Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Animals II: Chickens, Rabbits and Fish

When people think about animals in the context of rural homesteading or backyard gardening, odds are the earthworms and bumblebees discussed in last week’s post won’t be the first thing that comes to mind. The reason for this is simple: they simply aren’t tasty enough. I recall a book I read years ago with the winsome title Butterflies In My Stomach: The Role of Insects in Human Nutrition that made a strong case for dining on insects, but I confess to never having put its recommendations into practice; and as for earthworms, I’ll leave them to those with bolder palates than mine.

No, the animals most often contemplated in this context are those that provide food a bit more directly, and palatably, for our species. This isn’t an unreasonable habit of thinking. Though the earthworms, bumblebees, and other wild creatures that interact with a garden or a farm probably play a more important role overall in green wizardry, domesticated livestock of various kinds have a crucial place in the backyard food economy. Their task is to take biomass that human beings either can’t eat or don’t find very nourishing and turn it into more edible and more nourishing forms.

Now of course this is not the way modern industrial agriculture generally does things. I’ve commented before that if an evil genius set out to design the worst possible way of producing food, his most diabolical contrivances would have a hard time competing with the way we grow food in America today. The animals we raise for human food in this country come out of millions of years of evolution that has fitted them to eat foods that human beings don’t, and turn them into foodstuffs like those that human beings evolved to eat. Do we feed them their proper foods by putting cows out to pasture, say, or letting chickens scratch for insects and vegetable scraps? Of course not.

Instead, we feed them on grains that could just as well be food for human beings, laced with chemicals and drugs, and “enriched” as often as not with the ground-up bodies of other animals that have been discarded as unfit for human consumption. We do this, mind you, in vast energy-wasting warehouse facilities so overcrowded and poorly managed that the manure, which would otherwise be a valuable resource for improving soil fertility, becomes a massive problem – and of course nobody would think of dealing with that problem by any means as sensible as industrial-scale composting. Meanwhile the meat, milk, eggs, and other products of this system are a sickly parody of the equivalents that can be gotten from healthy animals fed their natural foods in sanitary and humane conditions.

Plenty of people who object to the appalling conditions and ecological cost of factory farming have responded by swearing off animal foods altogether. This is certainly a choice, but it’s far from the only option, and some of the arguments that have been marshalled in defense of it simply won’t hold water. Those of my readers who find that a vegetarian or vegan diet suits them should certainly feel free to continue their herbivorous ways, but not everyone finds such diets appropriate to their needs, and those who find a place for animal products on their dinner tables are part of a long hominid tradition; our australopithecine ancestors ate meat, as indeed chimpanzees do today, and it may be worth noting that no surviving or recorded preindustrial culture anywhere on Earth has had a traditional diet that does entirely without animal products.

It’s important to remember, also, that there’s a middle ground between eating the products of industrial factory farming, on the one hand, and abandoning animal foods altogether. One way to pursue that middle ground is to buy animal products from local organic ranchers and growers whose operations are open to visits by consumers. Another, though, involves a glance back toward the household economies of an earlier time, when a henhouse in the back garden was as much a part of most urban households as a stove in the kitchen and a roof overhead.

Like food plant growing, in fact, animal raising can be done in one of two ways, extensive or intensive. The extensive approach, in preindustrial societies, is called pastoralism, and was the foundation of one of the two great human ecologies to evolve out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around the end of the last ice age. Where the early agriculturalists set themselves to domesticate plants they once gathered from the wild, the early pastoralists set themselves to domesticate animals they once hunted. Both new human ecologies had their growing pains and their catastrophic failures, but both worked out most of the bugs, and will be as viable after industrialism as they were before it. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion, for example, that the Great Plains four or five centuries from now will be inhabited by pastoral nomads whose raids against the agrarian towns of the Mississippi-Ohio basin will impose the same ragged heartbeat on the history of the future as their equivalents on the central Asian plains did for so many centuries in the past.

The cattle herds and nomad raiders of 25th-century Nebraska are a bit too far off for present purposes, though, and the closest modern equivalents are out of reach for anyone who doesn’t have enough acreage for the cattle and horses that will define those nomads’ lives. This is where the intensive approach comes in. Just as backyard gardens can produce a significant harvest of vegetables when worked intensively, a backyard henhouse or rabbit hutch can produce a steady supply of animal foods when handled in the same efficient and intensive way. This does not mean putting the animals in some small-scale equivalent of a factory farming operation; rather, it calls for a comfortable shelter and space adequate to the needs of the number of animals you have, along with ample food and clean water, provided by your efforts rather than the less generous habits of nature.

Hens and rabbits are not the only animals that can be raised this way, but for people who don’t have enough real estate to set aside a good-sized piece of pasture, they are among the best. Both can be kept comfortable and healthy in a relatively small space, thrive on an inexpensive diet, and produce abundantly and reliably if treated well. Hens are particularly good for those with tender feelings toward animals; you don’t have to kill them to be nourished by them, since half a dozen hens will keep a couple of humans amply supplied with eggs for most of the year. Rabbits don’t have that advantage, and neither do chickens raised for meat; most people I know who raise either one respond to the hard necessity of slaughtering by doing their level best to see to it that their animals have only one bad day in their lives.

To be healthy and productive, hens and rabbits need comfortable, well-ventilated, rainproof and clean housing, well enough insulated to keep off summer heat and winter cold. They need food, and in any sort of intensive setting they won’t be able to forage for themselves; you’ll need to keep the feeder stocked, whether it’s with food you grow yourself or with something from a local grower or a feed store. They need water, and they need to have their manure hauled away, though admittedly they repay this last bit of regular effort by providing some of the world’s best raw material for compost. (Animals concentrate nutrients, and a regular dose of chicken or rabbit manure mixed into your kitchen and garden waste in the compost bin will speed the composting process and boost your soil’s fertility dramatically.) Animals also need various kinds of incidental care at every stage of their life cycle from birth to stew pot.

What this means, ultimately, is that if you choose to raise small hens or rabbits, you or someone you trust will have to be there for them every day of the week, every week of the year. Other animals have other needs, but for all practical purposes, all of them require daily care. The precise requirements are too complex to cover in detail here; they can be learned from the many books available on the subject of each animal, and if at all possible supplemented by useful advice from someone who has actually raised the animals in question.

What are some of the other options for small-scale animal raising? Pigeons have been raised for many centuries on a backyard scale; if you have a little more room, ducks, geese, turkeys, and guinea fowl can all be raised successfully. On the larger scale, too, goats and small pigs are good options; the Vietnamese potbellied pigs that were briefly fashionable as pets in America, for example, have gone on to become a staple of small-scale pork raising. There are more exotic options that can be found with a little searching. Perhaps the most intriguing of the alternatives, though, are fish.

Microscale aquaculture was a central focus of the New Alchemy Institute, one of the most innovative and inspiring of the appropriate technology groups back in the heyday of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Tilapia, one of the more popular farmed fish these days, was one of the Alchemists’ discoveries; their Arks, or integrated ecoshelters, included tanks for tilapia that provided water and fertilizer in the form of fish feces to greenhouse crops, as well as a steady harvest of fish. I’ve never worked with small-scale aquaculture and so have no practical knowledge to offer here, but the concept seems to have worked well in practice, and green wizards who are unfazed by the technical challenges could do worse than look through the papers of the Institute, which are available via several sites online, and start experimenting.

Whether finned, feathered, or furred, animals are a much greater challenge than vegetables. More biologically complex than plants, they are equally more fragile, and require a great deal more care; the same concentration of nutrients up the food chain that make them so delectable to human beings also make them equally prized by other predators, and the sort of hearty nip that most plants can shrug off without incident will put most animals at risk of infection or bleeding to death. Even among green wizards, they aren’t a suitable project for everyone, but those who decide that raising small livestock is a challenge they want to take up can contribute mightily to the larders of their households and, on a broader scale, to the resilience of their families and communities in a world where factory farming will be no more than an unhappy memory.


The standard Seventies-era book on backyard livestock, found on the shelves of every back-to-the-land homesteader of the naked hippie era, was Jerome D. Belanger’s The Homesteader’s Guide to Raising Small Livestock, which covers goats, chickens, sheep, geese, rabbits, hogs, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks, and pigeons, in no particular order. An overview rather than a detailed guide, it needs to be supplemented with specific books on whatever animal you decide to raise, but it provides a good first glance over the options and some very good pointers as well.

