Better self-sufficiency on the farm

By Raphaëlle de Seilhac :

I start with a basic principle: it is the environment that is the binding framework in which my human activities can develop, and not the other way around! I do not work to produce a lot at a huge price (as happens in the case of industrial agriculture, which produces a lot but at very high economic and environmental costs). It’s more important to measure all the consequences that may result from my practice. Thus, the environment becomes my partner, and as a result my method of agriculture is possible (a creative operation that adds value, has an acceptable amount of human working hours, a permanent intellectual enrichment, the study of endless subtleties of animal and plant worlds …) and in exchange, I participate in its preservation, its restorative effects, and its biodiversity.


The operation follows the specifications of organic agriculture but is also committed to a sustainable farming approach. Unlike organic farming, sustainable agricultural production methods are not restricted by a set of precise and binding specifications. It is a more general approach whose goal is to enable the farmer to make a living while preserving his/her ecosystem. The basic principle is simple: achieve maximum autonomy – autonomy in food, energy, economics, farm management, marketing choices. At the same time, it seemed essential to be interested especially in animal welfare assuming that if I were attentive to this issue, I would get very encouraging results. So at the same time I began exploring the field of ethology and working with herding dogs.

Specifically, here is what I’ve done: 

My animals graze throughout the year, and therefore, they move around the farm all year.

I start from the principle that cows and sheep are meant to eat grass, and that if you respect their natural abilities of growth and select from this perspective, their lives will be optimized. We must add that the grass grazed is three times cheaper than grass harvested and if we maintain rotational grazing throughout the year, we avoid the costs of mechanized manure spreading (to not mention building costs, mulching … besides the energy costs associated with fuel consumption and use of materials).

Therefore I schedule my calving and lambing to take place in the spring (March-April primarily). The animals are fed exclusively on grass, supplemented by winter hay. Winter grazing allows for a complete cleaning of grasslands and avoids of course the pointless use of the crusher. As their intake capacity decreases gradually as winter progresses, herds also limit their consumption of hay so I am careful to book a ‘dietetic’ hay to the end (balanced sugar and fiber). Best of all, the lactation of mothers follows the growth of grass. In spring and autumn in particular, grass management in paddocks can give a very good grass (especially high protein) at key moments of livestock: early lactation spring, finishing adult animals in late spring or fall for the sales periods: June and November-December (steers and heifers are then at least 3 years and lambs at least 8 months, sometimes 12 or even 18 months).

Starting with empathy, constant care, and above all trying to understand what my animals love, it seemed appropriate to think about what conditions are closest to their natural rhythm. Give them choices and you will understand that as long as they have access to quality food and water, both cattle and sheep by far prefer the outdoors. With freedom of movement, mothers can isolate themselves when they need to give birth; open space, as opposed to containment, does not force us to inflict barbaric treatment (such as cutting off their horns). We are not forced to treat sick animals because of a poorly controlled environment (too many drafts , too much moisture, too much dust, asphyxiating or toxic gases, not enough “exercise”, a soil too hard or too soft, walls too hot or too cold, etc.). Outside, the animal learns to move with the wind and rain, and knows how to use the natural elements of bushes and trees for shelter, seek shade and protection, is able to develop a protective coat with the seasons, increase or decrease its metabolic rate, and store and shed fat for the winter.

And so I have defined criteria for selecting our cattle: by favoring hardy animals who are good mothers, with impeccable balance. For mothers, I choose those who calve easily, and those who were not born as one of a pair of twins; for fathers, a serene character, a parent that is inclined to produce spritely animals that are rather small at birth. As for the breeds to choose from, many seemed attractive and able to meet these criteria. I added the ability to easily produce marbled meat. So I have chosen the following breeds: Gascon, Aubrac, Salers, Tarentaise, Vosges, Charolais cross, and Limousine cross; in terms of ewes: Limousine, Tarraconensis, the Noir du Velay and Thône et Marthaud.

