Archive for the 'livestock' Category

Turkey in the Straw:The Homegrown Thanksgiving

Sharon November 17th, 2009

If you want to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner wholly from scratch, you start ahead of time. If you want to make it from food you’ve raised yourself, you start way, way ahead of time – like in January of the year before.  In some ways, it starts even earlier, but January is the new year – and when you grow your own, you are always thinking of the future – even if not consciously about any particular dinner.

It is in January that we order seeds for the vegetables we’d serve at Thanksgiving, that we debate which varieties of pumpkin and carrots, celery root, sweet corn and leeks we’ll need. 

We are thinking Thanksgiving, faintly, distantly,  in February, when we order turkey poults, or begin watching the turkey hens for signs of setting her eggs, and when we place the order for seed potatoes, or begin organizing last year’s potatoes for replanting.

We are thinking vaguely of  Thanksgiving in March, when I set sweet potatoes in water on the window to develop slips for next year.  And in April when we finally go out on the first warm day and plant potatoes.

We are thinking Thanksgiving in May, when I carefully start “winter luxury” pie pumpkins in newspaper cups filled with soil, to ensure a healthy supply of pumpkin pie, and when we watch the apple blossoms anxiously on cold nights, to track our future apple pies.  We wait for the turkey poults to arrive, or for the hen to hatch her eggs.

In June, when we hoe the corn, we recall that we will want this corn, creamed at the groaning board in November.  In July, on hot nights, when the dream of roast turkey seems unappealing, we are still, in some measure, aware of Thanksgiving at the back of our minds as we go out to pick slugs off the squash vines, and pull the garlic that we  will use  to flavor the potatoes.

In August, we know that summer is winding down, and it is in small part Thanksgiving that we are driving towards as the turkeys range around the yard chasing bugs and we are putting up raspberry pie filling and pickled peaches.  We dry the sweet corn, after we devour our fill, thinking, again, of days to come.

In September, as the first breath of cool air floats through the barnyard, we’re thinking Thanksgiving as we dig potatoes and watch for frost, hoping for a few more nights to ripen the pumpkins to rich netted orange, a little more sizing up for the Hubbard Squash, already huge and warty and green.

In October, as the day approaches and the turkeys reach maturity, Thanksgiving appears from the back of our minds and occasionally touches the fronts.  When will the turkeys be ready for butchering?  When can the ones we’ve sold be picked up, and do we have enough freezer space?  We pull a parsnip from the ground and taste its frost-sweetened flavor in anticipation.

November, of course, is the culmination of our efforts – we mash and roast and sauce and sautee.  The turkey gets the most attention, but Thanksgiving is the feast of roots, the only time we, as a nation, all fully celebrate those under-loved vegetables that come up from the ground.  It is the only meal many Americans actually cook for themselves, and sit down with family for.  At our house, we have done most of the long anticipatory work, and we rest on our laurels – at least until it is time to cook.

Now it doesn’t always work this smoothly – last year we had no turkey hens that were worth wintering over, and so we had to order poults.  But for some reason the hatchery’s hatch failed, and we were told that we wouldn’t be receiving our turkey poults until early July.  Since these are older breeds, that need a full six month’s growth, rather than the modern hybrids which can’t breed on their own, we needed them earlier.  But we weren’t about to go sit on the eggs ourselves, so we shrugged and accepted it – sometimes farming is like that.

So now we find ourselves approaching the holiday with turkeys a bit too small for butchering – we weren’t able to provide customers with Thanksgiving turkeys this year, although plenty are happy to take them for Christmas or Chanukah.   Ah well.  I still can’t imagine my barnyard without some turkeys.  We’re going to my mother’s, and had planned to bring the bird, but she’s sourced a lovely local one near her house, and life will go on.

Now if you are thinking of raising your own turkey, you should know two things. The first is that all the comments about turkeys being dumb as rocks are pretty much true.  The second, much less commonly known thing is that turkeys are extremely endearing.  Their profound stupidity only makes them cuter, somehow.

I know people who claim that only the hybrid turkeys are dumb, but we haven’t found this to be true.  We’ve raised the broad breasted whites, as well as Blue Slates, Bourbon Reds and Black Spanish (we have all three of the latter this year, since I’m doing a comparison).  The whites may be a bit more dim, but this is a comparison mostly without meaning.  All of them are easily confused.  One of my Blue Slates last year killed himself because he panicked at the sight of our dog (who was not paying any attention to him) and ran straight into a metal fence post and brained himself.  If the gate to our goat pasture is open, it forms a V shape with our fence – in order to go out the gate, an animal simply needs to walk around the gate and go out.  The turkeys of all breeds are completely incapable of figuring this out, and inevitably have to be rescued from panicky misery as everyone else heads into the barn, and two poor birds who have forgotten that they could either walk around or fly over the fence stare in painful dismay.