The books I relied on back in the day when I tended chickens and rabbits were Leonard S. Mercia’s Raising Poultry the Modern Way, Bob Bennett’s Raising Rabbits the Modern Way, and Ann Kanable’s Raising Rabbits. They remain good solid texts, though there are plenty of newer books on the market, and the backyard animals I didn’t raise also have a literature of your own. Your best bet is to find someone who currently raises the animal you have in mind and ask for suggestions; in most cases you’ll find yourself with a new friend, and plenty of good advice.


Cathy McGuire said...

Great post, again! I have just started with chickens this year, and I'm loving it! At first I wasn't sure about raising them for meat, but I've become quite attached to my six hens, so for now they are providing eggs, fertilizer and de-bugging the garden. I've even taught them to eat slugs! (there's a YouTube video that shows how). You are right about the daily care. I've been able to leave for max 1.5 days, leaving lots of water and food. But I'm using it as a handy excuse not to go to gatherings I didn't want to go to anyway. :-}

Possibly, if crisis causes food to become a big issue, I might build a larger flock and not get so attached to them... but that's in the future.

BTW - I just checked over at the forum, and in two weeks, we have over 1,000 posts, and one short of 600 members! That's awesome!

MisterMoose said...

We recently visited some friends who have a self-sufficient, off-grid goat farm that is literally out in the middle of nowhere, mainly to see if raising goats might be something that we might want to do in the future. OMG, the goat cheese! Goat brie, goat gouda, goat feta... Yeah, we could get into that.

Organic or self-sufficient gardening and animal husbandry are obviously the best way to produce good food, but just cannot compete with big-time factory farming in terms of cost (eggs at our local supermarket are on sale for $0.99/dozen, so what's the point of raising your own chickens to produce eggs that cost more per egg?). BUT, if the grid goes down, or the supply of petroleum is cut for even a short time, growing your own food could be the best insurance policy. Home-grown eggs at $0.99/egg are so much tastier than no eggs at all at $0.99/dozen...

The Onion said...

There has been increase of coverage in the mainstream media about backyard chickens. I think more people are starting to question where their eggs, and other foods are coming from and wondering if it might be a good idea to start asking city council about allowing chickens. This is an inner city thing, the suburbs still aren't ready to risk the property devaluing phenomenon of chickens at this point, but there are small signs of hope.

In order to make backyard chickens a financially sound idea, you'd also have to square yourself with the idea of producing feed for them, or the cost may be prohibitive. I'm sure the books mentioned cover these details.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, I'm looking forward to having chickens again, though it will be a bit -- too much travel in my life just now, and too many other projects that need doing. As for the forum, I'm completely gobsmacked by the way it keeps on expanding. Thank you for your hard work on it!

Moose, you've put your finger on a crucial point -- narrow analyses that only take money into account miss more than they catch. The store-bought eggs cost $0.99 a dozen because the real costs are offloaded onto the community and nature; meanwhile your own chicken's eggs come with benefits the price doesn't reflect.

Onion, if you buy laying mash from the feed store, you may bust your budget. If you do some research, figure out how much of your own chicken feed you can grow and what else you can use that's cheap, the cost will be...well...chicken feed. Seriously.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: eggs and store bought feed: I find if I feed my hens more store bought feed I get more eggs (surprise, surprise). The cost comes out to be about $2-$3/dozen eggs. About what I can buy eggs for from the same small-scale commercial farmer up the hill who feeds his hens the same store-bought feed. So, like, whatever...

I find people in general have a very poor grasp of the basic concept you outlined: The purpose of a food animal is to take things you cannot or will not eat and turn them in to things you can and will eat. It is NOT to take things that are perfectly good people food and turn them into a much smaller quantity of people food. Animals should get a large portion of their diet from range and forage (which includes bugs and even small frogs and lizards in the case of chickens), cellulose, garbage, scraps, partially digested manure, etc. Otherwise you are trading one dollar for two shiny nickels. "Organic" does not necessarily mean this -- "organic" poultry, eggs, dairy, etc. are usually made by feeding the critters the same grains and supplements as conventional, except that these feedstocks were organically grown.

Intentionally or otherwise, producers and promoters of "alternative" animals use this lack of understanding to mislead consumers and small-scale growers. My particular pet peeve is pastured poultry. These birds may spend all day sitting on nice green grass, but 80-90% of what they eat is still the same old pelletized chicken feed produced from from the same old grains, soybeans, etc. From an energy flow perspective they don't look much different from conventional poultry; they are still made mostly of petroleum in the end. The same is true for many boutique meat and dairy products. "Local," "organic," "free-range," etc. still often means "made from petroleum" in the end.

If you don't feed these conventional feeds, you have several tradeoffs. Your animals grow slower. They produce fewer eggs and less milk. Your results are less predictable. You can keep far fewer animals in the same area. BUT you are not basing your food on petroleum, and you will not be spending all your cash (or all your time if you grow the grains yourself) feeding your critters!

Plus you've never really seen an egg until you see one produced by a hen who eats near 100% wild food. The yolks are deep orange and you can pick the yolk up with your bare fingers without breaking it. The aroma and flavor are, well, it's comparable to the difference between a store-bought tomato and a fresh home-grown one. Amazing to think that japanese beetles, crabgrass seeds, and spring peepers can be turned into something so delicious just by being passed through the innards of a small feathery toothless dinosaur.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Chickens are awesome critters. Entertaining as well as providing eggs and meat!
We dehydrate the carrot tops and beet greens over the summer to supplement winter feed, and have harvested sunflower seeds from the garden flowers to add to the bucket as well as growing a small plot of grain specifically for the chooks. It's barely a half-bucket full, but if we HAD to ... we could get more. A few grains grown in a small space plus the peelings and leftovers from meal preparation and chickens are pretty happy, even in winter. You wouldn't need a whole lot of 'bagged feed' to keep them happy.

A hanging bucket type feeder and waterer (or large trough) can keep them going for several days, if you get it arranged properly, so they don't always need a lot of looking after.

Bill Pulliam said...

a p.s. Out of curiosity I just checked the wikipedia page for "pastured poultry." It described it as "sustainable agriculture," which it is not; it categorizes the birds as "grass-fed," which they are not. Even the producers themselves by and large do not seem to have noticed these critical facts!

Glenn said...

We've been raising ducks and geese for 5 years, and chickens for the last two. We buy feed. We find it costs us about the same as buying eggs. Not at .99/doz, more like $3 - $4, which is what they charge for "organic free range", which is what ours are. But, you get free manure, and buy your eggs a month at a time.

We started trying to grow feed this year, in the form of sunflowers and seedy squash. Next year we'll add walking stick plant.

It does tie you down, which is why we don't have milk animals. Finding someone to feed the poultry and collect the eggs for a week or so is not too hard. Finding a neighbor who can milk and is willing to do so twice a day is at least an order of magnitude more difficult.

Marrowstone Island

Joel said...

Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, by Kellog and Pettigrew, includes a good primer on aquaculture, including the use of aquatic plants to clean the fishes' water. (It's also one of the only resources I know of that comprehensively covers zero-to-low-budget bioremediation techniques.)

I'd also like to point out briefly that it's possible to do something akin to rotational grazing on an intensive scale, using animal enclosures that can be moved around a lawn and/or garden. Enclosures like this often go by fanciful names like "rabbit tractor" or "poultry schooner."

Blagroll said...

There's no contest between battery "manufactured" eggs and home harvested. Home harvested wins every time. The quality is superb, and of course you can't beat HH for freshness. Fresh eggs have a solidly identifiable four tier structure easily apparent to the naked eye. When you crack a fresh egg into the pan, the whites should form a well defined small circle almost instantaneously with a deeply coloured yolk perched pertly atop.

Yet, there's no way to compete on economy of scales employed by industrial hen/egg production. Proper bedding alone will make an egg to egg cost comparison futile. So why try?

I found through trial and error, and through advising others, to start off very small. As hens are flocking birds, three hens to start off with seems ideal. You keep costs in resources, including time, to a minimum and you give yourself time to learn through experience. A rooster isn't necessary for the beginner. A bad bugger is worse than no rooster at all. You'll still get your eggs, albeit possibly with a smaller production quota, and in the abscence of the fella strutting about you'll eventually need to replace hens, as they age, from a realiable outside source.

One vital component that many people tend to ignore is water. It's vital to the hen's health and production capabilities that fresh water be provided daily - more frequently during hot weather. A small investment in a gravity assisted water feeder is worth every penny. Keep the water feeders in a cool, shaded place, and make sure they are kept spotlessly clean - ie certainly no algae build up.

When expertimenting with feeding the hens household scraps try and stay away from feeding them processed/manufactured white bread. They deserve better, and you're eggs will taste better.

An investment in a good chicken book/manual is vital - even for a small flock, especially if you're in this for the long haul.


Robin Datta said...