You can imagine, allowing animals to always pick their own food has advantages: high energy savings, maintenance of grasslands, biodiversity enrichment. For indeed, beyond the grass management in the spring and fall, I was interested to build the “stock up” and there, rich and varied. And this is where it gets much more complicated! For indeed, it is necessary to both rotating plots in early spring, keep the fields tidy and of good quality, and observe and select those that will be able to skip a rotation or even to offer very abundant resource when hot weather arrive and that nothing will grow or when winter has been due to the vegetation.

This question of observation, a strong desire not to get carried away by the idea of ​​having the maximum possible hay, or the stupid idea of having a ​​”clean” look and eliminating brambles, rushes, gorse, in short, anything above but which nevertheless can be beautifully used over winter. It also requires a good docile herd that must be able to circulate as soon as I decide to move them – sometimes several km – without a problem (and of course, I am not  obliged to mobilize an army of people to move them).

Because animals do not eat everything indifferently – rather they are picky eaters. But they also don’t eat the “best food” first and “less good” after. They do not necessarily favor of more nutritious plants and can start a paddock by first choosing brush or coarse grass. They are primarily food biodiversity lovers. The mixtures are motivating for them, as are the regular trips. The flexibility of movement is also in late summer rigor to pick uneaten molinie prior to the first frost or go clean damp funds when soils are healthy: at the end of a dry summer or in winter when it gets cold, including under the snow.

In all cases and particularly in extreme cases, hot weather or heavy rains (the animals do not fear the cold), I make sure that the cattle always have access to a carrier space, dry and sheltered. This is possible through the forest surrounding my plots or trees that I have left. […]

This management of the annual grass assures me the food security of my cattle while maintaining a close loading 1 LSU (Livestock Unit Gros, a cow and her calf) per hectare.

The woods, a sustainable and renewable resource of the farm

Chopped wood for heat

Well aware that energy problems will be solved primarily through savings that the human species will make it, I reuse cuts hedges and meadows edges (every winter) for heating the house. The recovered branches are shredded by a shredder from CUMA, and the resulting chips are fueling the wood boiler.

In 2015, with the drought conditions in the summer and not wishing to enter the hay stocks, I fed the herds for two months with willow and alder that invaded the base of wet meadows. At the end of the summer, I went to look for leafless trunks and have largely been able to achieve the necessary firewood for the coming winter.

The forest provides wood for projects.

All work on the frame is primarily made from environmentally friendly materials: lime replaces chemical paints, such as hemp shuttering partitions (grown on the farm) are a great alternative to other more common but far more polluting insulation. The wood of the forest of Domaine du Mons is of course used in the construction of farm buildings, to build the floors of the house and provide the frames and partitions.

The latest implementation was storage building…


The sawn timber for the foundation:
bâtiment à construire

Final product : 500 m2 couverts pour une consommation totale de 70 m3 de bois.

bâtiment construit

Naturally treated wastewater

Gray water from the house is handled by a sewage pond system with planted macrophyte beds that make perfectly clean water for the meadows.
All cleaning products (cleaning, toilet paper, soap) are certified biodegradable.

And now?

Everyone makes their own path on the way to sustainability. The important thing is to do it.

The products distributed from the farm are of high environmental quality. They are also of high social and economic quality.

The economic results are such that they can allow a family to live decently from regular work (as with all farming) but with only a small amount of intensive labor.

Not only is environmental integrity aided but the soil is also optimized and made more dynamic and fertile.

The landscape is reopened and diversified.

Biodiversity increases.

Good organization allows you to maintain a vegetable garden which can provide a large part of the family diet.

Free time is available to me to go on vacation, get involved in associations, continue to improve myself and participate in sports and / or cultural happenings.

Today, I concentrate my energy and my knowledge on attaining a very high quality, great tasting product while maintaining its environmental quality.  I also want to take on the challenge of harvesting accurate data and the development of protocols, the drafting of case reports, etc., in order to compile a reproducible handbook for my system.

Keeping in mind a more distant future, I work on the transferability of what I’ve learned here so that others may benefit from this place to do the work of agriculture in sustainable conditions.