But unlike hybrid meat chickens, which are dumb and repulsive, turkeys are vacant and sweet.  They make endearing little peeping noises (they don’t gobble until they are full adults) when they are small, and they really like people.  Ours follow us everywhere we go, and will sit on the fence and talk to us, while we talk back to them.  Even their faces are sweet, to my eyes – in that Lyle Lovett, so-ugly-they-are-cute sort of way.

We will be keeping three of the bourbon reds over the winter, to hatch out our own poults again next year – hopefully avoiding future hatchery mishaps.  I may also add the old standard bronze – not the hybrid, but the smaller one that can still breed normally, since they too are endangered.  My hope is that the following year, we’ll have enough broody hens and enough good turkeys to offer poults through our local farmer’s market. 

I know that relying on distant mail order for breeding stock for my birds is not sustainable, and we are gradually picking and choosing breeds of birds to focus on, and hoping to begin small scale hatching locally to provide one more pocket of resilience in our community.  We know that no matter how hard times get, most people won’t want to give up their Thanksgiving turkey, and so propagating stock locally is essential.

Just as we trying to grow our own, and save seed, and share seed with others, we are trying to recreate what once existed – Thanksgiving is a meal that echoes with the tastes of the past, and with a local cultures whose vestiges still exist, and that can be restored.  We want to have food worth being grateful for, after all.  Besides, we like turkeys.  Brains aren’t everything, you know.


Little Livestock for Urban and Suburban Gardens

Sharon February 12th, 2009

For most people with a medium sized yard, a little livestock will allow you to do a little more with your space than you can probably do without them.  It isn’t a perfect equation, of course, they take up space, cost money and consume food.  But often, the net return, the net pleasure of the experience, and the quality of the food, manure and environment means you get more than you put in.  One of the most important things you can do is keep records, so you know that you are getting more back than you put in.

When you get livestock, however, you need to ask yourself some questions.

 1. What do I really expect from them?  Am I being realistic?  – There usually is no perfect creature out there.  The perfect goat, the perfect chicken breed – maybe they exist, maybe not, but what really matters are your expectations.

2. Am I a livestock person? Animals require your attention every day.  When it is freezing out, the rabbits may need their water replaced 3 or 4 times a day. The chickens molt and stop laying.  Everything escapes occasionally and has to be chased around.  Even if you plan to eat an animal, that’s no excuse (in fact, IMHO, it is less excuse) for not keeping it warm, safe, healthy and well cared for during its life.  Don’t get animals you don’t plan to take real and proper care of.

3. Am I prepared to put it out of its misery?  Peter Bane, permaculturist extraordinaire once answered a question by saying “If you’ve got livestock, sooner or later you’ll have deadstock.”  And sooner or later, you are going to have an animal who is suffering, or that you want to eat, or that needs to be removed from your breeding, and you will have to kill it, or get someone to.  That is, even the most ardent vegetarian may have to kill an animal that is suffering.  If you aren’t able to do this, or find someone who is, think hard about whether it is a good idea.  IMHO, our animals deserve lives with as little pain as possible – and that means that relieving their pain when it gets to be too much is part of our job.

4. Am I ready to raise meat animals?  You don’t have to eat the animals you raise – hens, quail, angora rabbits… these animals can be productive pets.  But if you are going to raise a meat animal, you have to be ready to butcher them – or find a pro.  Learn how to do it before you need to, and make sure you will be able to do it humanely.

5. Think about how they will be fed if the supply lines get cut.  If you are planning on raising chickens for long term food self-sufficiency, great.  But ask yourself where their food will come from if the feed store closes near you.   Think about alternatives. Moreover, my feeling is that as much as possible, our meat should not compete with land planted to human food plants (grains, legumes) but act as a supplement to it – ethical meat eating begins, IMHO, from the point that says “I want to put a few grains and beans into my animals as possible, and make the best possible use of space and plants that people can’t eat or grow human food on.”  Your animals should be eating grass and scraps whenever possible.  But to do that, you  may need to do some real research on optimal and healthy diets with supplementation for your animals - make sure you know what you are doing. 

So let’s start with the little livestock, of the sort suitable to apartments, backyards, etc…  Basically, this post will only cover livestock not bigger than a breadbox ;-) .