What one eats - or prefers to eat is largely a matter of culture and upbringing. If you were raised in the fjords of Norway and had raw North See herring fed to you as soon as you were able to eat solid food, you might relish them for the rest of your life. The same goes for roasted termites in sub-Saharan Africa or the remarkable range of cuisine (perhaps a consequence of populaiton pressures) in China. Many third or fourth generation immigrants find Indian / Pakistani foods to be "blah!", but that is not the case with native born children of immigrant parents who wene raised eating that kiind of food.

A recent episode of Survival Podcast ( gives an overview of Aquaponics:

Survival Podcast: Episode-510- Building Renewalable Protein Sources via Aquaponics:

Alice Y. said...

I've wondered about whether the (also human edible) weed "fat hen", Chenopodium album, would be good chicken food as its name suggests. It's the same family as quinoa and amaranth, the seeds of which are reasonably high in protein. Not tried it though.

Alan said...

JMG: I believe that you may have gotten the title of Berlanger's book on small animal raising slightly wrong. Amazon lists, "The Homesteader's Handbook To Raising Small Livestock", a 1974 Rodale paperback, out of print with a few copies available starting at $8.00. It also lists, "The Homesteader's Handbook to Raising Small Livestock Goats, Chickens, Sheep. Geese, Rabbits, Hogs, Turkeys, Guinea Fowl, Ducks and Pigeons", a 1974 Rodale hardbound, also out of print with quite a few copies available for as little as $3.60.

Kevin said...

At this point composting and veggie gardening are challenge enough for me. Also, I'd like to do a bit more traveling before the jet age crashes - I haven't flown anywhere since 1998 - and from what you say, that doesn't seem compatible with raising animals.

Kunstler brought up the topic of urban domestic animals in a recent audio discussion, and mentioned that with poultry there's the problem that roosters will crow beginning around 4:00 AM. I've experienced this, and it's a real problem if you consider sleeping important to your health.

The concern with property values seems to me part and parcel of the home-as-investment model of the past few decades, which I feel we need to be getting away from - and which in any case is (hopefully) doomed.

Ravendark said...

What a great post! So very inspiring. I hope to move somewhere with a large enough garden to raise chickens, and have a decent-sized veg plot within the next five years. However, for now all I have is a tiny 10x8 foot paved courtyard garden, and it's so hard making use of that space! Still, we can dream...

sofistek said...

6 hens will likely keep more than a couple of adults supplied with eggs year round. I got 8 of them and, unfortunately, have to give most of the eggs away (it's either that or compost the excess). Even if the rest of my family ate more eggs than they do (I'm the only regular egg eater out of four adults, though others eat them occasionally and they get used in baking), I would still have far more than we need. I got the hens last February (our summer) and, since they started laying, there has been almost no stopping them, even during winter, when they averaged 6 or 7 eggs a day, they are now averaging 7 or 8 a day.

I'm having to buy some of their food in, at the moment - probably about two thirds - the rest being what I grow or scavenge from a local fruit and veg shop.

They live in a chook dome (of permaculturalist Linda Woodrow's design). Their roost is a web of bamboo canes hanging from the top of the dome, and there is a tarp covering the top, to keep some of the rain out (especially when they're roosting). The rest is open, apart from bird wire to keep the other birdlife out (until I did that, I was going through much more bought feed, at the start of winter). I was wondering if they'd be warm enough in winter but they seem to have got through OK - they huddle together on the roost at night - despite an unusual period of 6 frosts in a row (though they were light frosts).

The chook dome design is intended to be moveable around the vegetable circles of a mandala garden design. They stay in each circle for about 2-3 weeks, manuring and scratching, before planting, taking 3-4 months to come round again to the same circle.

Cherokee Organics said...


Good post again. We'll all be eating poultry and pork long after beef and lamb are a distant memory.

Actually, I don't really eat that much meat and limit my choices to these two sources (most of the time anyway). Fortunately, there are quite a few poultry and pig organic farms hereabouts if you know where to look. The stewards of these farms show great compassion towards the well being of their animals and for this I am grateful.

I'm starting my experiments with poultry keeping sometime after February (late summer here).

Why the wait? Well, after a bit of research, I've found that the best place to buy chickens are at agricultural shows. In Victoria, Australia, I recommend for the small holder the Seymour Alternative Farming Show. It's not really that alternative, but it caters for small farmers (and novices) in a way that the really big field day type shows don't.

Plus they sell chickens which have been graded and given prizes so you don't need to be an expert to be able to pick ones with good genetic stock.

Also as recommended, buy books and read up on maintenance of your animals.

Good luck!

darius said...

I have chickens and a couple of guineas on my 'list'... as soon as I can get help to build a coop. I'm okay with the eggs costing more than factory eggs, because I'll do it for the increased nutrition and garden pest patrol.

Rabbits are tasty, and I have room for them... but too lean to be my sole meat source.

I've looked at a couple of Dwarf Nigerian goats; each give about a quart of milk per day, plenty enough for one woman, with some left to make cheese! I just don't relish milking twice daily, each and every day, 365 days a year, in rain, sleet, snow, and whether in sickness or healthy.

Jim Brewster said...

I can envision a not-too-distant future where a subset of suburbanites could easily keep small herds of cattle, especially small cattle like Dexters. Within walking distance of my house there are many acres of "pasture," most of which is now grazed by lawnmower. Replacing the mowers with rotating herds of grazing animals may well be a welcome service for residents as well as the many churches, schools, and small businesses in the area. Then the resident chickens, or rotating flocks in portable "chicken tractors" can help scatter the manure, removing flies and parasites in the process. Some nice things about cattle in this scenario: They are more docile than goats and produce more milk. They are less vulnerable to the elements and predators including domestic dogs. They can serve as beasts of burden, such as carrying gardening tools, portable shelter, the above-mentioned chicken tractors, making more scattered semi-nomadic agriculture possible in a post-car world.

Brad K. said...

@ MisterMoose,

I got a book-on-cassette some 20 years ago, "The Goal" a management-oriented novel by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The pace is nearly pedantic, but some of the concepts are intriguing.

For instance, while working along on planned production, you may have extra capacity to offer something else at lower cost. When the "main" product line supports all your amortized costs, then the niche stuff cost is derived from resources actually used.

Get the chickens for your garden compost, and for your eggs. That cost adds up, but pays for the shelter and space. Add two or three hens, and get a dozen or two eggs to sell, in season - and the cost need not be concerned with shelter, water, etc. except what the additional birds consume - and you needn't offset the additions to the garden compost.

Or just provide the extra dozen eggs to a neighbor in need.

@ JMG,

What about "Kosher" animal products? I haven't looked into Kosher blessed products, but don't they have a reputation for humane raising, slaughter, and processing?

On another topic - I would thing being vegetarian or vegan would be tough, and still be "green". If you aim to reduce the plastics in your life, isn't leather the traditional alternative for footwear? If we lose access to the mass production of oil-turned-to-leather-substitutes in the future, I expect much more need for animals for their hides, and a return to curing leather. When industrial fertilizers are threatened - won't animal wastes be highly regarded, in order to produce the quantity of food needed?

Meat production may turn out to be incidental, in our need for raising and producing livestock like cows and hogs.

I have been keeping chickens for the last eight years - I was welding up the chicken house on 9/11. One issue I seldom see is successfully adding young birds to an existing flock, without getting all the young birds killed. The industrial approach of cleaning out all existing birds and replacing the flock avoids this issue, but isn't the only way.

You mention predators; I would caution anyone intending to keep chickens or other livestock to be prepared to kill predators. I have had to deal with snakes and possums so far. Foxes and predator birds don't stick around long enough to for me to assault. The only thing I ever successfully scared off was a young skunk - and that took a near-miss with a .410 shotgun. My preferred weapons include a three-tined pitchfork and a three-pound hammer with longish handle. Did I mention my steel chicken house, which would make bullet and pellet holes tough to patch?

Predator control also makes clothing safety and issue. Long, sturdy pants and sturdy shoes are much safer when dealing with livestock in general, and wildlife in particular.

Lamb said...

Having relocated to west Texas with my fella, I am now a herder! On a generous lot (approximately 1 acre), we currently have 3 goats (1 billy, 2 does) and 3 chickens (1 rooster and 2 hens). We plan to add to the chicken flock as we want a total of 6 hens and we hope the billy soon performs his *duty* so that our goats present us with young and a supply of milk.
In the meantime, the goat manure is fabulous as a compost additive and the chickens addition to the compost is welcome as well.
The effort required is really not that labor intensive (to me). I feed the various critters every morning and enjoy my morning commute across the back yard. The goats greet me enthusiastically and very vocally...I think they enjoy the head scratching I give them as much as the hay! The chickens race to the fence, not just for the chicken feed, but also for the bounty of table scraps from last night dinner.
A couple of times a week, I open the gates and let the critters out for a yard is neatly trimmed down with out the use of a lawn mower, the goats trim the grass and even the shrubs and trees for me! The chickens scratch about near the garden beds I am putting in and keep the soil nicely churned up for me.
Could I have an intensive self-sufficient garden without my furred and feathered friends? Yes...but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun!

