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Agricultural production system
Animal husbandry and welfare
Parasites in goats are common. They can have varying effects on the animals, but sometimes can be a serious problem. An organic farmer in Italy has found a natural way of reducing the effect of these – bringing in black laying hens to live alongside the goats. These hens help keep the parasites at bay by feasting on the insect larvae!
Emanuele La Barbera and Alessandra Rabittiis are organic farmers in Italy. They have a herd of 70 camosciata delle alpi goats, and produce a variety of different organic goat’s cheeses which they sells directly from the farm. The farm is in Umbria, at 500m altitude. Emanuele says “We chose this area as it is very clean and green, far from urban areas and unpolluted.”
Emanuele describes their farm as “multifunctional”. It is an economic project – this is how they earn their living, and so it must be productive and provide quality foods. But it is also an ethical and social project, respectful to the environment and energy-efficient.
When their goats were suffering from the impacts of parasites, they wanted to find a sustainable solution.
Goats are naturally prone to parasites. Whilst in some cases the parasite and host can co-exist without any bother, in other cases the parasites can cause real damage to the goat’s health. The parasite can have an impact on the goat’s digestive system for example, milk production can be highly affected, and sometimes the problems can even be fatal. Some farmers choose to use medical inputs to reduce the parasites, but some of these pests are in fact now becoming resistant to treatments.
Emanuele and Alessandra did not want to use chemical treatments. Emanuele “We wanted to improve the pastures and the environment in which the animals were living. At the same time, we wanted to expand the farm, bring in different animals which could add a product and a source of income, but remain complementary to the goat dairy farming.”
Emanuele had originally studied veterinary with a specialisation in animal husbandry. Drawing from this experience, he decided to try out an experiment to see if he could solve these two issues in one go.
He chose a robust breed of hen – black laying hens – and introduced them into the same enclosure as the goats. These hens are the natural predator of the parasites affecting the goats. It was just a trial at first, but what a symbiosis between the two creatures occurred!
During the evaluation phase, Emanuele could clearly see the positive impact that having the hens around had produced. He observed a great relationship between the animals “They seem to be great friends” says Emanuele, the chicks sit underneath the goats, or on their backs, providing warmth and protection. And in return, the hens, the chicks in particular, feed on the larvae of the parasites (and also flies) which they find on the stable floor.
Emanuele spent some time evaluating the optimal number of hens to have with the goats, and he also needed to adjust the cleaning routine of the stables. The food for the goats has to be high enough so that the chicks cannot walk in it and contaminate the food. Monitoring of all of the animals is also very important. But he has found it to be a very effective, and natural, solution to the problem, reducing significantly the impact of parasites on the goats’ health.
An added bonus is that as the hens walk on the straw bedding in the goat enclose, this creates airflow which is beneficial for fermentation. This results in used bedding which Emanuele and Alessandra can sell as a quality fertiliser.
Most of Emanuele and Alessandra’s farmland is dedicated to pasture, cereals and legumes – which are needed for the goats. They also have a small crop of ancient varieties of barley and rye. Using a stone mill, they transform these into flour small and transform it into small quantities of whole wheat pasta.
In order to protect the rural heritage, the natural environment and the biodiversity, the entire farm has been built according to the principles of eco-construction. All power comes from alternative and renewable energy systems.
They strive to contribute to a sustainable, but modern, agriculture, and therefore the farm organises tastings, farm visits, activities for children and educational workshops: “With the future in mind, we believe that children are our most valuable audience” Says Alessandra.
At the end of 2016, Emanuele and Alessandra’s farm was awarded the "Bandiera Verde Agricoltura" Award in Italy given to innovative farms in agricultural methods helped them to gain popularity. They have also just won the award for the best goat’s milk yoghurt in Italy.
Photos: Emanuele La Barbera and Alessandra Rabittiis