- Worms.  Even urban dwellers can have worms – I know someone who made a bench out of his worm bin.  You’d never know you were sitting on top of 20,000 wigglers (this is the sort of thing that would have filled me with glee when I was a kid!).  Worm keeping basics here:

Pluses of worms: Great, great compost, those who can’t compost outside in winter or in apartments can make good use of their kitchen scraps, provides great liquid fertilizer (worm juice) and great solid fertilizers (castings), kinda cute.

Minuses: If you overfeed, you can get fruit flies, if you don’t like worms, you have worms in your house ;-) .

 - Rabbits. Rabbits are generally considered pets, so your local zoning is not likely to give you problems with them.  They are quiet, easy to raise and care for, and easy keepers – they can live mostly on marginal weeds and a little, quite cheap, supplemental feed.  They make great little lawn mowers if you tractor them.  You essentially can choose between (assuming you are keeping them for something other than the mowing and manure and cuteness factor) between angora rabbits for fiber or meat rabbits for meat.

Fiber info:

Meat Rabbit info:

Pluses of Fiber rabbits: Friendly, adorable, you can make hats and socks out of their fiber, they aren’t as good diggers as most other rabbits, and can probably be kept in a bottomless bunny tractor, great manure, fiber is stunningly warm.

Minuses of Fiber rabbits: You really need to be willing to spend time once a week or so grooming them, they need more protein than meat rabbits, so you might need to feed more pellets, they can get wool block (they lick the wool and it blocks their intestines) or infected areas if you let them mat up, not quite as enthusiastic breeders (at least mine aren’t) as other rabbits, not good in hot climates where they overheat easily.

 Pluese of meat rabbits; One of the most productive converters of food people can’t eat to food people can in the world, delicious meat (yes, once I did not keep kosher), can provide a partial solution to the pet food dilemma for cats and dogs, quiet, easy to butcher.  Rabbit manure is great for the garden, they breed like rabbits.  The hides have value as well.

Minuses of meat rabbits: They are cute, and you may have trouble butchering them.  Rabbit meat is extremely lean, which means that you and your pets will need some other source of fat, they do need some extra attention in warm weather, must be kept in bottomed pens  if tractored.

Pigeons/Doves – Many city dwellers have pigeons anyway ;-) .  Others keep them for messaging or pleasure.  But you can eat them, or train them to carry message or even race them (although the latter seems outside the usefulness focus of this course) - and you can keep them in coops on rooftops and in backyards.  Most can be let out to forage and will require only a small amount of grain from you.  They don’t provide a lot of meat per bird, but they are prolific (duh ;-) ), and their manure is good for the garden.

Pros of pigeons – Pleasant cooing noises, suitable to highly urban settings, gentle, easily handled, easy to raise with minimum investment, provide meat, with extensive training some communications capacity and manure.  They can eat bread scraps and waste grain from

Cons of pigeons – Some people and municipalities don’t like pigeons and strongly discourage them, they can be messy, they are a prey of many other birds, so expect to lose some.

More about raising pigeons:

Quail – Quail are very small, tasty game birds that can be raised in cages in urban spaces quite easily.  They are prolific egg producers – 20 tiny quail can keep a family in eggs using much less space than chickens and less feed.  Some people who can’t eat chicken eggs can eat quail eggs.  You can also eat the quail, although they are very small – and there are markets for them at upscale restaurants.

Pros of Quail: Very small, very adaptable to cage culture, great egg layers, kinda cute.

Cons of Quail – They are small – a fair bit of work to butcher for what you get.  They rarely hatch their own eggs, so you will either have to incubate them with an electric or gas incubator, or put them under a broody hen.  If you don’t have a broody hen, that means your flock depends on electricity.  Some areas are hostile to gamebirds in zoning.

Guinea Pigs/Cuy: While most of us associate these with childhood pets, in many parts of South America, Cuy is a commonly eaten meat.  Because they are traditional pets, you aren’t likely to have much trouble keeping them.  They are cheap, and mostly odorless even indoors, as long as you take decent care of them.  Their meat is said to be extremely sweet and tasty, and a UN FAO study found that raising guinea pigs for meat in South America provided more protein for less cost and effort than raising pigs or goats.  20 females and 2 males can keep a family in reasonable supplemental meat.  The major problem may be the freakout factor, since they are so associated with pet culture.  Do not get the long haired, fuzzy beatrix potter type, since these will not gain weight as well.

Pros – Very tasty meat, easy to keep, cheap to get started with, lovely pelts, high in protein, good manure, prolific breeders.

Cons – Vulnerable to disease, require good ventilation and housing, so cute they may be hard to butcher, associations with pets hard to break, low fat meat requiring supplementation, can be loud at night if kept indoors, more difficult to butcher than rabbits, but still not that hard.