Rye said...

When I purchased a 25 ft., oval above-ground resevoir a few years ago, my teen and pre-teen kids mistook it for a swimming pool. They even swam in it for 6 weeks or so each year when the water in it converted enough solar radiation to warm the water. I noticed that they swam in it less this year, and I expect by the time my youngest is 18 or so, other diversions will distract his attention from splashing around in Dad's 33,000 liter water-collection system. Eventually, no one will care if I divert the downspouts of my house toward the 'pool', leave the thing covered most of the time -- or even stock the thing with fish!
While the notion of raising back-yard chickens and rabbits has a strong appeal, I realize that for myself, right now, I'm insufficiently 'grounded' to be able to do it. I leave my suburban 'farm' daily, relying on the carbon-fueled infrastructure for my inputs in the form of 'cash-money'. At the same time, I think my family sees my continual digging and delving and my half-baked, half-completed 'projects' as the work of a crazy old man entering the early stages of his dotage -- at the age of 53.
I don't care. My purple peacock beans, planted late, flowered last week; I may get a few pods off of them yet!

sgage said...

I have been keeping chickens, sheep, and sometimes rabbits for many years, and I just want to emphasize/amplify a couple of things that have been mentioned.

First, as JMG alluded to, once you have livestock, you really need to be there to care for them daily, This means that getting away for any length of time is impossible unless you have a friend or neighbor that you can ABSOLUTELY trust. I have had some bad experiences in that department - some people, good-hearted, helpful people, simply do not have a "head" for animals and their needs.

The last time my partner and I went away for a few days together, we actually hired a local woman who does "barn sitting" for a living - she has a clientele of folks with small livestock operations, and takes care of them when they want/need to get away. She's a farm girl, and I trust her completely to know what to do in any circumstance.

I'm also best friends with the local vet. This becomes important if you will be having larger critters such as goats, sheep, and especially cows or horses.

The other thing that deserves amplification is predators. I live pretty well "out there" in the woods, and we have it all - hawks, foxes, coyotes, bears, fishercats, weasels, you name it. They all love chicken, after all, it tastes just like chicken!

We have had some horrible weasel events over the years - they are rather small and hard to keep out of the henhouse. Fishercats are bad, but they will kill one chicken and drag it off into the woods. Weasels go berserk - we lost 5 hens one night in what we though was a tightly secured henhouse. "Carnage" doesn't quite capture it.

If I'm going to be away from the place for more than half an hour, I put the sheep in the barn - the coyotes are just opportunistic as hell. And of course they go in for the night at dusk. Between that practice, and having 4 dogs running around a lot of the time (and formerly a horse), we have been mercifully spared a coyote attack, though I see them scouting us out once in a while.

It might just be easier to raise small animals in suburbia, where the predators don't roam quite as brazenly! But if your place is adjacent to any sort of woods/wild land, you'll need to give some very serious thought to protection from predators.

Luciddreams said...

I've been planning on gettin' chickens this spring. In the city I live in it's legal to have up to 10 chickens in the city limits with a caveat that if neighbors complain you loose your chickens. I won't have a problem so long as I don't get a rooster. The problem with that is that now I lose a meat source. Still I think that eggs and fertilizer are good enough reasons to proceed. Do they stud roosters out? I'm only half joking.

So for the sake of more self sufficiency I'm now thinking that maybe rabbits are a good choice. For the meat. I know next to nothing about keeping them (or chickens for that matter) but I'm going to learn. Maybe Guinea Fowl would be a better option. I would prefer to keep only one animal to keep cost down. This is an area where more research on my part is needed.

And I still haven't built the bat house. This is getting to the point where I will need to make a list and prioritize. I want so badly to have a meat source that does not exude from the Monsanto Frankenmachine.

john said...


I reckon actually killing the animals is the biggest problem.How many people nowadays would have the spine required to wring a chicken's neck or chop off a rabbit's head?

AndoLaw said...

Great timing! Weekend after next I am off to a workshop on raising meat rabbits, which seems the next logical addition for me, and too little considered. After plenty of bookish research and a couple visits to folks already doing it, I'm looking forward to some hands-on guidance in those areas where I'm still uncertain and getting started.

I've also looked closely at the aquaculture/aquaponics options. It seems a no-brainer if you have either a pond or perennial stream you can reliably tap.

But without either of these aquaculture seems mostly to offer a cautionary lesson in energy descent. Without lots of water you're looking at a recirculating system, which means a pump, which means energy. And there's virtually no room for error in that department: in a small recirculating system stocked at anything resembling typical density for food production, if you lose power for a couple hours you have a tank full of dead fish on your hands, for want of oxygen. (How's that for an illustration of Liebig's Law?)

Quite short of complete collapse of the grid it seems prudent not to count on 24/7 electricity in the coming years, nor on the fossil fuel-based systems that most folks depend on for backup generation.

With no wind to draw on, I'm left with solar. If I knew I could keep a small (even 5 GPM) pump running 24 hours a day for a few days on solar energy (with batteries) here in New England, I'd be happy as...well, happy as a fish in water! If anyone cares to educate/convince me as to the feasibility of this, by all means, do.

Bill Pulliam said...

About killing things (those who find eating animals morally objectionable should skip the rest of this comment)...

I found it much easier than I expected to adjust to butchering my own chickens. The way I do this without angst is summed up in the old farmer's rule of thumb:

If you are going to eat it, don't name it.

This is really about intention. Animals you are raising for meat need to be approached emotionally-psychologically-intentionally in a different way from the very first instant. If all you have ever had before has been pets this will be a big shift. You don't care for them differently -- you make sure they are well fed and watered, not too warm or too cold, healthy, comfortable, and peaceful, just as you would for any animal. But from day one you look at them as food. When you watch their physical development, you think about the quality of the meat. When you admire their large muscular legs you admire it in terms of how tasty it will be. When you are able to see meat on-the-hoof or in-the-feather as future food, and you know your animals are well cared for and contented, butchering day is just the fulfillment of your well-executed and humane plan. I always referred to it as "turning chickens in to chicken."

If you are in the country there are also likely to be local people (try amish families or small-scale poultry farms) who will butcher your animals for you for a small fee. Personally, I prefer to do the dispatching myself. I've been responsible for these animals' entire life; I feel that I should be the one who wields the knife at the end of it too. But I'm an animist; others will feel differently. Done well and done at home, it's not even "one bad day;" it's more like "a few bad minutes."

OK the squeamish should scroll down now... seriously, I mean it!

When hand "processing," you don't wanna wring a chicken's neck or cut its head off. One key to really tasty chicken meat is to get as much blood out as possible (without having it splattered all over your farm). Yes, a beheaded chicken really does flop like a landed fish, sometimes actually scrambling around on its feet. Its a horrible mess. But a chicken with a wrung neck dies with all its blood in all its tissue, which is responsible for a gamey, metallic flavor. What you do it put the chicken upside down in a killing cone, pull the head gently through the bottom to extend the neck (no force!), and using a carefully wielded razor sharp knife you cut the jugular. Done right, the bird feels almost nothing; they don't even flinch or squawk. They get dizzy, pass out, and die; those involuntary death contractions happen after the bird has lost consciousness and are contained by the killing cone. The blood goes neatly into your collecting bucket instead of on the ground, on your clothes, on the walls, etc. Within minutes it's over, your chickens are now chicken.

Harry said...

I think an interesting question will be, how many missed meals separate those of us who are squeamish about killing our own food and mopping up the gravy with the last bite of thumper?

For me it was about a week. Those were wild rabbits though, snared on the mountains behind the college.

How long it would be for an animal I was raising, I don't know. Luckily my wife is a rancher so is not so sentimental as I.

Robo said...

I'm sure that one big reason more people don't keep chickens, rabbits and other small food-producing animals is their unavoidable need for daily care and feeding, however minor the exercise of that care might actually be.

Modern Americans in particular are still devoted to the idea that one of the basic rights of citizenship is an unrestricted freedom of physical movement.

Even though most of us don't often travel much further than our daily commute, we cling to the notion that we can, whenever we choose, drop everything and head off on some exciting and extended adventure, borne swiftly upon or within our favorite vehicle. This wanderlust is deeply embedded in US culture and history, incessantly encouraged and embellished by our dominant transportation, tourism and entertainment industries.

