart or vehicle of any kind. It will pack the soil there in time, so you may have to move it from time to time, or not depending upon your farm landscape. It makes it easy to take the manure left behind from working animals and put it in a compost pile at the end of the garden. The racetrack stays clean, you make some compost and most likely you are in view from the house ... some wives like that.
horses grazing
Making hay on the playground “work area.”
Another great plan would be to have two garden areas of the same size. Have one of them in vegetable production each year. The second one is for horse work of all kinds, soil building through cover cropping even a spring, then summer, then fall cover leading to a fertile space ready for gardening the following spring. A racetrack around the whole thing would complete an area for playing, but you’ll be doing meaningful work the whole time.

I am blessed to have a whole farm to “play” on, but it makes sense to select an area to work up, especially now that my farming has become smaller. The hay and pasture rotations make good use of our land. The small work area paddocks keep my horses fit, expose them to whatever I choose and keep my fingers in the dirt. I see a host of amazing possibilities rather than a dim light signaling the end of my farming career.

This new vision allows me to show people all sorts of regenerative farming practices while keeping horses trained and fit. It gives me the luxury to try all sorts of new/old ideas and validate their worth to a new generation of farmers and homesteaders. It will also be fun ... who doesn’t’ like that?
So, don’t worry or complain about the small size of your farm or holdings. Just step up the intensive diversity that working a smaller place can allow. There are many books about farming small and making a living doing it. I am not here to debate those authors or their methods, I am just verifying that you can do a lot of work, grow a lot of food and build soil while training people and animals in a small space. rh house logo.
Ralph Rice farms in northeast Ohio. To see more of his writing, visit his blog at: This issue appeared in the December23/January24 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.
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