 More on home guinea pig culture:

Chickens: The uber-backyard livestock. Who doesn’t like chickens?  They are even trendy!  3 Good layers will give you an average of 2 eggs a day year round, heavily weighted to spring and summer.  They can forage about half their diet, if given the right one, and can live fairly well on urban restaurant scraps.  They come in many sizes, tolerance to heat and cold and appearances.  Good for vegetarians, since they can be kept for eggs only.  Banties have been known to be kept in apartments, but this isn’t ideal.

Pros: Familiar, eggs are nutritionally brilliant, hens are pleasant to be around, you don’t need a rooster since they can be acquired in most localities, tasty, familiar meat, friendly, easy to accomodate, great manure once composted, will eat plenty of bugs, do great in chicken tractors.

Cons: Not all breeds equally good at foraging, some localities prohibit them, if you aren’t feeding them mostly on scraps and forage, you’ll be feeding human food (grains) to critters, which isn’t that efficient, can be a garden pest, can scratch the ground down too far if kept on a small piece of land.

Lots of resources on backyard chicken keeping – here’s just one:

 Fish: One of the most exciting ways of producing small scale protein in a backyard is aquaponics, which involves fish farming and using the nutrient rich water to then grow plants. Tilapia, the traditional fish, are delicious and have the best feed conversion ratio of any animal protein.  You can do a full scale indoor version info here: or you can do backyard fish farming, where fish are raised in stock tanks and the water is used to fertilize garden plants. 

Pros of fish culture: Makes superb use of resources, fish has powerful nutritional benefits, can bring fish to inland areas with contaminated fresh water, helps the garden enormously, fish are probably the easiest animal to slaughter.

Cons of fish culture: Indoor aquaponics is extremely energy and resource inefficient, most small fish operations will not be self-reproducing and depend on farmed spawn.

More here:

Bees: If there is one single kind of small livestock keeping that I’d love to see expand, it would be beekeeping.  The more small beekeepers using low input practices, the better off we are in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and the destruction of native pollinators.  One study found that urban bees actually do better than rural ones, because they don’t face monocultures, nor come into contact with so much agricultural spraying.  We lose a lot from inadquate pollination – we really all need to play a part here.  Plus, there’s the honey, the wax… what’s not to love?

Pros of bees: Improve your garden crop production, provide a supply of sweets, can be a source of income even with a few hives, suited to urban life, can provide beeswax for candles, we desperately need more bees.

Cons of bees: Vulnerable to disease, bears and agricultural spraying, can be expensive to get started, tough on the allergic, some places limit zoning, some people are scared of them.

Beekeeping basics:

Frogs and Turtles: All over asia, wherever paddy rice is cultivated, people eat frogs, and they really do taste like chicken.  If you have wetlands or a pond, you could consider raising frogs for meat.    The edible part is the legs.  Turtles are also quite edible, and can be raised in backyard ponds.  The problem I see is this – all the information I was able to find on the web involves starting from native species you harvest from your pond, but many frogs and turtles are endangered, and I don’t want people taking them out of the wild. So until/unless someone here can find a reliable source for farmed turtle and frog starts or eggs, I’m staying out this one.  Anyone want to help out?

Ducks: A couple of ducks are incredibly endearing.  Many ducks are extremely disgusting ;-) .  Generally speaking, my suggestion for backyard producers would be to raise a couple of khaki campbell ducks for eggs, rather than any large number of meat ducks, because they are messy and trash the ground under them.  A few ducks, however, are charming, funny, great garden buddies (they love slugs) and can live mostly on your scraps.  They can produce as many eggs as chickens, and are far friendlier.  The eggs are amazing for baking. 

Pros of Ducks: Cuteness and amusement factor, eggs, delicious dark meat, good fat quantity (could be useful), superb slug eaters, will not do as much damage to garden cros as chickens, can be used to till up ground.

Cons of Ducks: Even as animals go, they poop everywhere.  They will trash a small pond rapidly, so make sure they have a dedicated duck water source, they do need a pond or at least reliable water source, can fly, will till up ground that you don’t want tilled.

More about Ducks:

 Remember, whatever animals (if any) you choose to have, you need to design them into your life and landscape – the happiest combinations of creatures are a creature that fills an ecological niche and a person who really thinks that critter is cool and wonderful.  Think about how these animals can be integrated into your life. 

Your design strategies should include manure management, plenty of space to give the animal a good life, and a plan for its whole lifecycle.  There are lots of ways to use animals to get the most possible return – for example, chicken runs along the edge of the garden will keep grass and weeds from penetrating, rabbit housing can be put over worm composting, animals can be used to clean up garden wastes, till ground, fertilize it.  And, they can bring happiness.

Ok, next time: Critters bigger than a breadbox.