This shimmering mirage of the open road is naturally incompatible with daily chicken feeding or rabbit box cleaning, in spite of the fact that many people routinely restrict their travel and perform these very sorts of labors in support of a multitude of dogs and cats, goldfish and canaries.

Maybe we put up with this contradiction because the Norman Rockwell vision of the American vacation that many of us have internalized features Rover eagerly lolling his tongue out of the car window on the way to the beach, and because kitty travel boxes and boarding kennels have become ubiquitous and acceptable.

Perhaps our modern obsession with pets is simply a substitute for a lost relationship with domestic farm animals in the same way that our fanatic attention to our lawns satisfies a deeply rooted agricultural instinct.

Surely we can redirect some of our animal husbandry energies back towards chickens and rabbits, just as we can divert time and effort from lawn care back into the vegetable garden.

It wouldn't really be that more work, just different. We've done it before, and we can do it again. Besides, for most of us, future decades will likely be quite a bit quieter and slower and closer to home than the past seven or eight have been. We'll have plenty of time to tend the poultry.

The sound of cocks crowing at dawn could resound in our neighborhoods once again, just as acceptable and normal a part of our daily rhythm as the sounds of garbage trucks and automotive traffic are today.

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

Um . . as for the graded and awarded chickens? They are chickens, after all, and will taste pretty much like . . chicken.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of good knowledge passed out from competition and fairs - what works, what doesn't. As long as your goals are the same as the goals for the class you look at, and the same as the judges pursue, then the prize winner is what you want.

Because birds or crafts or whatever wins - was tuned closely to meet the published criteria. It has been years since I looked at poultry exhibits with any attention at all. I recall classes and award for meat birds - most gain in least time. For egg laying. I don't recall ratings for thrift, for maintaining good condition on least feed or least quality feed. I don't recall competition for richest compost additions. I don't recall competitions for being trainable, for being aggressive against predators, for being good brooders or pleasant disposition. Or for eating bugs and maggots.

I also don't recall birds graded on genetic diversity. In fact, many modern practices tend to inbreed lines, and use artificial insemination to artificially concentrate the gene pool for "desirable" traits (accepting the risk of concentrating undesirable/lethal traits).

I would suggest taking chicks or young birds from someone with a decent reputation for business, and healthy birds. The more local the better, as the birds will be more closely adapted to your locale. Find someone that has chickens, and pick their brains.

If you only get hens at first, you get to skip the genetics worries, and all you need are some reasonably performing birds that will need to be replaced, eventually. That, or a rooster can be added in a year or two.

Note that roosters should be rotated out as well if you keep chicks back for replacement hens - or you risk inbreeding and resultant loss of a robust gene pool.

You will notice that all the chicken books (that I have seen) and all the modern techniques call for destroying the hen when she gets to be a year old or so, because "production is reduced in older birds". (You might find that someone with a good operation going may be willing to part with older hens "near retirement" for a pittance.) Two points - if you aren't producing eggs for a commercial enterprise, the dropoff isn't that dramatic, usually, and the feed and care to raise a new replacement bird takes time with no production. Next is lights. Commercial producers use lights for 12 or more hours every day, to force chickens to lay eggs year round, instead of letting the shorter daylight hours in winter divert that energy into surviving - and thriving! - in winter. If you aren't forcing the laying, chickens (evolved from roosting in trees over winter) need protection from wind and drafts - but not much for insulation in winter. The only heat I use is for the waterer, for my convenience. We get spells down below -10F each winter, with long stretches below freezing.

Modern practice has separated strains for how they brood. Some breeds brood - set a nest until hatching. Others have been selected to *not* set - which means gathering eggs is handier, you don't have to fight the hen for possession of the eggs.

I figure letting the hen set a clutch each summer, and no lights so that winter eggs fall off naturally, reduces the aging on the hen. Plus, I tend to separate hatched chicks and raise them, then re-introduce them to the flog. When I let the hen keep the chicks (I always leave her a couple), they seldom last a third day. From what I read in Storey's Guide for chickens, I should probably move the hen to a brooding box. Maybe next year . .

canterburg said...

In Portland, Oregon where we live, there are now several urban farmsitting businesses up and running on the pet sitting model. They'll feed and water your chickens, rabbits, or mini goats while you have to be elsewhere. They'll even email you reports while you're gone. Naturally, you need to see references and interview them, but it's an option for those who don't have neighbors or family to take care of their animals.

Brad K. said...

@ Jim Brewster,

When pasturing grazers in town, remember that you are allowed to rake up the solid leavings. The old-time craft of "street sweeper" had much to do with horse droppings and much less to do with dust and leaves. Compost the cow patties, and you will likely get quicker acceptance of grazing public grounds. Exposure to parasites shouldn't be any more severe that from dog owners letting their dogs "dot" the park then pick up (much) of the (visible) mass.

Robo said...

The need for daily care and feeding is surely the biggest reason more people don't keep small food-producing animals

Modern Americans in particular are devoted to the idea that one of the basic rights of citizenship is an unrestricted freedom of physical movement.

Even though most of us don't often travel much further than our daily commute, we cling to the notion that we can drop everything whenever we wish and head off on some exciting and extended adventure. This wanderlust is deeply embedded in US culture and commerce.

The shimmering mirage of the open road is naturally incompatible with daily chicken feeding or rabbit box cleaning, despite the fact that many people routinely restrict their travel and perform these very sorts of labors in support of a multitude of dogs and cats, goldfish and canaries.

Could it be that our modern obsession with pets is a substitute for a lost relationship with domestic farm animals in the same way that our fanatic attention to our lawns satisfies a deeply rooted agricultural instinct?

Surely we can redirect some of our animal husbandry energies back towards chickens and rabbits, just as we can divert time and effort from lawn care back into the vegetable garden.

It wouldn't really be that more work, just different. We've done it before, and we can do it again. Besides, for most of us, future decades will likely be quite a bit quieter and slower and closer to home than the past seven or eight have been.

We'll have plenty of time to tend the poultry.

Glenn said...


Killing isn't very hard. Gutting is messy and a bit of work. Plucking or skinning poultry is a bit of work. Skinning small game isn't too hard.
On these forums it's pretty easy to tell those that are "doing it" from those that aren't. Those with no experience tend to underestimate or overestimate how difficult something is or what the "rate of return" is.
Of course, YMMV. We all have different tastes, talents and skills...

Marrowstone Island

Paula said...

This planet isn't large enough to support us all as vegans or vegetarians- a good portion of it isn't arable, and that's where animals come in. Anyone concerned about the welfare of their dinner prior to its demise is well advised to spend a little more a little less often and directly support producers that are humane. We've managed a quarter steer from a quasi-local ranch that grass feeds and field harvests- haven't been so fortunate for the rest of what we eat, but we're working on it.

Anyone living in an urban or suburban setting is also advised to NOT do guinea fowl- they're famously noisy and loud about it.

Houyhnhnm said...

Except for people with allergies--sorry JMG--ducks are another option of small, easy to keep livestock. If eggs are the goal though, ducks are not too city friendly because, unlike hens, ducks are noisy. However, if meat is the goal, city dwellers could most likely find duck egg farmers who'd love to sell extra, almost silent drakes for city folk to use as weed and insect control and then for meat.

I know this because I have four drakes that have to leave before they reach sexual maturity in two months. I'm hoping to find breeding homes for my guys since they are top of the line Welsh Harlequins, but I'm realistic too.

Another small livestock breed I recommend is Barbados Blackbelly Sheep. I'm allergic to wool, so I'd given up all hope of owning sheep until I ran into a local breeder. Barbados Blackbellies are hair sheep, not wool sheep. The meat is also leaner than typical lamb. The local breeder's website gives some good background on this rare breed:

Last, I recommend the website of one of my best friends from high school. provides info on "safe, healthy, natural and nutritious grass-fed beef, lamb, goats, bison, poultry, pork, dairy and other wild edibles."


Bill Pulliam said...

About daily care needs...

Most Americans own cats or dogs. These need as much or more daily care than chickens and rabbits. Hiring a responsible teenager or neighbor to take care of your farm critters when you go would be cheaper than kenneling your pets. Half of our chickens roost in the maple tree in the front yard rather than in their chicken house anyway, and they all drink from the creek and can feed themselves from wild food 100% if need be. So caring for them is pretty easy -- open or close a door, throw a little food out so they remember where they live. Non-lactating hoofed critters aren't much more trouble either -- check the food and water, open or close the doors or gates. A few minutes twice a day. If you've got someone producing milk then it's more of an issue; find a neighbor who knows how to handle a teat and be prepared to reciprocate!

Of course this is only the case if you only have a modest number of animals. If you have a large goat herd or are raising hundreds of chickens or rabbits for market then everything changes; but in that case you are really running a business, not just a household, and you need to plan and prioritize accordingly.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, exactly. That's part of the reason why I asked everybody to read a book on ecology -- the role of animals in expanding the reach of the food chain that leads to us is central to the strategy.

Apple Jack, some friends of mine who had chickens and children used to use the former to entertain the latter, and kept their garden free of slugs, by encouraging the kids to find slugs to toss to the chickens. This evolved into a game of slug football -- you toss the slug onto the centerline, and the chickens mob it, tussle with one another, and run here and there. Wherever the slug gets eaten is where the next one gets tossed. First slug eaten in either end zone is a touchdown. Kept 'em busy for hours.

Glenn, thanks for the voice of experience!

Joel, thanks for the book suggestion -- I'll check it out.

Blagroll, exactly. A simplistic cost analysis leaves out so much, and is so thoroughly distorted in favor of existing interests, that I don't bother.

Robin, growing up with a Japanese stepmother, I learned early on to enjoy things like raw octopus sushi, and doubtless would have developed a taste for chocolate covered ants if I'd had the opportunity!

Alice, it's also known as henbit, so my guess is it's very much worth a try!

Alan, you're quite right. The irony is that I've got a copy on the bookshelf!

Kevin, the best way to avoid having roosters crowing is to not have a rooster. If your hens are purely there for eggs, you don't need one. Still, it's also possible that it may not be workable for you to have livestock just now. As I mentioned, they're not for everybody.

Ravendark, a space like that would be ideal for container gardening. Give it a try!

sgage said...


You wrote "About killing things (those who find eating animals morally objectionable should skip the rest of this comment)..."

I would also invert that and add that those who find killing things morally objectionable should skip eating them!

As a carnivore, I have always felt that, even if one doesn't raise their own animals, they should be "in on a kill" at least once - once for every type of animal they like to eat.

I know a lot of people who cheerfully eat gobs of meat who couldn't possibly handle the thought of being involved in killing it and processing it - they like meat on styrofoam trays covered in plastic wrap.

All part of the Big Disconnect...

The rest of your post was right on, though I confess we did once name a lamb that was destined for the freezer... it's name was LambChop.

John Michael Greer said...

Sofistek, we eat a lot of eggs, and also do all our own baking -- my wife is gluten intolerant, and most commercially available gluten free breads and the like are ghastly. We'd give half a dozen hens a run for their money.

Cherokee, that's a good point.

Darius, all good points.

Jim, suburban dairies were standard around most American cities as little as fifty years ago; there was still one not too far from the house where I grew up back in my childhood, and they made their own ice cream, which was stunningly good. So your plan may have a future ahead of it.

Brad, I don't know a great deal about kosher standards, but it might be worth looking into. As for predators, we'll be talking about them next week.

Lamb, I'm envious! The hippie farm where I learned most of my skills with livestock had goats, and they're still among my favorite animals. Only reason I didn't recommend them in the post is that they take a lot more space than the backyard scale I wanted to discuss.

Rye, all in good time. When you've got other living things depending on you, it's always wise not to rush.

Sgage, both excellent points. More on the latter next week.

Lucid, guinea fowl are loud. No, on second thought, they're LOUD. If noise is an issue, rabbits may be your best bet.

John, of course that's an issue. We've surrounded death with such a tangled mess of fear and fetishism that the simple facts that every life ends, all living things feed on other living things (even plants need dead things as a nutrient source), and every meal you eat requires something to die for you, are pretty much unmentionable. We'll have to get over that in a hurry as industrial society unravels.

John Michael Greer said...

AndoLaw, aquaculture requires a higher level of tech, no question. The challenge is figuring out sustainable ways to provide that.

Bill, that's definitely a reality many of us will have to learn to deal with. Thanks for the technical points! I wish I'd known those at the hippie farm...

Harry, exactly. Hunger is a good incentive.

Robo, that's an excellent point, and very well put.

Brad, thanks for the pointers. As I recall, older hens vary sharply in how fast their production drops off, and so there's room to consider which ones to keep and which ones to add to the soup kettle.

Canterburg, that's worth knowing. Thanks for the info!

Glenn, one of the great things about this forum is that those who have done things and those who haven't can sit down and talk!

Paula, a good point.

Joel said...

Chickens are special in their ability to re-gain genetic diversity faster than most other animals.

Not that in-breeding isn't a problem, but I think the number of roosters needed for a viable population in suburban hatcheries wouldn't be too very many.

I've read many sources that suggest Buff Orpingtons as a good breed of chicken for beginners, especially when foraging ability and temperament are important.

Some plants to consider as possible sources of feed are mulberry, olive, pigeon pea, oak (acorns), Jerusalem artichoke, mangel beet, stinging nettle, Virginia creeper, and comfrey.

Laurie said...

One of my favorite topics - great post once again!

I've been raising laying hens for 6 years or so, and have raised meat rabbits for about 3 years - both in my small urban backyard. There are some things I have learned that I didn't find in any of the books.

1. It is often NOT in your best interest to buy a nearly grown animal. Why? Almost always this animal will be acclimated to a much more industrial way of living than you have planned for it. Examples: breeding rabbits that don't like to eat vegetables - only pellets. Chickens that don't know how to hunt for bugs very well and rely heavily on standardized feed. In my experience, neither of them have learned. The time you spend raising a young animal is worth it in the long run.

2. Chickens and rabbits complement each other very well in many aspects. When I started keeping both, the improvement in the compost - and then in the garden - seems almost synergistic.

3. It is much more difficult to breed rabbits than you might think! Be ready to lose a few litters.

4. Killing meat animals is very difficult the first time you do it. But you quickly learn that the better you are it, the better things are for everyone.

5. Bill P was right - I don't name animals I plan to eat. They are not treated any differently from breeders or layers, but the relationship we have is different.

thanks again for a very interesting post!

Wendy said...

I LOVE that you're talking about this, because, for us, raising meat animals is such an integral part of our nanofarm, and since we do only have a quarter of an acre, it's really important that the gardens and the animal spaces are balanced.

Our suburban nanofarm includes chickens (both laying hens and meat birds - in season), ducks (for eggs), and rabbits. We've carefully tracked the costs of raising our animals over the years, and at the same time we've watched the prices at the grocery for eggs and meat, and what we've found is that it's actually cheaper for us, because the price of eggs and chicken fluctuate seasonally. For the most part, our costs stay static. Occasionally, the price of feed will go up or down, but mostly in the four years we've had chickens and in the ten plus/minus years we've raised rabbits, the cost of feed has stayed mostly the same. We heavily supplement our animals' diets with stuff from the kitchen and from the garden, and save a lot on feed in that way. Our most significant feed costs come from raising the meat chickens, and really, the meat in the grocery store is not comparable to what we raise, but for the sake of the curious, raising our own chickens, including the cost of using a butcher (the cost to raise the meat chickens would be pennies per pound if we butchered them ourselves) costs us about $1.89/lb for the chicken meat. But, as I said, it's just not the same and for my family of five, one of our chickens is the equivalent of three meals.

I've discussed keeping small animals as part of a suburban homestead on my blog many times over the past several years. It's interesting the arguments I hear against it. The thing most people don't seem to want to understand is that it doesn't have to be chickens or rabbits or ducks. Livestock animals come in many forms - like quail instead of chickens. They're tiny, they're quiet, and they can be raised for both eggs and meat. I just think people need to be open to alternatives rather than just saying it can not be done, which makes this series you're doing that much more valuable ;).

Kevin said...

It's good to know one can dispense with the rooster if keeping hens only for eggs and not meat. I was kind of wondering what the deal was with that.

In the fullness of time, after doing some traveling as I mentioned, I could see myself going in for aquaculture. I wonder if the fish so raised taste better (and are more nutritious) than the farm-raised salmon I've had the misfortune to try? I suppose it depends on their source of nourishment, among other things.

About suburban farms: I wish they were back right now. After years of meaning to, I've recently begun shopping at my local farmer's market, and while the produce and prices are excellent, I'm a little worried about availability: for I've noticed that all the sellers have driven from farms located anywhere from 60 to 120 miles away, which suggests that a spike in fuel prices could seriously strain that resource, or even put it out of reach. It would be nice to see some small-to-medium sized farms sprout up on the nearby hills, but at the moment a lot of that land is covered with sluburbian settlements.

Cathy McGuire said...

I've found this very long list of plants toxic to chickens to be helpful... but OTOH, mine live under an oak and a holly and seem to be doing okay.

billhicksmostfunny said...

"It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion, for example, that the Great Plains four or five centuries from now will be inhabited by pastoral nomads whose raids against the agrarian towns of the Mississippi-Ohio basin will impose the same ragged heartbeat on the history of the future as their equivalents on the central Asian plains did for so many centuries in the past."

Okay this line made me laugh out loud at the library. Some funny looks followed and I laughed again. Not the words I expected from one so wise. Foregone conclusion that is. But I digress.

Eating bugs: finally we get to a subject I know. I need to get that Butterfly book. JMG, now don't tell me that after a few drinks and a late night sitting on your porch swing that some of those moths flying around your porch light don't start to look like an easy meal. Tasty too, trust me.

So just start with small moths, then a little bigger, then maybe a grasshopper or cricket, next thing you know you'll be slurping down worms and licking your fingers greedily looking around for more when your done. That's funny I feel a small growl down in my belly........

marielar said...

I just want to mention that while there is an apparently upfront cost to the feed, it is worth remembering that most of the nutrients in that feed will remain in your backyard. So in reality, the feed almost double as fertilizers. It is also worth considering that a huge amount of food goes straight to the garbage and that chickens will eat anything. Once a week a friend who volunteers at the soup kitchen delivers at my door bags of bread leftover from the food bank that would go stalled. Also go to the birds all the fallen apples, overgrown zucchinis, kitchen scraps...

Glen, the trick to have some holiday with a dairy animal is to leave the calf, lamb or kid with his mother. I milk once a day and I take a break on Sunday from milking the moos. The girls are strictly grass fed (hay in winter) and I still have more milk than I can deal with. After two years and a half, I also can fill the freezer with the steer.

I tend to have a bit of different opinion than Cherokee on where to find the best birds. Maybe because the situation is different in Australia than North America. What you see at fair these days are show birds, not birds selected for production. The extra bucks you pay is for the look. Bloodlines of traditional birds still kept and selected for their production traits are few and far in between, unfortunately. But they are worth looking for.

Kosher slaughtering is not the nicest way to dispatch an animal by the way.

Totally agree with your comments on breeding rabbits being quite harder than it looks. After years of breeding sheep and chickens I thought rabbits would be a breeze. I gave up after loosing a couple litters.

artied said...

Greeting Archdruid.

I came across this video which illustrates some of the adjustments the Cubans had to go through and mentions book resources that faciltated the processes - it brought to mind your 'Conservers' program and I thought you might be interested - if you have not already heard of this stuff....

Thanks for looking....


Zach said...

@sgage - don't count on the suburbs being predator-free. Especially because many suburbs and housing developments have boundaries with less developed zones.

In the last ten years, I've had multiple encounters with coyotes and foxes, not to mention the hawks that swoop in regularly on the rabbits and smaller birds. And our current neighborhood is a haven for a large skunk population. (I had heard that Labradors were a smart breed of dog; apparently the Chocolate Labs are the exception. Ours proved it by not getting the hint about chasing the stripey kitties after the third time...)


Twilight said...

We've been keeping chickens for about 5 years now. Most of them have had names, and we are only eating the eggs so far - but as the kids get older and the flock gets bigger, I notice that more of them seem to remain unnamed generic chickens. So I'm about ready to move to the next step (thanks for the tips Bill!). We have a friend who has chickens with names, and the rest she refers to as "Tastys".

We have about 30 birds that roam free most of the time. We often don't even bother to close them in anymore, as our livestock guardian dog pretty much keeps everything away - though I think we may be pushing our luck in that department. We got 2 years ago her because the foxes were taking all our best birds in the spring when they had kits.

This summer several hens snuck off into the woods nearby and emerged with more chicks in tow than we had planned. Usually you get about half roosters, and we only keep a few of them around at any one time - usually the ones that are really pretty and that are not too hard on the hens. The rest get shipped off to the local auction. And yes, the roosters crow - that's how you know when it's time to get up. Every now and then you get a really obnoxiously loud bird, and those will make the process Bill described that much easier.

The eggs! I have no use for those pale things they sell in the store - there is nothing like a fresh egg from a foraging hen sizzling in an iron skillet, with a bright yellow yoke.

Bill Pulliam said...

Suburbs are OVERRUN with predators -- you know them as dogs and cats. Domestic dogs and cats are terrible predators on chickens and other small livestock. I have known people who lost hundreds of chicks and dozens of laying hens to their own seemingly well-mannered pets; I have lost more chickens to the neighbor's dogs than to coyotes.

As for skunks -- I'm not sure Labradors or other dogs actually dislike the smell. Ours used to love to play with them; after they dispatched one they would dance around with the reeking carcass on the back porch the rest of the day until we came back and could smell it a half mile before we got home. Remember dogs are creatures that roll around in rotting roadkill and stinking fish.

LynnHarding said...

@Wendy - $1.89/lb is amazing. I would estimate many times that. Are you buying any grain and, if so, is it organic? We raise 52 meat birds per year (one per week) and the feed bill is stupendous for that 10-12 week period while they are growing. The birds are cornish cross and they do forage. I am always trying to figure out ways to lower the cost of the "inputs." One thing we do is to feed the excess goats milk to the birds in the form of panir (milk heated and vinegar added to produce curds and whey.) Both the curds and whey are good sources of protein. To the list of plants I would add siberian pea shrub. My latest experiment has involved building a hoop house out of cattle panels and attaching it to the coop. I am raising earthworms under pallets so chickens can't get to them except on a limited basis. Hoping that with proper care and feeding the worms will continue to reproduce through the winter. I don't know whether this will work. In my area (Northeast US) organic pasture raised poultry goes for $6.00/lb and up. It would have to be way way higher for me to even think of selling my birds after all of the work and feed I have put into them.
For an all purpose bird that grows quickly, survives in the cold and produces both meat and eggs I recommend the light brahma.
I had a friend long ago whose mother was raised on a farm in Ireland. She was shocked at the poor quality of feed in American poultry farms. I asked her what the chickens on her farm ate and she replied "They ate what we ate."
I want to add another word of support for goats. They eat all of the stuff that we call invasive or weedy and turn it into milk. However, many goats come from situations where they have become loaded with parasites and many have a disease called CAE. Because they are such easy keepers many people are careless with them. Be careful when you get them that they are tested. As with chickens, it is better to find a breeder who is careful with a closed herd and then get little ones who will grow up under your care.

dkallem said...

Great post John, and for me points toward the the value of dissensus you’ve spoken of.

We’ve raised animals for several years, first with hogs and now also with layer and roaster chickens, and have received a wide variety of different, occasionally contradictory, but nearly always helpful advice from many people on how to raise our animals, and something we’ve noticed is that no one person has ALL of the right information, about animal husbandry or nearly any other complex human activity, and that we really do benefit from soliciting and receiving information and advice from a variety of sources, trying or testing that which seems sensible to us, learning from that experience and then, without prejudice, feeding back what we’ve learned to others, who might then also benefit.

One very good way to tap into this sort of friendly dissensus is, I think, through participation in 4-H, if you’re lucky enough to have a chapter of this youth development organization near you. It was through our daughter’s desire to “be in 4-H” that we first became part-time pig farmers, raising two market animals and another for the freezer for half of each year, leading up to the animal show and auction at the county fair. And it’s through meeting and working with other swine club members and parents, the 4-H folks, our veterinarian, fair judges, and even some online sources, that we’ve gathered the basic information on how to best raise our animals. We sort through what we’ve heard, ask a few more questions and then get to it, because nothing teaches quite like experience (and follow-up questions).

In fact, 4-H, and the county or state fair, is a great place to reacquaint yourself or reconnect with many of the sustainable-practice, self-sufficiency-fostering “rural arts” that used to be such an important part of American culture, everything from bee-keeping (the Bee Barn is very close to the Hog Barn at our fair), to food preservation (you’d be amazed at what they can pickle!), to yarn-making and the many other heritage skills that might find resurgence in the coming post-industrial years.

dkallem said...

...I also enjoyed the many other good comments on the joys, trials and tribulations of owning a flock, brood, pack, gaggle or herd, and have a few observations from our northwestern US part-time farming experiences to add to the stew...

-- Tomatoes plants really love chicken-manure compost!
-- Chickens allowed to roam the garden beds early in the season (before planting) can decimate the slug population before you can even see the pests.
-- Free-range, (i.e. slug-eating) chicken's eggs are often high in Omega-3 fatty acids and can help increase your good cholesterol.
-- You’ll never see large (squawk!) double-yolked eggs coming out of a store carton!
-- Egg production can change fairly dramatically (dropped by nearly half for us) seasonally, especially in those latitudes with more significant swings in hours of daylight.
-- Rooster’s don’t just crow and f******** all day, they can also save lives! They’ll defend the flock against anything and will freely sacrifice themselves by running away from the flock, and/or toward the attacker to keep the others safe.

-- Pigs don’t take up a lot of room, but the neighbors will notice, so do let them know what you’re up to first!
-- “Regular” market pigs are NOT light on the environment, but they will turn over nearly any soil (if the soil gets rained on) and eat almost any plant, including blackberry plants, thorns and all.
-- Watching the dispatch of a pig is a horrible, bloody, but I think necessary thing to behold (once! Although if my 4-H gal witnessed this now, that would be the end of us raising pigs!)
-- Good pork sausage is, as one my daughter’s soccer teammates exclaimed, “like...meat candy!”

Also, more generally:
-- Growing today’s genetically over-engineered meat animals can be a freaky experience. Our roaster chickens went from baby chicks to 6lbs each, dressed in freezers bags, in 7 weeks! Pig growth isn’t quite as weird, but we do raise 25lb shoats to 250lb+ market animals in only 6 months!
-- You don’t need much to have your animals well taken care of while away; you’ll want auto-feeders and waterers, but mostly just need a friend or neighbor willing to help out for a spot of fresh eggs, chicken, pork, etc. Who doesn’t know someone like that?
-- It helps, I think, to “speak your peace” with the animals before slaughter, thanking them for their undoubted sacrifice to your well-being. One of the key reasons we assented to our daughter’s participation in 4-H, so she would become better aware of how and where her food comes from.
-- If you can’t or don’t want to stomach the butchering, barter locally with someone who can. I developed/maintain the website for a local animal “processor” and now he manages the “deed” for me.

Sorry for the long comments. I’ve read your most sensible, erudite and also entertaining writings for some time, commented only rarely, but today you've wandered into an area I actually have a spot of experience in!

Jim Brewster said...

@Zach: "don't count on the suburbs being predator-free. Especially because many suburbs and housing developments have boundaries with less developed zones."

Another predator to contend with as human society becomes more loose and organic will undoubtedly be feral dogs. Spay and neuter campaigns have reduced the current breeding stock, but they don't need gonads to cause trouble. And one fertile male and a few fertile females can make a new pack in a hurry!

John Michael Greer said...

This is great. I'd like to make a friendly request of all the enthusiastic chicken farmers who've posted on the joys and tribulations of raising chickens: could you get this very useful info onto the Green Wizards Forum? Start a single topic -- "Chickens" -- under the First Circle heading, if nobody's done that already, and post your advice for readers who don't have experience with hens. Also, if you've got any suggestions for good books on chicken raising, would it be possible to start a new thread ("Chicken Books") in the resources section, and list your favorite references there? That would be very helpful for those who haven't had the chance to raise chickens yet, now and as long as the internet stays up. Many thanks!

John Michael Greer said...

Just checked, and there's already a thread on chickens on the forum! Please add your advice there.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Brad K,

Good advice. Thanks from the complete novice.

I'm really after robustness and smarts which you don't tend to get from the inbred commercially suitable varieties. Any thoughts are appreciated.

Good luck!

Bill Pulliam said...

Cherokee -- my experiences with chicken breeds...

Our birds are 100% free range during the day. Those that choose to are locked up overnight in the chicken house, but some prefer to roost in the maple trees. I've not actually noticed a whole lot of extra mortality among the arboreal sleepers. We have coyotes, foxes, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, great horned owls, cooper's hawks, minks, as well as neighbor's dogs. Of these the raccoons and dogs have been the biggest chicken thieves. Breeds vary enormously in their survival here. Some of the best results have been with Americaunas (plus you get green and blue eggs) and Black Sex Links. Worst results have been with Buff Orpingtons (too docile and unwary) and the sibling breeds of Dominicker/Barred Plymouth Rock (too fragile). There are exceptions in every case, of course. Our sturdiest and smartest hen was a gift from a neighbor, appears to have fighting cock bloodlines, she has spurs as big as most of our roosters'. But she was the first to figure out how to not get hit by cars and taught all the rest of our birds this trick (almost no roadkills since she joined the flock 3+ years ago), and was our first to successfully raise wild-hatched offspring to adulthood with no intervention from me. But she's a lousy egg producer. Tons of tradeoffs in the chicken world.

For a heritage free-range meat breed, I don't think you can beat the Dark Cornish. Also fighting cock bloodlines, tough, scrappy, big and meaty, MEAN as a junkyard pitbull. Grow fast for a heritage breed (12 weeks to slaughter instead of 7 for the genetic mutant freaks), and absolutely incredible rich full flavor. Wear tough leather gloves when handling them, since they bite HARD (no going gently into that good night for them!).

If you let your hens raise their own chicks, you'll get a nice genetic mishmash, and you will be selecting for birds that do well under your conditions. But you are also selecting for hens that go broody, meaning weeks and weeks of no eggs while they sit on their nests.

Roosters -- I don't even hear the crowing when I am sleeping anymore. Roosters are far more likely to get eaten by predators, which is a major plus in a free-range flock. The boys sound the alarm and challenge the intruder while the girls run for cover; the boy gets eaten but there are more where he came from. A good rooster can be amazing to watch with youngsters he considers his own, constantly on vigil, watching over them, always talking to them, helping them find food, crowing and bristling at any sign of an unwelcome guest. A free-range flock with no roosters is less safe and more disorganized.

Dan said...

Thanks for your article. I noticed your emphasis on daily care requirements for chickens. Actually we regularly set up chicken systems for folks in Melbourne, Australia, and with careful design it is easy to build housing, run, feeder and watering solutions that allow the owners to be away for up to five or so days with no problems at all and the chickens not wanting for anything.


KL Cooke said...

...I had a friend long ago whose mother was raised on a farm in Ireland. She was shocked at the poor quality of feed in American poultry farms. I asked her what the chickens on her farm ate and she replied "They ate what we ate..."

Ah memories. In 1952, at the age of 6, I lived in England for a year, in Kingston-Upon-Thames. It is quite gentrified now, but back then, in the postwar years it was much like a village, where the milk man and fish monger still delivered in horse drawn carts. We stayed with a family in a large, Tudor style house that backed up to an abandoned, overgrown estate called Kingsnympton (both gone now--I flew over recently aboard Google Earth). The neighboring house, which had a fair amount of land, was owned by an Irish family who kept chickens and geese that roamed freely (sometimes into the house). Every day the Mrs. cooked a stew-like mash of vegetables, potatoes and scraps and put it out, still hot from the stove for the foul to peck at.

The family included a couple of perennially tousled children around my age. I'll never forget the boy's name--Tristram Philpott.

Mark said...

Our chooks provide plenty of nutritious eggs, manure, feather and composting!

One book I recommend is Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps by Claude Goodchild & Alan Thompson

Armando said...

I am kind of feeling where this is going... Kind a start sounding like my curriculum at the university in aminal science.

Animal III:
Porcine science: trash Processing unit.

Animal IV:
Non-pet Felines and Canines; aka Pest Management, side-service animals and last resort food.

Animal V:
Bovine and Equine Science; aka your shiny new John Deere!

Animal VI:
Ovine and Caprine

Animal VII:
Well we finally covered the world mainstream so i guess it is the miscellania; birds of prey...

I agree with a comment above that i don't see fishes in Aquaculture become a low key, cheap energy type of operation. My experience with fishes is that they require an enormous amount of inputs chief of whom energy stands as the elephant in the room.
here you go elephants... maybe for animal VIII class. ;-)

Kathleen said...

I stumbled upon this series a couple of days ago, at the end of chain of events starting with a recipe for yogurt custard. Really, though, it's more like the begging--this is exactly what I've been looking for! I've been interested in practical/primitive/DIY projects and the like for as long as I can remember, so this is right up my alley.

I just now caught up, and I'm looking forward to the next post! Raising livestock isn't possible for me at this point (apartment), but the framework you've got going here is absolutely incredible in its simplicity.

Sorry for the longish comment with no real relevance to chickens or rabbits. I'm just rather excited.

Paul said...

So good to know that factory farming of animals will become obsolete.

Lance Michael Foster said...

This evening Dec. 2 on C-SPAN we watched Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Maryland, talk about Peak Oil, and shortly before the end of his very fine presentation, he said, "Peak Oil has occurred." It's been entered into the Congressional Record.

Darren (Green Change) said...

Here's an awesome resource on "microlivestock" - i.e. animals that can be kept on a home scale: